Organics Versus GMO: Why the Debate?

Organics Versus GMO: Why the Debate?
November 6, 2013

Mischa Popoff

Mischa Popoff is the author of the critically-acclaimed book, Is it Organic? He earned a B.A. from... (read full bio)

“[T]he GM debate is over. It is finished. We no longer need to discuss whether or not it is safe. … You are more likely to get hit by an asteroid than to get hurt by GM food.” So said Mark Lynas, the British environmentalist, who helped launch the anti-GMO movement in the 1990s.

Lynas went on to say that “people who want to stick with organic are entitled to—but they should not stand in the way of others who would use science to find more efficient ways to feed billions.”

We could not have put it more succinctly ourselves.

Organic activists are on the attack at the local level in a bid to influence global acceptance of genetic engineering. For years we’ve been asking why those leading the organic industry are so dead-set opposed to genetically modified organisms.

GMOs are already cutting down drastically on pesticide use, fuel consumption and the amount of land devoted to agriculture. Aren’t these the stated goals of the organic movement? This 20-year-old technology will also soon lead to drastic reductions in agricultural water-use, and genetically engineered crops capable of pulling their own nitrogen from the earth’s atmosphere are already on the drawing board. Innovations like these will further reduce the amount of energy farmers use, along with the overall amount of energy humankind requires as it continues to produce more food on less land for more people.

And yet, a fierce either-or (and we must stress one-sided) debate ensues between a minority activists who want the entire world to “go organic”, and scientists and humanitarians who are using genetics and biotechnology to improve our food and medicine. If science makes the human race more efficient in the areas of transportation, communication and housing, then surely it can, and should, also help us in the vital arena of food production. Shouldn’t it?

The world’s premier national and international academies of science have reached an unqualified consensus that GMO crops are good for the poor and hungry. Even the president of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences stated recently, “Genetically-modified food represents a step forward in evolution.”

Crop biotechnology 2.0

While most people think only of commercial crops like Monsanto’s Roundup Ready canola or Bt corn when they hear mention of GM food, the three of us (two academics and a former organic inspector) are left to wonder why an entire discipline is being rejected by “organic” anti-GMO activists when this discipline holds such promise beyond the commercial realm. Commercial crops, which farmers can freely choose to grow, are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to debating the two competing philosophies of food production before us.

GMO crops that fix their own nitrogen would drastically reduce energy consumption on conventional farms by eliminating the natural gas used in synthesizing ammonium nitrate and the fuel burned in trucks that deliver that fertilizer to farms. Such technology could eliminate the current organic practice of planting legume cover crops, which are subsequently plowed down to trap nitrogen in the soil. This could cut an organic farmer’s fuel bill by as much as 50 percent!

If only the organic industry would consider accepting GMO crops on a case-by-case basis, there could be the possibility of a more rational approach to the new technology of genetic engineering.

And what, we hasten to ask anti-GMO activists, about a life-saving GMO crop like Golden Rice? According to the World Health Organization, 250,000 to 500,000 children in the developing world go blind each year due to vitamin A deficiency, half of whom die within a year. 250 million preschool children, mainly in urban slums, suffer from this deficiency. In all, 2-3 million people die from vitamin A deficiency-related diseases every year.

Genetically modified Golden Rice was developed in response to this unfolding humanitarian disaster by Swiss scientist Dr. Ingo Potrykus and his colleagues in 1998. It contains beta-Carotene, and not only prevents blindness but also boosts the immune system and contributes to general good health. However, Greenpeace and its allies in the organic movement have successfully managed to block the introduction of this non-commercial GMO product based on the flimsy claim that it may pose “environmental and health risks.” As if 250 million children with vitamin A deficiency is not itself a “health risk.”

In response to this we quote Lord Walter Northbourne, one of the preeminent forefathers of the organic movement. In 1931 he wrote:

“If we waited for scientific proof of every impression before deciding to take any consequential action we might avoid a few mistakes, but we should also hardly ever decide to act at all. In practice, decisions about most things that really matter have to be taken on impressions, or on intuition, otherwise they would be far too late…. We have to live our lives in practice, and can very rarely wait for scientific verification of our hypotheses. If we did we should all soon be dead, for complete scientific verification is hardly ever possible. It is a regrettable fact that a demand for scientific proof is a weapon often used to delay the development of an idea.”

