The new organic

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison report that “organic forage crops yielded as much or more dry matter as their conventional counterparts with quality sufficient to produce as much milk as the conventional systems; and organic grain crops: corn, soybean, and winter wheat produced 90% as well as their conventionally managed counterparts”. In their paper, Organic and Conventional Production Systems in the Wisconsin Integrated Cropping Systems Trials: I. Productivity 1990–2002, the researchers point out that the 90% is an average. In 34% of site-years, mechanical weed control methods were not successful, resulting in only 74% yield compared to conventional. In the remaining 66% of site-years, yields were 99% of conventional. Producing as much or more with fewer inputs is definitely the right direction in a world where inputs are becoming more and more expensive.

A less positive note can be found when we consider how unpredictable agriculture can be, with insects, weather, and fungi just to name a few. University of Illinois researchers found that high CO2 levels cause plants to loose their ability to defend themselves against herbivorous beetles. This could become a serious problem, considering that CO2 levels have been steadily rising. Climate change is already causing huge fluctuations in weather patterns, including droughts, freezes, and floods. A destructive wheat fungus has recently spread from Africa into the Middle East and Asia…

Is it realistic to expect organic methods to keep up with all of these things and more? Is it realistic to expect traditional plant breeding to bring us the solutions quickly enough to prevent monetary loss or worse? I just don’t think so. However, I don’t think we should totally abandon organic, either. I’ve long been a proponent of a new type of farming that intelligently blends traditional / low-input / organic methods with modern technology to achieve the very best possible crops for farmers, consumers, and the environment. It turns out that I’m not the only one who thinks so!

Dr. Pamela Ronald of UC Davis is the co-author of the upcoming Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food, with her husband Raoul Adamchak. Their bios from Oxford University Press:

Pamela C. Ronald is a Professor in the Department of Plant Pathology at the University of California, Davis. Her laboratory has genetically engineered rice for resistance to diseases and flooding. Her work has been published in Science, Nature… She is an elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Raoul Adamchak has grown organic crops for twenty years, part of the time as a partner in Full Belly Farm, a private 150-acre organic vegetable farm. He has inspected over one hundred organic farms as an inspector for California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) and served as a member and President of CCOF’s Board of Directors.

Dr. Ronald shares her thoughts on the possible union of organic and genetic engineering in The New Organic In the Boston Globe. She writes: “To meet the appetites of the world’s population without drastically hurting the environment requires a visionary new approach: combining genetic engineering and organic farming.” My favorite paragraph is towards the end of the article:

Pitting genetic engineering and organic farming against each other only prevents the transformative changes needed on our farms. There seems to be a communication gap between organic and conventional farmers and between consumers and scientists. The stakes are high in closing that gap. Without good science and good farming, we cannot even begin to dream about establishing an ecologically balanced, biologically based system of farming and ensuring food security.

I wholeheartedly agree that communication between scientists and consumers needs to be improved. This is why I blog. This is why I make an effort to comment on articles involving genetic engineering on sites like Wired and Grist. I want people to know that I’m here. I am a scientist, I am reasonable, and I am a good person.

Photo credit: Christian L. via Flickr.

Dr. Ronald is also a good person. The Sacramento Bee tells about her efforts to use genes from native rices in Mali to improve agriculture for poor farmers there. The wide reaching series, “Seeds of Doubt“, doesn’t contain any science, but does provide a window into patent issues and consumer confusion for those who know little about the issue of GMOs. It also provides a few glimpses into Dr. Ronald’s private life and her personal ethics.

Like Dr. Ronald and her husband, I believe that the two types of scientists and farmers (sustainable agriculture and genetic engineers) need to communicate and work together. This is why I attend ISU’s Sustainable Agriculture Colloquium whenever my courseload allows. I’m even considering a Sus Ag Graduate Minor, depending on how it affects my genetics coursework and research. The partnership can only happen if every scientist and every person on each side of the issue works to share and understand each other. I’m willing to take steps. Are you?

The future of agriculture could be bright or dark. It all depends on how we choose to act.

Thanks to Ethicurian for bringing the article The New Organic to my attention. I’ll never know how they manage to cover so many sources!

ResearchBlogging.orgPosner, J., Baldock, J., & Hedtcke, J. (2008). Organic and Conventional Production Systems in the Wisconsin Integrated Cropping Systems Trials: I. Productivity 1990-2002 Agronomy Journal, 100 (2), 253-260 DOI: 10.2134/agrojnl2007.0058