A friend of mine, Michael Krasny, hosts one of the most widely listened
to talk shows on Public Radio in the Bay area (KQED-FM). He forwarded
to me an email from an Organic Gardening Magazine that listed the ten
reasons why organic farming opposes genetic engineering. My point by
point response and the original email follow below.
BOB GOLDBERG'S POINT BY POINT RESPONSE
Organic farmers are an important part of farming. However, they are
like the fundamentalists -- they ARE fundamentalists -- who think that
agriculture must be done in a specific way. The amount of acreage
devoted to organic farming is small in the total scheme of things.
Their opposition to genetic engineering is based on their
"fundamentalist" approach to everything. The organic farmers have a
"specific" way of doing things and anything that does not follow their
"rules" is not organic, including conventional farming without genetic
Leaving their "fundamentalist" "ideology" aside, they are quite
First, their consumer market share has gone up significantly in
england, where the anti-genetic engineering campaign is the strongest.
High-end organic markets like Wild Oats and Whole Earth Foods DEPEND
upon organic foods for their economic viability. If they can "label"
genetic engineering as BAD, consumers will perceive that organic foods
are "healthier", when, in fact, they are NOT. These high-end grocery
stores cater to an affluent, upper middle-class consumer that can
afford their $3/pound tomatoes. They are major contributors to
Greenpeace, which has been running the anti-genetic engineering
campaign. This is NOT about protecting the consumer or the health of
the consumer, it's about market share and economics. Anyone who thinks
otherwise is naive. The more the "organic" crowd can scare the
consumer about the dangers of genetic engineering, the greater their
market share and profit.
Second, there is not one piece of valid scientific data that can show
that organic foods are healthier than foods made by conventional
farming. As a BOTANIST I know that a plant, is a plant, is a plant.
The structure, cell types, biochemistry, genetics, etc. of organically
grown and conventionally grown crops are the SAME. There's a
perception that organic foods are healthier -- the reality is that they
are no more nutritious or healthier than foods produced by conventional
farming. I wonder why organic foods are not labeled stating this FACT.
Third, organic foods MAY be less safe for consumption than foods grown
by conventional means. Because organic farmers use MANURE which can
contain deadly strains of E. coli, salmonella, etc. there is a higher
chance of picking up a bacterial infection from organically grown crops
than from conventionally grown crops. The chance may be slight, but it
IS higher than from food produced the conventional way. I wonder why
organic food sellers don't LABEL their foods to warn consumers of that
fact that there may be a chance of getting a bacterial infection and to
wash their organic food well. IF THEY ARE CONCERNED ABOUT HUMAN HEALTH,
THIS SHOULD BE A NO-BRAINER.
Fourth, there are STRICT regulations on the amount of "pesticides" that
can be on conventional plants as residues. In fact, ALL PLANTS contain
natural chemicals (secondary metabolites) that are more harmful (in
high doses) to humans than any of the residual pesticides present on
conventional crops. Bruce Ames, a well-known UC Berkeley geneticist
who developed the standard toxicity test used today (the Ames test)
published this in a landmark paper in 1990 in the Proceedings of the
National Academy of Sciences -- and Bruce Ames is a critical, careful
scientist with impeccable credentials for objectivity -- he works with
bacteria and has no hidden agenda in the plant world one way or the
other. Conventional foods are safe...they have been eaten by BILLIONS
of people. Organics, on the other hand, can pose a HIGHER risk.
Fifth, organic farming takes up much more LAND than conventional
farming. It is naive to think that organic farming can feed the
"world." Organic farming requires MANURE, which requires animals,
which requires FORAGE LAND. Today there are 6.5 billion people on the
face of the earth. By 2050, we may have 10 billion people. Because
organic farming uses nitrogen in manure, they will have to produce
significantly MORE manure to keep up with the demand to feed 3-4
billion more people. IT CANNOT BE DONE. In fact, all of the world's
cultivatable land has already been taken up. In order to increase food
production the key is to INCREASE YIELD --- grow more plants on the
same or smaller space. Organic farming can use higher yielding
varieties (developed by conventional breeding). However the demand for
MANURE is too great. It has been estimated, that, at most, organic
farming practices can feed 4 billion people. We have passed that
Fifth, high-yielding farming cannot be done on a large scale using
organic farming practices. There is no way that organic farmers can
control pathogen infections (viruses, fungi, bacteria, insects) using
natural biological controls. These require some utilization of
chemicals. In addition, one of the reasons why agricultural
productivity has increased 300% IN THE LAST CENTURY HAS BEEN FROM THE
USE OF nitrogen fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, greater-yielding
varieties, agricultural practices and GENETIC ENGINEERING. This
increase has been obtained on LESS LAND USAGE than a 100 years ago and
with less people. For example, in 1875 ~50% of the labor in the US was
devoted to farming. Today, less than 2% of labor is devoted to
farming. Yet we produce 300% more crops on LESS land. That's more
land for forests, parks, open space, etc. that would not be there if it
weren't for modern agricultural practices.
