3 October 2023
Think-tank ticks off organic sector body for misleading and factually inaccurate claims over gene edited microbes
Pro-science think-tank Science for Sustainable Agriculture (SSA) has written to Roger Kerr, chief executive of organic sector body Organic Farmers & Growers (OF&G), to correct misinformation contained in a letter from Mr Kerr recently published in the farming media.
In the letter, Mr Kerr suggested that the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act passed earlier this year ‘gave a green light to pesticide and biotech companies to develop and release genetically edited microbes’, warning that ‘the unintended consequences could be catastrophic’.
This statement is factually incorrect and hugely misleading since the Act does not apply to gene edited microbes, which will continue to be covered by existing GMO regulations.
SSA suggested that OF&G should in future check its facts before spreading misinformation, adding that since both genetic modification and genome editing are prohibited under organic regulations, transparency commitments by plant breeders in support of the Precision Breeding Act will make it straightforward for organic growers to exercise their freedom of choice against using new technology to enhance sustainability.
The SSA letter added:
“It is disappointing that the organic lobby is spreading fear and misinformation about a technology which has so much to offer organic farmers, for example by accelerating the development of higher-yielding crop varieties with more durable pest and disease resistance. Twenty-five years ago, scaring people about hypothetical dangers of GMOs may have given a lift to organic sales, but the world is a very different place today and requires evidence-based decision making to develop more sustainable agricultural systems in the face of climate change, geopolitical uncertainty, food security shocks and biodiversity loss.
That may explain why organic interests in Europe are far from aligned in their opposition to gene editing, with Organic Denmark recently calling for a review of the ban on gene edited crops in organic farming, and leading organic researcher Urs Niggli, former director of the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL), warning that by rejecting gene editing, the organic sector could lose its pioneering edge in sustainable agriculture, consigned to producing 20-50% lower yields than conventional farming, and missing out on potential solutions to current production challenges facing organic producers such as reliance on copper-based fungicides for disease control.
These dissenting voices within the organic industry reflect a major dilemma for the sector, since the viability of organic farming when practised at scale hinges critically on routine access to non-organic inputs under ‘emergency’ derogations where the equivalent inputs are not available in organic form. Last year, for example, despite a long-term decline in the area farmed organically in the UK, authorisations of non-organic seed use by organic sector bodies reached a record high, at more than 17,000 individual derogations. If the organic sector persists in its ‘zero tolerance’ approach to gene editing, while these techniques are expected to become routinely used in mainstream plant breeding, such derogations will become less possible for modern varieties, and certified organic growers will be left with older genetics gradually becoming more and more outclassed, more prone to disease and pest infestation, further widening the unsustainable productivity gap between organic and non-organic.”
In relation to the future promise of gene edited microbes, the letter pointed to a recent article published on the SSA website, by molecular biologist Henry Miller, and microbiologist Kathleen Hefferon, highlighting the enormous opportunities to reduce the need for both synthetic and organic fertilisers, and to help address complex environmental problems such as nitrogen runoff and nitrous oxide emissions, which are associated with both organic and non-organic production systems. The letter suggested that in closing its minds to such exciting scientific developments, which are already contributing to progressive regenerative farming systems in the US, the certified organic sector risked consigning itself to high priced niche markets that are inaccessible to people with average incomes, and losing its way in contributing towards a truly sustainable food system.
A copy of the emailed letter sent on behalf of the Science for Sustainable Agriculture advisory group is attached.