If such reasoning is good enough for the organic movement, then surely it’s good enough for the science of genetic engineering. But many organic activists remain adamantly opposed to this new and promising technology. Rather than even consider the possible benefits, commercial or humanitarian, of GM technology, they seek instead the following goals, by any means necessary:

To prevent organic farmers from ever using genetically-modified seed – on pain of facing certain de-certification not only of a crop, but of the field where such seed might have been used, and potentially of an entire farm where the indiscretion occurred, for as long as a decade or more.

To prevent all possibility, no matter how remote, of cross-pollination—they call it “contamination”— between an organic crop and a neighboring GMO crop through pollen drifting over a fence line in spite of the fact that minimal cross-pollination is regarded as a fact of life in agriculture. (Only pedigree seed growers are required to literally eliminate the possibility of it from ever occurring.)

And finally, the organic activists’ most ambitious undertaking: To ban the use of GMOs altogether by all farmers everywhere, regardless of the choices individual farmers might want to make on their own land.

Impossible you say? Here’s how the activists are already imposing these anti-scientific, and we believe anti-human, ends.

Welcome to the new normal

The three of us have been involved in public education on genetically engineered/modified crops and food for decades. Although the science has advanced a great deal over the years, the critics have not changed their position that GM crops and food represent a threat to people and the environment. But, having failed to convince federal, provincial and state authorities, the critics have turned their attention to local governments where they hope politicians might more easily be swayed by public persuasion.

In the arena of public opinion, first-hand experience has taught us that fear can be very effective in winning the public over. There is a great deal of pseudo-science available on the Internet designed to generate fear of GMOs.

GM crops are produced, in part, with recombinant DNA technology. Few in the public, particularly politicians, are trained in this field of science, and so the failure to recognize the difference between the real science and the pseudo-science is to be expected.

Indeed, just imagine if Einstein’s theory of relativity was for some strange reason at issue at the local level. Experts would be called upon to help explain things. But this was not the case, for example, when the Richmond City Council and the District of Saanich, both in the Canadian province of British Columbia, voted to ban or express their opposition to GM crops.

Robert Wager, an academic with almost three decades of experience in the field of recombinant DNA, first met with Richmond City’s Sustainability Manager in early 2012 as the city first began to research the issue. After a short presentation the question session began. Two hours later, after he had debunked a large number of widely held myths that were presented to council by anti-GM activists, it became clear that city officials had already absorbed a great deal of pseudo-science on GM crops and food.

Indeed, documents that surfaced later prove that a group called GE-Free-BC had been petitioning the City of Richmond to ban GM crops since June of 2010, a year and a half prior to Wager being allowed to present.

At the subsequent Richmond public council meeting the usual fear stories were relayed as fact by many genuinely frightened attendees. Some expressed fears of the alleged health dangers posed by GM crop technology. They were sure of their “facts” having gleaned them from the Internet. Sadly, Wager was the only one at the meeting who conveyed the actual science of GMOs, according to world health and food safety experts. Despite the endorsement of GMOs by every food-safety authority in the world, it became evident that nothing could alleviate the fear in the room, and Wager soon realized a ban was imminent

The Richmond council cited two reasons to justify its ban: it stated that the transfer of GM pollen or seed to a neighboring organic field would threaten organic certification; alleged human/animal health issues associated with GM food were the second reason for the ban. Neither of these two reasons cited is supported by history or science.

In 19 years of monumental growth of both GM and organic agriculture there has not been one case of decertification of an organic crop caused by trace amounts of GM pollen or seed. A spokesperson for an organic food company admitted as much to council. History clearly demonstrates that GM crops do not represent any risk to organic farmers, except for what might be understood as an activist/bureaucratic risk whereby an organic farmer could face decertification of his crop, his field or even his entire farm as punishment from those who lead the organic industry.

You heard right… the anti-GM activists who lead the organic industry are willing to go as far as to inflict hardship on organic farmers just to prove their point and ensure a tight lid is kept on the advancement of GM farming.

All of the alleged dangers of GM crops and food have been assessed by global experts and dismissed. Everyone from the European Union (EU) to the World Health Organization (WHO), National Academies of Science (NAS), Health Canada to the local Vancouver Coastal Health Authority (VCHA) agree there is no evidence of harm from consuming food made with GM ingredients. And yet, this local council decided it knew better and proceeded full-steam ahead towards an outright ban.

Unfortunately, the scientific facts Wager presented had little effect, and fear and a lack of scientific understanding left the door open for the manipulation of the council.

One example came from a councilor who claimed: “They put the genetic characteristics of the chemical into the food and then it goes into us!” But there is no such thing as “genetic characteristics” of chemicals. And yet, the two hundred people holding up anti-GMO signs during the meeting cheered the comment. The Richmond council subsequently decided to move forward with the ban at the next public meeting, a definite case of public policy based on fear from anti-GMO pseudo-science.