Sixth, genetic engineering in plants has been carried out for almost
TWENTY years. It took FIFTEEN years in order to get the first
genetically engineered crops in the field that could be harvested and
sold to consumers....FIFTEEN YEARS!!!!!! Many, many studies
experiments, tests, etc. have been going on with genetically engineered
plants in the field for FIFTEEN years. And regulatory agencies have
been involved since the beginning. It takes at least FIVE years of
testing in order to get a genetically engineered crop released -- and
it must pass USDA, EPA, and FDA standards. It took "us" over SEVEN
years of rigorous field testing to get our laboratory discoveries
through the regulatory agencies in order to release genetically
engineered oilseed hybrids that yield 30% MORE than conventional
varieties. SEVEN YEARS! More tests than any drug used on the market
today! The experiments were done, data collected, data analyzed, data
scrutinized, and re- scrutinized. The regulations are NOT LAX. Quite
the opposite. In fact, it was in our own interest to make sure that
these plants were no different than conventionally grown plants because
if they were they were useless to farmers. Who I might add adopted our
genetically engineered hybrids because they are higher yielding...MORE
FOOD, LESS SPACE. The regulations are STRICT. And just as it is not
in the interest of the organic farmers to sell manure-contaminated
food, it is not in the interest of conventional farmers/companies to
sell food that is "harmful" to consumers.
Seventh, the organic farmers use a natural "pesticide" from
Bacillus thuringensis bacteria (called Bt) to keep caterpillar insect
damage to a minimum. Bt toxin has been used for almost a
100 years, has no harmful effects in humans,
binds to specific receptors in the gut of specific insects, and is very
effective in controlling specific classes of insects. Genetic
engineering has been able to LEARN what the toxin protein is that
controls the insects. The gene for this protein is probably one of
the most studied genes on the face of this earth!!! This gene has been
engineered to work in plants and is very effective in preventing insect
damage WITHOUT PESTICIDE SPRAYS. IN FACT, USE OF Pesticides on CROPS
SUCH AS SOYBEAN, CORN, AND COTTON HAS GONE DOWN SIGNIFICANTLY WITH THE
INTRODUCTION OF THESE VARIETIES. This is the SAME Protein that the
organic farmers use!!!! Using genetically engineered varieties makes
farming easier, less costly, and MORE CHEMICAL FREE than conventional
varieties. And this is the BEGINNING. Plants have genes that can
fight off (albeit weakly) almost every pest. Now that we have learned
the sequence of almost all plant genes we can begin to use these genes
to protect crops from fungi, bacteria, insects, etc. and do this in a
CHEMICAL FREE WAY! This is very important for us, but more important
for the DEVELOPING world which devotes 75% of their income or more to
food! Simply put, genetically engineered varieties use the SAME
PROTEIN THAT THE ORGANIC FARMERS USE TO CONTROL SPECIFIC INSECTS!!!
Eighth, yes, there will be resistance. Do we stop using antibiotics
because bacterial strains have become resistant? NO. The solution is
with MANAGEMENT of the genetically-engineered varieties for insect
resistance. How they are grown in the fields. There are now strict
REGULATIONS that state that in every field of insect-resistant crops
there must be refuges of non-genetically engineered crops in order for
the insects to develop without selection to the insect resistant
varieties. There are other management regimes that would take days to
go into, but these have been/are being addressed continually by
scientists all over the globe. The real issue is cost vs. benefit. I
appreciate he worry of the organic farmers about insect resistance.
The solution is in management of the genetically engineered plants for
insect resistance, new discoveries, altering the type of genes used.
There ARE scientific solutions to these problems just as there are for
antibiotic resistance in bacteria.
Ninth, yes it is true that pollen will be transported. However, there
have been many, many studies that indicate that pollen movement is NOT
a significant problem. The pollen only goes so far. Again, crop
management solutions have been implemented using "borders" of
non-genetically engineered crops. In addition, there are other
solutions in the pipeline. For example, eliminating the engineered
genes and/or making sure that they are SILENT in pollen. I HAVE BEEN
DOING THAT KIND OF WORK FOR FIFTEEN YEARS!!! There are remedies that
can prevent any engineered genes from getting into pollen. Although
this is not a big problem, there are rationale solutions to manage it.
