Sometimes we dig in our heels to our own detriment.
January is the time of year when people renew their commitment to eat healthier and take better care of themselves and their families. As we entered the New Year, mainstream media seemed to be fixated on the benefits of a diet that favors local and organic production.
This is also the time of year when farmers get together with their urban friends and family and rehash the debate on organic food versus conventional crop production methods, most of which now include biotech enhanced seed products. The debate is getting tired and I’ve had my fill of all the rhetoric from both sides.
Let’s wipe the slate clean and look at this objectively. Surely we can all agree that biotechnology is about a lot more than herbicide tolerance. It is about maximizing the resources available to produce safe, nutritious food. These goals mirror the objectives of all farmers, including organic producers. Is it that crazy to suggest that a potential partnership between the science of biotechnology and the organic philosophy could trigger a new era in food production that could potentially benefit consumers, the environment, developing nations, and the entire planet?
If organic food is to grow beyond its elitist market niche with urban foodies, the production systems must become more efficient and sustainable, especially when it comes to fertility. Relying on composted manure is problematic and represents a constraint to significant expansion of organic crop production. Crop genetics that require lower amounts of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium would seem to be a natural fit for organic systems. Same goes for water utilization. On the weed front, nature has provided examples of allelopathic traits (walnut trees for example) where plants exude chemistry that prevents competition from weeds. Imagine how much less fuel organic producers would burn if weed control came with the seed in the form of an allelopathic trait instead of using iron, flames, etc. to beat back the weeds. Could biotechnology make organic production systems the default method of farming? I say dare to dream, but if these two camps continue work in isolation from each other, we all lose.
Over the history of agriculture, it has been common for like minded individuals to come together to strengthen their knowledge base and find community and solidarity. This can be good – no-tillers talk to no-tillers, share experiences and learn together. But the downside becomes apparent when these groups become insulated and start to sink deeper into the ruts they drive in. No one is served if biotech researchers and progressive organic producers refuse to consider the common goals and objectives they share. Both sides have a responsibility to explore partnerships.
My gut tells me that the anti-biotech sentiment that has been a cornerstone of the organic farm culture has less to do with the science than the entities who design, develop and deliver the tools. Would it be more palatable for organic producers to consider biotech advances if the science did not come from multinational companies? If a nitrogen efficiency trait fell from the sky would organic producers walk away from it? Don’t think so.
Surely we are mature enough to get beyond these silly thought patterns. Think about the potential of a global food production revolution that could arise from the merger of organic stewardship philosophies and cutting edge biotechnology. As a conventional producer without super-strong binds to either organic or biotech dogma, I welcome the possibilities. Would you?
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