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Can We Work It Out? Organic, GE & Conventional

Forwarded by the Life Sciences Network.

Can We Work It Out? Organic, GE And Conventional Agriculture
July 2/02
Commentary from the Food Safety Network
Douglas Powell

Contamination is taken rather seriously at the food safety conference I am attending.

Here, contamination usually refers to E. coli O157:H7 or listeria or any of the other dangerous microorganisms that sicken some 76 million Americans -- that's 1-in-4 each year -- and kill 5,000 annually, For others, the word contamination is used to indicate the presence of something unwanted, something often defined purely by marketing or political goals.

One of the ways that so-called organic foods are marketed is by declaring a zero-tolerance for genetically modified organisms. Should a gene from the increasingly popular genetically engineered crops used by North American farmers appear in organic product, the result is deemed contaminated and ineligible for organic status.

But how realistic is this apparent zero tolerance? Or is it nothing more than marketing bumpf.

Australian researchers reported last week in the journal Science that based on an examination of 48 million seeds from 63 fields across southern Australia, canola pollen was indeed carried to other fields, but in amounts well below internationally recognized levels for unwanted genetic transfer, and that the amounts were so small that it would be almost impossible to detect the gene flow using current DNA assessment methods.

Simply put, a zero tolerance regime is not going to work.

But food, organic or otherwise, is 21st century snake oil.

The opening of Whole Foods Markets in Toronto earlier this year was met with an orgy of hype and hucksterism, largely for its selection of so-called organic and natural foods; Prince Charles has once again focused attention on the supposed virtues of organic; and studies have documented lost exports because of so-called contamination with other genes.

Yet this is more marketing than science.

Consumers often cite "tastier", "safer", and "healthier" as reasons for paying the premium for organic products. However claims of safer and more nutritious have never been substantiated.

A comprehensive report published earlier this year in the journal, Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition by researchers at Otago University in New Zealand concluded there is no convincing evidence to back claims that organically grown foods were healthier or tastier than those grown using chemicals. The nutritional value of food was influenced by the time of harvest, freshness, storage, and weather, but many studies claiming organic food had more vitamins and minerals did not take proper account of these factors.

One year ago, the U.K. Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) upheld four complaints against claims in a Soil Association leaflet entitled, Five Reasons To Eat Organic, similar to the 10 Reasons to Eat Organic being flogged by Whole Foods. The ASA ruled there was no evidence that, contrary to the assertions of the Soil Association, that consumers could taste the difference, organic was healthy, it was better for the environment, and organic meant healthy, happy animals. On one claim, the Soil Association responded that 53 per cent of people buying organic produce did so because they thought it was healthy. The ASA rightly ruled this did not constitute any sort of clinical or scientific evidence.

The New Zealand reviewers and others have concluded there were environmental benefits from growing organically and that organic products had lower residues of synthetic pesticides.

But those same benefits could be garnered with other technologies. And organics generally have lower yields. A broad coalition of food, environmental, farming and forestry experts recently launched an initiative to further embrace intensive, high-yield farming. Dr. Norman Borlaug, 1970 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, was quoted as saying, "Growing more crops and tree per acre leaves more land for Nature.

“Without higher yields, peasant farmers will destroy the wildlands and species to keep their children from starving. Sustainably higher yields of crops and trees are the only visible way to save both. Right now, too many environmental groups are pushing low-yielding, low-input systems -- such as organic farming -- in the belief that environmental purity is the primary goal.

“But what good is pure farming if it takes over all of the planet's land area? We need a balance of responsible, high-yielding technologies on our farms so we can produce the food we need and leave more of the natural landscape for wildlife."

One of those technologies is genetic engineering. A new study from the Washington-based National Center for Food and Agricultural documented a 46 million pound reduction in pesticide use in the U.S. in 2001 because of genetically engineered crops such as cotton, canola, soy and field corn.

Such crops helped American farmers reap an additional 14 billion pounds of food and improve farm income by $2.5 billion.

The most recent study from also predicted that if the 32 other biotech crop varieties still under development were planted, they would reduce pesticide use by 117 million pounds per year, bringing total pesticide reduction for all biotech crops to 163 million pounds annually. Field corn resistant to rootworm, for example, could replace 14 million pounds of insecticides used on this crop each year (the complete report, commissioned with a grant from The Rockefeller Foundation, and later expanded with industry funding, was reviewed by nearly 70 plant biotechnology scientists from 20 academic and government institutions and is available at www.ncfap.org)

In crops like sweet corn and potatoes, genetic engineering can substantially reduce pesticide use. But that is anathema to organic growers, who insist, for philosophical reasons, on excluding a technology which, on some crops, is entirely consistent with the goal of reduced pesticide use.

All agricultural systems have tolerances. These are biological systems and genes move around -- and always have -- to varying degrees depending on the crop involved. So-called pure seed has tolerances for impurities; organic crops have tolerances for pesticides due to drift; yet organic systems insist on a zero tolerance for genetic modification (without distinguishing between genetic engineering and other methods to modify genes).

The over 25,000 field tests of genetically engineered crops have been conducted to document gene flow and set practical guidelines. Such guidelines are a way to allow a variety of farming methods to co-exist, to capture the benefits of a particular technology while actively minimizing risks, to provide choice to consumers.

InterNutrition, the Swiss Association for Research and Nutrition, published a comparative review concerning the biological, conventional and genetic engineering methods used in agriculture and nutrition in 2000 and concluded that the "scientific literature published so far shows that all the methods currently available have the right to exist.

The specific combination of all useful approaches offers the greatest potential for sustainable agriculture and healthy foods. This means that the unilateral rejection of genetically modified plants would be unjustified and short-sighted." (available at http://www.internutrition.ch/in-news/mediainfo/index.html)

Organic, like other agricultural systems, should have tolerances for the vagaries of nature. This is not about dumbing down standards, it's about the realities of biology, to allow farmers to explore a variety of ways to farm in more sustainable ways.

Douglas Powell is an assistant professor and director of the Food Safety
Network at the University of Guelph

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