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The Boston Globe has an interesting column about how there may be confluences for the organic farming and genetic engineering businesses.

Some excerpts:

“The world faces an enormous challenge: Its growing population demands more food and other crops, but standard commercial agriculture uses industrial quantities of pesticides and harms the environment in other ways. The organic farming movement has shown that it is possible to dramatically reduce the use of insecticides, and that doing so benefits both farm workers and the environment. But organic farming also has serious limits - there are many pests and diseases that cannot be controlled using organic approaches, and organic crops are generally more expensive to produce and buy.

“To meet the appetites of the world's population without drastically hurting the environment requires a visionary new approach: combining genetic engineering and organic farming.

“This idea is anathema to many people, especially the advocates who have helped build organic farming into a major industry in richer countries. As reflected by statements on their websites, it is clear that most organic farming trade organizations are deeply, viscerally opposed to genetically engineered crops and seeds. Virtually all endorse the National Organic Standards Board's recommendation that genetic engineering be prohibited in organic production.

“But ultimately, this resistance hurts farmers, consumers, and the planet. Without the use of genetically engineered seed, the beneficial effects of organic farming - a thoughtful, ecologically minded approach to growing food - will likely remain small.

“Despite tremendous growth in the last 15 years, organic farms still produce just a tiny fraction of our food; they account for less than 3 percent of all US agriculture and even less worldwide. In contrast, in the same period, the use of genetically engineered crops has increased to the point where they represent 50 to 90 percent of the acreage where they are available. These include insect-resistant varieties of cotton and corn; herbicide tolerant soybean, corn, and canola; and virus-resistant papaya.

“After more than a decade of genetically engineered crops, and more than 30 years of organic farming, we know that neither method alone is sufficient to solve the problems faced - and caused - by agriculture.

“It is time to abandon the caricatures of genetic engineering that are popular among some consumers and activists, and instead see it for what it is: A tool that can help the ecological farming revolution grow into a lasting movement with global impact.”

And:

“Pitting genetic engineering and organic farming against each other only prevents the transformative changes needed on our farms. There seems to be a communication gap between organic and conventional farmers and between consumers and scientists. The stakes are high in closing that gap. Without good science and good farming, we cannot even begin to dream about establishing an ecologically balanced, biologically based system of farming and ensuring food security.

“It seems nearly inevitable that genetic engineering will play an increasingly important role in agriculture. The question is not whether we should use genetic engineering, but more pressingly, how we should use it - to what responsible purpose. Agriculture needs our collective help and all appropriate tools if we are to feed the growing population in an ecological manner. Consumers have a significant opportunity to influence what kinds of plants are developed and to address the key agricultural challenges. Let us direct attention to where it matters - the need to support the use of seed and farming methods that are good for the environment and for the consumers.

“What we can hope for is a future in which farmers use the best organic farming methods to grow the most beneficial engineered crops. Any effective approach in feeding the world in a sustainable manner will require us to embrace more than one great new idea.”

KC's View:
I have to be honest here – this stuff is way beyond my pay grade. I don't know nearly enough about either farming or genetic engineering to be able to make a judgment about this column. Though I suspect that there will be a lot of argument from the pro-organic community that introducing genetic engineering techniques into their world will subvert and dilute their ultimate goals.

I have to say, however, that I am intrigued by the notion that people at opposite ends of the scale could come together to create a new approach to agriculture that would, in the final analysis, end up with more people being fed. Which I think is supposed to be the point.

Is it too much to hope that as a people we should be able to keep open minds and look for complex solutions to complicated problems? As opposed to being narrow minded and open only to knee-jerk solutions to problems defined as simplistically as possible?