09/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Organic Agriculture Beats Biotech at its Own Game

Organic agriculture's recently recognized benefits for improving food security don't depend on a boost from genetically modified (GM) technology. While the chemically-based systems that GM requires could be cleaned up with organic techniques, there's no clear reason to degrade organic standards to accept the downsides that come with biotech-produced crops as they are currently managed.

Recently, there have been renewed efforts to pressure organic agriculture to abandon one of its foundational principles and accept genetically modified crops. While there may be nothing inherently wrong with contemplating a theoretical overlap between biotech crop genetics and organic farming systems, there's not a compelling set of reasons to do so, either.

Alleging the principled barrier between the two is merely a quirky philosophical sticking point of "hard core resistance" within the organic community diverts attention from real questions as to the net value of this pairing.

Real question #1: Why bother?

To this point, biotech crops have not produced the yield advantages or biological resilience to multiple stressors. If we're looking for reliable, multi-benefit, future-oriented farming options in an input-limited world, biotech is not a player.

The question is rather: Why spend the time, money and scientific ingenuity manipulating a handful of genetic materials to end up with a specific new attribute when we should, and could, be rigorously advancing regionally adapted varieties and building up soils organically to achieve enduring nutrient content cycling and resistance to drought, flood and disease resistance.

This organic activity is sustainable in the long term, improves water-holding capacity in soil for all crops -- not just those that happen to have a gene with drought resistance, leaving the other crops at risk.

Real question #2: Who benefits?

Why have patented seeds good for a single planting when what most farmers in the world need are replicable, open-pollinated varieties that thrive in the particular mix of soil, degree days, weather and pest pressure where they are grown? The patented seed path is entirely under the control of a company and requires substantial chemical inputs to survive. The latter path, relying on finding the optimum fit with natural systems and fluctuation (thanks to climate change) over time, is controlled much more by sustainable farmers and the heroic seed companies dedicated to their service.

Real question #3: Is the stuff safe to eat? And who knows?

There is no data from independent, long-term studies on the human health impacts from eating GM crops. There's lots of research, but it's all tucked within the files of the companies that paid for it. The same companies prevent independent research on the efficacy and health impacts of their crop seeds. Many of the handful of intrepid researchers who do manage to carry out studies and dare to publish results showing problems with the GM approach face amazingly virulent reactions from the biotech community, and the institutional systems that depend on them for funding.

I think this quote from the editorial in the recent issue of Scientific American tells how little we really are allowed to know about GM crops:

Unfortunately, it is impossible to verify that genetically modified crops perform as advertised. That is because agritech companies have given themselves veto power over the work of independent researchers.

Dr. Judith Carman of Australia is conducting one of the few long-term, independent animal feeding studies with GM materials. She says recent Australian and Italian studies finding reduced fertility and immune function, respectively, in mice are disturbing. Here she talks about extreme difficulty of doing meaningful research into this area. She is a PhD in medicine in the areas of metabolic regulation, nutritional biochemistry and cancer.

To us, it does not make biological sense that you can create brand-new proteins through genetic engineering in food and expect that our bodies will have the enzymes and capacity to break them down. These novel proteins are foreign to our immune systems because they have never before existed in nature.

Given how much we are not being allowed to know, our scientific, agricultural and food safety leaders need to take the reasonable step of following the precautionary principle until we have the knowledge we need. Organic agriculture proponents are eager for more high-quality research on biological systems, because the promise for improving soils, sequestering carbon and feeding more people with healthier diets is so great all around the world.

Simply, this means that, facing irreversible potential harm, the onus for generating the proof of scientific consensus falls upon those seeking to take the action. With biotech crops and our long-term health and ecological well-being, that's a pretty big onus.

The organic community may eventually be open to biotech crops if long-term, independent studies would some day show there are no ecological or human health impacts. Because there is no research available to prove that yet, who needs them? Why risk it?

Rodale Institute is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that improves the health and well-being of people and the planet. We were founded in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, in 1947 by organic pioneer J.I. Rodale.

Our research findings are clear: A global organic transformation will mitigate greenhouse gas emissions in our atmosphere and restore soil fertility. Our mission: We improve the health and well-being of people and the planet.