Let’s get real. GMOs are a high-tech band-aid.

I subscribe to most of the sustainable agriculture discussion list-servs in North Carolina (Including ones by CFSA, Growing Small Farms, and various other channels focusing on food systems in Durham, Raleigh-Durham/The Triangle). I am pretty sure that a week hardly ever goes by where some article about GMOs isn’t linked in my inbox. Most recently the topic was broached by the Sustainable Agriculture channel on LinkedIn about the article” by Nina Fedoroff at Scientific American. Like many other articles, the phrase “the truth about GMOs!” was clear and present.

When we start off a conversation with “what are the facts about this technology?” “does it or doesn’t it help solve food shortages?” and “the truth about GMOs!” we get caught up in emotional debates about “OMG ARE GMOs SAFE?” or “Is Monsanto Evil?” (my answers to both are…probably, with some reservations). These articles lead push back by scientists and science writers who think it’s silly and harmful to waste so much energy on what they view as a pretty safe technology. It’s a never ending grist mill because we always frame the discussion in a way that ignores the fact that GMOs are a high-tech band-aid.

Our scientific approach and these articles help compartmentalize the way we think about food and we get locked into a narrative about technology, when it would pay huge dividends to step back and look at cropping systems and other food producing ecosystems.

Farms are an ecological system, where crop plants evolve in a laboratory or breeding program and pests evolve in the field, with multiple breeding cycles per season. New genetic modification techniques can help us catch up, but pests test out traits and genes every day. Monsanto has a R&D budget of over $1 billion dollars and I think it’s worth asking if there is another way. In the end, genetic modification is an engineer’s tool when the systems we’re studying are eco-systems. And I would wager that ecological problems can’t be solved with engineering alone.

Humans have used an important ecological approach to farming for millennia and it gets brought up now and then in the literature though rarely in the popular media. It’s low-tech and free: integrating crop systems with animal systems. Swapping crop and pasture is the system that allowed human civilization to expand out of river deltas into the forests of Europe (which we turned into grasslands, farms and towns. It builds resilient farm systems while also revitalizing soil. It’s a system that lost much of its relevance when Haber-Bosch ammonium-nitrate was demilitarized for use as a fertilizer. But finding a way to stabilize crop yields are an increasing concern as drought and “superweeds” can wipe out a year’s harvest. I talk about integrated crop-livestock systems elsewhere, but briefly here’s the idea behind them:

Over time, because of pests and soil depletion, cropping the same field on a continuous basis eventually leads to yield reductions and/or destabilization (not that any farmer can ever bat a 100% average). Fertilizers and pesticides help maintain yields. But converting that field to pasture (or “fallow”) is the oldest trick in western agriculture. Converting a field to pasture lets grasses, forbs and cattle wipe out any weed problem that existed and totally change the soil food web. Annuals which compete well with crops usually can’t compete with a diverse perennial pasture. These perennials (especially when grazed) help build soil organic matter, which is a reserve of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium (and also carbon, which is especially great if think we need a little less of that stuff in the atmosphere). Converting cropland to pasture essentially restarts the crop vs. pest arms race.

This approach can’t be patented so not many people stand to make millions of dollars by promoting this approach. Also, farmers using this approach need to know both how to mange both crops and livestock or at least partner up with someone who manages grazers (or aquaculturist if they have plenty of water and want to try integrating fish into their system). It’s a solution. And when journalists write about straightforward solutions, their employers usually don’t generate lots of advertising revenue. GMOs on the other hand stir up tons of controversy, which is great for advertising dollars. And so we get thousands and thousands of mind-numbing articles and blogs about whether GMOs are good or bad and ZERO articles about the ecological approaches that we desperately need to improve our food system.

The good news for the peddlers of high-tech band-aids is that integrated systems can be retrofitted with as many band-aids as any other system. But in the end, we need to recognize that farms are ecological systems. Engineering brute force solutions ignore the context that no matter what we do, evolution and ecology will build pest traits and populations that outcompete food crops. It also ignores the consequences of isolating systems and compartmentalizing our problems into engineering problems that systems thinking could have prevented. I think it’s fair to say that agricultural engineering is an arms race and GMOs are a small weapon in that battle. Systems integration, on the other hand, is disarmament.

———————-

I wrote this blog hoping it might elevate the conversation about GMOs. My background is in systems ecology wherein I successfully defended my master’s thesis in Spring of 2013 in the Graduate Degree Program in Ecology at Colorado State University. There, in the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory, I studied the effects of management (especially grazing) on soil organic matter in farms of Virginia and Mississippi.

While there are a lot of things about farming and bio-technology that I don’t know, I am certain that the problems in our food system are deeper than genetics. Developing crops that can outcompete weeds, and withstand pests or drought is a laudable effort (though I think a cure-all crop is a holy grail we will never find) and should receive support. Systems integration is a field with almost no support that offers a great deal of promise. Our scientific and funding approaches seem unlikely to support efforts in this field, which are complex and multi-disciplinary. Results in field trials take a long time and large areas to replicate, which is expensive. But the studies that exist are very promising, including work by A.J. Franzluebbers and B.F. Tracy and my friends at CEFS. If you meet a farmer that integrates crop and livestock systems, I hope you’ll support their work financially and any other means available!

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4 thoughts on “Let’s get real. GMOs are a high-tech band-aid.

  1. great ideas, but narrow. GMOs are not just about agricultural systems management. Adding vitamin A to rice is neither a band aid, nor something your proposal accounts for. Drought and heat resistant crops that can feed the world in the face of climate change, fish that grow faster and can feed more people…there are so many applications of GM technology not addressed in “band aid”.

    1. I imagine Eric is addressing a specific type of GMO-fear that might be most common among North Americans, which is that our food supply will be made toxic by something like Bt corn. I suspect that this fear may radiate out to a general reaction against the technology, even to the point of scuttling the kinds of efforts you’re mentioning. So our reaction to the band-aid approach is also relevant in the sense that it warps whatever influence North Americans have on how GMOs are used for other purposes. If the tech was only being used to enhance nutrition and food security, I think we might be having a different discussion. Meanwhile, people with an insecure food supply are a long way from worrying that their food will have some contaminants, but in many cases have abandoned or are abandoning traditional integrated systems in favor of cash crops grown with foreign technology and an engineering mentality. If Vitamin-A rice depletes the land or has little resistance to pests, its mission is compromised and we’re talking about this same stuff again.

  2. While I have great concerns about the safety and unintended consequences of transgenic crops in our food system, I have to agree with Mr. Bowen that the whole of the food system problem is greater than the sum of its parts. The problems of climate change, monoculture, soil erosion, soil depletion, water scarcity, pollinator decline, and the chemical treadmill are each a serious threat to our food supply and ways of life. Together, they ensure today’s system is unsustainable. On one hand, we don’t need to solve these problems; nature will surely adapt to them on its own. On the other, nature’s methods won’t consider the outcome for the human race.

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