Again, the gains far outweigh the risk.
Tenth, there has been one study on the Monarch butterfly that was fed
the SAME bt toxin the organic farmers use on pollen and they died!
SURPRISE, SURPRISE. The study was the equivalent of giving a baby 16
coca colas an hour for 24 hours and seeing the effects! This was not a
"natural" experiment. In fact, when real-field-type experiments were
carried out by many different labs all over the world, the effects of
genetically engineered pollen on the Monarch butterfly were MINIMAL.
In fact, there is MUCH MORE DAMAGE WHEN PESTICIDES ARE USED
TOO CONTROL INSECTS IN THE FIELD!!!!!! IN FACT, IN FIELDS
WITH INSECT-RESISTANT GENETICALLY ENGINEERED PLANTS INSECTS WERE FOUND
THAT HADN'T APPEARED IN FIELDS SPRAYED WITH CHEMICALS. In addition,
DEVELOPMENT and elimination of natural breeding/migrations grounds for
Monarchs have had infinitely more impact on their population than
genetically engineered plants. These are issues that can been
investigated and have been investigated by objective science. The data
are clear and convincing to those with enough objectivity to see
clearly. USING GENETICALLY ENGINEERED INSECT RESISTANT PLANTS CUTS
RELEASE OF CEHMICALS INTO THE ENVIRONMENT SIGNIFICANTLY!!!!!! SAVING
MANY MORE ANIMALS/INSECTS THAT ARE LOST BY THE RARE POLLEN THAT LEAVES
THE FIELD...WHICH CAN BE PREVENTED FROM
EXPRESSING THE INSECT-RESISTANCE GENE!
Eleventh, The statement that genetically engineered crops have been
shown to be less nutritious is NONSENSE. I know of no studies that
have shown that genetically engineered varieties are different or less
nutritious than conventional or organic varieties. In fact, the
opposite is true. Genetic engineering puts KNOWN GENES/PROTEINS into
plants. This is much more powerful than conventional breeding which
brings BLOCKS of unknown genes together into varieties that are then
EMPIRICALLY tested for their superiority. The potential is there is
make crops MORE NUTRITIOUS AND BETTER FOR HUMAN HEALTH than
conventional varieties. PLANTS WERE NOT PUT ON THIS EARTH FOR
PEOPLE....RATHER THEY WERE PUT HERE TO ENSURE THEIR OWN SURVIVAL. As
such, they are optimized for the plant's life cycle and not for the
human life cycle. MAN has engineered plants to be MORE optimally
suited for our health and nutrition. But the perfect plant does not
yet exist! However, genetic engineering CAN/WILL one day do that!!
Case in point, the golden rice recently developed by my friend Ingo
Potrykus in Switzerland. Many plants do not synthesize vitamin A which
is needed for eye development. Many 10's of thousands of children in
the developing world have serious and even fatal diseases because of
Vitamin A deficiency. Ingo took genes from a plant that synthesizes
Vitamin A and engineered rice (which does not) to be able synthesize
Vitamin A. This rice can now be eaten by children in order to obtain
an adequate amount of Vitamin A to prevent blindness and other
diseases. THIS ENGINEERED RICE IS MORE
NUTRITIOUS -- meaning has a molecule (Vitamin A) than helps human
health and development. And this is only the beginning.
Twelfth, the statement that farmers cannot plant back their seeds from
year to year SHOWS A COMPLETE IGNORANCE OF GENETICS!
Farmers can plant back seeds from conventional
varieties. However, HYBRID SEEDS (genetically engineered
or not) need to be produced each year. WHY? Hybrids are crosses
between two parental lines. They are valuable because NEW GENES ARE
COMBINED IN THE OFFSPRING. According to the experiments of Mendel 150
years ago, these gene combinations segregate and assort in the next
generation! Any HIGH SCHOOL BIOLOGY STUDENT KNOWS THIS! Hybrids are
much higher yielding than non-hybrid plants. You may know that we did
a lot of pioneering work in this area to be able to produce hybrid
crops that did not exist before -- like oilseed rape -- and get 30%
increases in yield That means, 30% increase in numbers of plants on
the SAME amount of space! Hybrids have to be made NEW every year..by
anyone...genetic engineer, organic farmer, conventional breeder.
THAT'S A FACT OF BIOLOGY!
However, recent work has the GOAL of using genetic engineering to
produce hybrids WITHOUT conventional crosses -- that is, make seeds
without fertilization. This is the "holy grail" of plant genetics
these days and if successful it will mean that genetic engineering can
produce HYBRID VARIETIES IN WHICH THE FARMERS WILL, I REPEAT WILL, BE
ABLE TO KEEP THEIR SEEDS AND RE-PLANT YEAR AFTER YEAR HYBRID CROPS.