Suppressing scientific assessment

The debate played out in a different but also discouraging, way in Saanich. Public documents show that one particular council member, the chair of Healthy Saanich Advisory Committee (HSAC), was intent on getting a “non-support” resolution passed regardless of the science. The HSAC minutes of May 2011 call for advice on GMOs from The Peninsula Agricultural Commission (PAC).

As the issue was coming to a head, Wager learned that the PAC had been asked to develop an opinion on a proposed GM crop ban for Saanich (subsequently downgraded to a vote of non-support for GM crops). Naturally he contacted them immediately.

Having dozens of GM-specific publications and extensive speaking experience on GM crops and food under his belt, and being a resident of the region, Wager offered to come before PAC at no charge. But he was turned down because the members of this commission claimed to already have enough experts lined up. One of these “experts” has zero publications in the field of GM crop technology; not surprisingly this “expert” recommended a ban of GM crops. The other was a local organic farmer with a long history of anti-GMO activity. Saanich council clearly did not seek balanced expert opinion on GM crop technology.

The minutes for the April 2012 PAC meeting show that there was no discussion or debate about whether to impose a ban; the issue had already been decided before the council meeting. “The Healthy Saanich Committee’s [HSAC] consensus was to support the concept of a ban on GE-GMO food crops in Saanich,” the minutes read. It was noted that this type of ban would be difficult to enforce [actually impossible, as it is under federal jurisdiction].  It was therefore decided to obtain information from other municipalities to see how a local ban could be achieved. The subsequent “debate” by the HSAC was clearly a sham, as the committee members had already decided their position on GMOs.

HSAC did go through the motions of holding a special meeting for public input on the GM crop issue in September. Wager again attended at his own expense. After sitting for over an hour listening to one speaker after another present fear stories, he was given the opportunity to present the real science to HSAC. But minutes into his presentation, the chair cut him off. Wager would later learn that the HSAC consensus had already been reached six months prior to this meeting—and the public meeting was an empty exercise.

Between that September HSAC meeting and the Saanich District Council meeting in November, when a final decision was scheduled to be made, Wager was assured he would get another opportunity to come before council. But one day before the District meeting, Wager was informed he would not be permitted to make any presentation.

After discussing this turn of events with Saanich Legislative Services (a non-political body that’s supposed to help citizens who live in Saanich), Wager discovered a possible avenue to provide further input. He respectfully requested that council refer the agenda item for the non-support declaration for GMOs back to Committee for further consideration at their next meeting.

But the council rejected that request. Instead, the mayor himself weighed in, saying the council had to trust the HSAC in coming to its recommendation. To no one’s surprise, Saanich Council then voted to move ahead with the non-support declaration for GM crops, precisely as recommended by HSAC.

In Wager’s last correspondence with the HSAC in Saanich, the Chair admitted, “The committee felt strongly that the information you and others shared clearly demonstrated the inconsistent and contradictory opinions and findings with respect to GMOs.” And yet, the fact remains that this committee embraced pseudo-science-driven fear. The process cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be considered science-based, much less democratic. And remember, Wager lives, votes, and pays taxes in this region! And yet he was purposely ignored.

Organic farming contradictions

The contrast between the over-regulation of genetically modified foods and the lax regulation of organic foods is striking. At the same time as a concerted attack against GMOs is being waged at the local level, the organic industry in North America remains largely unregulated, running almost entirely on record-keeping and record-checking.

Indeed, by the United States Department of Agriculture’s own admittance, “The number of results reported to the NOP [National Organic Program] in 2011 represents a sampling rate of less than 1 percent of certified operations.” Things go rapidly downhill from there because it turns out,  “The majority of results reported to the NOP in 2011 were received from certifying agents which are headquartered outside of the United States, where periodic residue testing is a requirement under international organic standards (e.g., the EU). In Canada meanwhile – one of America’s largest trading partners in organic products – there is no testing whatsoever to ensure organic products are genuine.

And while there has not been one death or even an illness linked to the consumption of foods made with genetically modified ingredients, thousands of people get sick and die every year because of contamination problems linked to slipshod organic farming practices at some farms.

Consider the news just over the past week. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Costco Wholesale Canada announced that Costco recalled its Kirkland Signature brand Organic Lean Ground Beef likely contaminated by E. coli.  And the largest processor of organic peanut butter shuttered its facilities over the weekend, the victim of a Salmonella outbreak that sickened 41 people in 20 states in 2012.

