Organic GMOs?

Corn-USDA ( USDA )

Could genetically modified crops become a thing one day soon? Don’t dismiss the possibility, as newer gene editing techniques now parallel ‘natural’ crop mutations that increase productivity.

Most consumers believe they understand what they’re getting when they choose organic foods or other products.

The assumption is that organically grown crops don’t use synthetic fertilizers, haven’t been treated with chemical pesticides or herbicides and have been raised by farm families with halos firmly affixed to their hardworking heads.

That’s fine for the organic industry’s marketing messages, but one challenge that continues to confront organic growers is productivity. Setting aside the debate over long-term eco-impacts of conventional farming — not that such objectivity is even possible — the use of supplemental fertilizers, combined with cultivation of crop varieties resistant to biothreats gives farmers not bound by USDA’s organic strictures something of an advantage.

Indeed, opposition to GMOs is one of the lynchpins of the organic movement, being widely touted by everyone from the Organic Consumers Association to the National Organic Standards Board to the European Court of Justice. Genetic modification using recombinant DNA technology, which introduces genes from one species into a different is simply not “natural,” those organizations have argued.

End of story, right?

Not so fast.

A newer, ‘natural’ technique

Say hello to CRISPr, a newer, simpler, cheaper and some would contend entirely natural was of conducting gene editing. Given the possibility of this new technology, even organic farmers might be able to use its revolutionary methodology to “enhance” the crops they’re currently cultivating.

But what is CRISPr? According to its developer, Jennifer Anne Doudna, a biochemist and professor Chemistry in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California-Berkeley, it is a newer, simpler and more effective way of manipulating DNA. CRISPr uses a technique similar to the way certain bacteria “manipulate” their immune systems, without adding any “foreign” genes.

Hence, the contention that using CRISPr is merely mimicking what goes on in Nature and thus the controversy over proposals that the technology could be use by organic growers without violating the industry’s positioning that organic certification guarantees the products were produced to naturally.

According to its proponents, CRISPr may one day (soon) provide a cure for HIV-AIDS and cancer, prevent genetic diseases and even help address the global hunger crisis by genetically engineering a new generation of food crops.

But according to its detractors, CRISPr represents a potential threat, because making changes to DNA could have unforeseen, and detrimental, consequences, not to mention the ethical issues involved in “mutating” human embryos, no matter how altruistic the intentions.

Certainly, the thought of CRISPR-enhanced humans is problematic, but the majority of the primary food crops now cultivated cross North America are already the product of genetic engineering. So why couldn’t a better, more “natural” form of genetic modification be used by organic growers to enhance the productivity of crops, not to mention livestock?

Such a development may not be that far off, because according to an official statement from USDA, organic growers can use CRISPr if they so choose.

“USDA does not regulate or have any plans to regulate plants that could otherwise have been developed through traditional breeding techniques, as long as they are not plant pests or developed using plant pests,” the department stated in 2018. “This includes a set of new techniques that are increasingly being used by plant breeders to produce new plant varieties that are indistinguishable from those developed through traditional breeding methods.”

USDA’s statement noted that genome editing can “expand traditional plant breeding tools,” speeding up the process of commercializing new crop varieties that would be valuable for agriculture, and if there’s one constant with food production, it’s that farmers never turn their backs on progress that leads to improved harvests.

They simply can’t afford to do so.

Meanwhile, opposition to USDA’s hands-off stance to CRISPr is solidifying. The Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute is organizing a petition to oppose adoption of any type of genetic modification for food products, noting in a statement that, “GMO seeds are not needed or wanted in organic agriculture. Although advocates of GMOs claim that these crops will help farmers respond more quickly to environmental and pest threats, it takes years of testing to ensure the crops will perform as expected.”

Make no mistake, however. Argumentation aside, there is no doubt that CRISPr will be used in variety of applications in agriculture, medicine and biotechnology. It’s no longer a debate whether such gene editing should be used, only a question of where it can best be deployed.

CRISPr will revolutionize all those fields, and it’s hard to imagine that organic growers will be the only ones left behind.

The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, an award-winning journalist and commentator.