This can only be done with genetic engineering because there are plants
that naturally do this -- like dandelions -- and if we can transfer
those genes from dandelions to soybeans, corn, wheat we can make the
hybrids which are higher yielding and then allow the plant to produce
seeds forever without ever making the genetic
Thirteenth, we live in a market system. FARMERS ARE THE ONES THAT
HAVE ADOPTED GENETICALLY ENGINEERED VARIETIES. WHY, BECAUSE, THEY MAKE
MORE MONEY. No corporation holds a monopoly on agriculture or any
other segment of society in which technology is rapidly advancing.
Besides, look at Microsoft...there ARE antitrust laws in this country!
Are the organic farmers using PCs with Windows? I doubt whether Wild
Oats or Whole Foods Markets would survive long without making a profit.
FARMERS HAVE ADOPTED GENETICALLY ENGINEERED VARIETIES. BUT THEY HAVE
ALWAYS ADOPTED NEW TECHNOLOGIES. AND SEED COMPANIES EXISTED
THAT SOLD SUPERIOR VARIETIES OF SEEDS TO FARMERS BEFORE GENETIC
ENGINEERING WAS INVENTED. It's a market system....farmers
will buy the most superior forms of seeds and will be able to make a
greater profit...and grow higher yielding crops...on less land!
Everyone is a winner. In the past Land Grant Universities developed
seeds and gave them to farmers...but that has been taken over by SEED
COMPANIES. I think that's the "american way" and IT WORKS!
Fourteenth, more is known about genes/proteins that are engineered into
plants than the proteins that are mobilized in by conventional methods
-- which are unknown and not characterized. Allergens are proteins
that are well-known and have certain properties. There are 50,000
proteins in in a plant....different ones..only a very, very, very small
number are potential allergens. Clearly, there are foods that a
small number of people are and will be allergic to -- shellfish, dairy
products, wheat products, etc. Can we predict who will be allergic to
these foods? NO. Are many people allergic to these foods? NO. Do we
stop producing/using these foods because a small number of people are
allergic to these foods? NO. Do people have allergies to
foods produced conventionally and by ORGANIC techniques.
YES. Is there a significant risk...NO.
Fifteenth, humans have a digestive system. We have been eating
billions of plant GENES for 100s OF THOUSANDS OF YEARS! And the genes
of other creatures! There is absolutely no evidence that we are taking
up genes from plants into our chromosomes. And we are certainly not
green. The DNA/genes are broken down by our digestive system that
naturally breaks down DNA from broken cells in our bodies (and I might
add, uses the nucleotides or break down products as raw materials to
make new genes...and these raw materials/nucleotides are UNIVERSAL in
all organisms!). Antibiotic resistance genes in plants are similarly
broken down in our digestive system. And even if they are not, there
is no evidence that these genes could be incorporated in to the
trillion or so cells in the human body! However, let's
assume...for the sake of DISCUSSION...that they
were taken up by a few cells....what would the
consequences be? NOTHING. The engineered genes work only in plants.
They cannot be switched on in humans. In addition, the antibiotic
resistant protein would only be in specific human cells NOT IN THE
BACTERIA which would be the target of medical treatment with
antibiotics! Simply put, if the genes escaped the digestive enzymes
they would be taken up by human cells. And
they would be inactive in these cells and would not be in the bacterial
targets of the antibiotic. Finally, assuming the one in a ZILLION
chance that an engineered antibiotic resistance gene got into a
bacteria in the human gut what would happen? NOTHING -- the gene was
engineered to be active in a PLANT and would not be able to be switched
on in the bacteria. I could go on, but anyone who has taken a simple
course in MOLECULAR BIOLOGY would know that the antibiotic resistance
gene transfer scenario is not plausible....it's BIOLOGICALLY FLAWED AND
FINALLY, I have no problem with organic farming, food, or people who
want to eat organic foods. I think it is an important agricultural
niche. However, organic farming cannot "feed the world." Genetic
engineering represents an extension of what man has been doing for tens
of thousands of years...CORN was genetically engineered by man from
teosinte...a wild grass...WHEAT was genetically engineered by
man....etc., etc. These crops DO NOT EXIST IN "NATURE." That is a
FACT. The goal of agriculture has always been to DOMESTICATE plants
and animals for the good of man. Genetic engineering IS THE FUTURE.