These are not isolated stories. Organic food is more dangerous than conventionally grown produce because organic farmers use animal manure as the major source of fertilizer for their food crops. Animal manure is the biggest reservoir of these nasty bacteria that are afflicting and killing so many people. Because of lack oversight, the organic industry has been plagued by contamination problems worldwide.

When dealing with the potential dangers of un-composted feces, mere record-keeping and record-checking cannot possibly be expected to keep people safe. In one notorious recent case involving the finding of a novel strain of O104:H4 bacteria linked to an organic farm in Lower Saxony in Germany in 2011, 3,950 people were affected and 53 died.

Said simply. While manure used in organic farms can be deadly, the cumulative conclusion after more than 2000 studies of genetically modified foods is that GMOs pose no serious health or safety concerns. There is still no such thing as organic testing, neither in the field nor after harvest nor in any certified-organic processing facilities—and, most disturbingly, not on incoming shipments of certified-organic product from countries like China, Mexico or Argentina. These foreign shipments account for the majority of the certified-organic food being sold in North American grocery stores. Organic certification on this continent is all based on paperwork with no recourse to science.

As such, long before one considers the remote possibility that an organic crop might become “contaminated” (to the level of 0.01 percent or less by pollen drifting from a neighboring GMO field), there is a far more pressing consideration: Are prohibited synthetic fertilizers or pesticides being used fraudulently on organic farms? Aren’t these the things that the organic industry once claimed to eliminate or at least drastically-reduce our exposure to? Sadly, such a commonsensical consideration, alongside the much more troubling possibility that lethal pathogens might be entering the organic food chain through the improper composting of animal and plant waste, does not warrant concern from those who lead the organic industry.

Shouldn’t a luxury food item be safer, or at least as safe, as its competition? Shouldn’t science be used to prove its worth? Instead, organic food turns out to barely exceed conventional food in purity and not at all in the nutritional department—no wonder, given the laxity of the organic certification system.

When it comes right down to it there nothing in GM technology that should offend organic growers. It is, in fact, an entirely “organic” procedure, and a very precise one at that. Organic farmers seem content to use seeds that are produced with nuclear and chemical mutagenesis which are very imprecise and hardly organic. They also use many inorganic substances such as copper, phosphorous and potassium with no apparent contradiction. And which is better—the broadcast spraying by organic farmers of a Bacillus thuringiensis (or Bt) microbial pesticide over entire fields with attendant drift into non-target areas, or the selective targeting of only those pests that actually attack the crop through the use of Bt corn and Bt cotton?

In the final analysis organic farming and GM technology would make a powerful team to improve our food production and nutrition on a large number of fronts. There is no reason why GM seeds cannot be grown organically. The benefits to organic farmers would soon become apparent and the real farmers in both camps could slough off the misinformation and fear mongering of the urban-based anti-GM activists. That’s the real promise of sustainability.

We conclude where we began, with the candid admission by one of the world’s most highly respected opponents to the science of genetic engineering that he was wrong. Mark Lynas stands in contrast to devout anti-GMO activists like Arpad Pusztai who remain steadfast in their baseless opposition to this new and promising field of science.

Pusztai was the lead scientist on the only remotely scientific attempt to prove that genetically modified food might be dangerous, and is still held up as a hero of sorts for the anti-GMO movement. The popular myth surrounding Pusztai is that he “was effectively silenced over his research and a campaign was set in motion to destroy his reputation.” But the fact of the matter is that Pusztai failed to use a control group in his study on rats, one of the most basic rules of the scientific process. He also fed his rats a strict diet consisting only of potatoes (GM potatoes of course), which any lab technician can tell you is a very poor diet for rats, low in protein, which is guaranteed to produce health problems. After all, as Paracelsus (the medieval founder of modern toxicology) so aptly put it, “All things are poison, and nothing is without poison; only the dose permits something not to be poisonous.”

Most damning is the fact that even with all the billions of dollars floating around in the organic industry, Pustzai‘s simple and inexpensive experiment has never been repeated.

Is this the best the anti-GMO organic movement can come up with as a reason to stand idly by and allow 2 million people or more to continue dying from vitamin A deficiency every year? Apparently the answer is yes. And we find that deplorable on all levels.

[Originally published on the Genetic Literacy Project]

Mischa Popoff

Mischa Popoff is the author of the critically-acclaimed book, Is it Organic? He earned a B.A. from... (read full bio)