It has the potential to increase yields and allow crops to be grown
under conditions which are not possible today. It has the potential to
make "foods for the future" -- which are MORE NUTRITIOUS AND BETTER FOR
HUMAN HEALTH AND WELFARE than crops grown today. And it is our BEST
HOPE for feeding the 10 billion people that will be on this earth fifty
years from now.
The important point is that there needs to be many different forms of
agriculture and agricultural practices. And there needs to be
rationale solutions to our problems based on sound science, objective
science, and an open mind to a variety of solutions to problems that
WILL arise. I am disturbed by the "anti-science" tone of the anti-GMO
crowd. And I am disturbed by the ideologically-driven zeal
that drives them to fight genetic engineering. Most
of us who have SPENT OUR LIVES DOING SCIENCE TO IMPROVE AGRICULTURE AND
THE LIVES OF PEOPLE are not wedded to one technology or one approach.
We want to ensure that there will be adequate food for all of humanity
and be able to do that by whatever methods can best bring that about in
a safe and productive way.
Finally, I wonder if the organic farmers use genetically
engineered DRUGS TO TREAT THEMSELVES AND THEIR CHILDREN? I wonder if
the organic farmers advocate stopping the use of genetic engineering to
produce better medicines (like human insulin)? THE SCIENCE AND
PRINCIPLES ARE THE SAME -- WHETHER USING PLANTS, ANIMALS, BACTERIA,
WHATEVER! And I wonder how many organic farmers realize how important
genetic engineering is to the developing world. There is no other way
to INCREASE the YIELD of plants sufficiently to feed 10 billion people
in the future and to do it, eventually, without a high input from
Michael....please tell your organic magazine-editor-friend that he is
welcome to take a couple of my courses at UCLA. AFTER that I wonder
how he will feel when he understands the SCIENCE. Ask him to talk to
my non-science students who love organically grown tomatoes, but also
know how important genetic engineering is to improving humanity. And
one final comment...IF YOUR ORGANIC-EDITOR-FRIEND HAS SERIOUS CONCERNS
ABOUT PLANT GENETIC ENGINEERING, ASK HIM TO FUND RESEARCH BY SERIOUS
SCIENTISTS IN ORDER TO SOLVE/OBTAIN SOLUTIONS TO HIS CONCERNS. TALK IS
VERY, VERY CHEAP.
ORGANIC GARDENING EMAIL
To: "Krasny, Michael" <
Genetically engineered foods are a hot topic that affects nearly
everyone who eats commercially prepared foods--from infants to the
elderly--in the United States. The center of this hotly debated
controversy stems from a technology that can borrow genetic code from
plants and animals and transfer it to a plant to give it a desired
According to The Wall Street Journal, last year alone, 30% of American
corn and 55% of American soybeans were grown from seeds genetically
engineered to produce its own insecticidal or herbicidal toxins. Much
those corn and soybeans have found their way into many commonly
available processed foods like corn chips and baby formula. Other
genetically engineered foods that are in wide use include spaghetti
sauce and baby formula. Many Americans eat products made from theses
genetically engineered organisms on a regular basis without any
knowledge of what they are truly consuming.
Organic Gardening Magazine, the largest gardening magazine in the U.S,
has taken an activist stance in the ever-widening genetic engineering
debate. John Grogan, Managing Editor of Organic Gardening and
of the special report, "The Problem with Genetic Engineering,"
in the upcoming January-February 2000 issue of OG) can discuss why lax
regulation, hidden ingredients, and a plethora of unknowns make this
brave new technology an issue to be closely scrutinized and regulated.
10 Reasons Organic Gardening Opposes Genetic Engineering:
1. Superbugs: In as little as 3 years, BT-resistant insects strains
2. Superweeds: Genetically engineered herbicide-tolerant crops
cross-pollinating with wild relatives could create herbicide-resistant
3. Pollen drift: Organic farmers could lose certification when fields
are contaminated by wind-born pollen from genetically engineered
4. Harm to wildlife: Certain insects have died after eating
engineered crops or pollen.
5. Harm to soil: Residues in genetically-altered crops depress
beneficial microbial activity in the soil.
6. Human health: Genetic engineered crops have been shown to be less
7. Hidden allergies: When DNA from one organism is spliced into
it can turn non-allergenic foods into foods that will cause allergic
8. Antibiotic resistance: Antibiotic resistance introduced into humans
from genetically modified foods could render established medial
9. Religious and moral considerations: People who choose not to eat
animals face an almost impossible task because many genetically
engineered crops contain animal genes.
10. Indentured farmers: Farmers cannot save and use seeds from year to
year and are forced into a costly cycle of corporate dependency.
Professor Bob Goldberg
Department of Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology
University of California
405 Hilgard Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1606