Integrating Biotech and Organic – Education

Understanding the benefits and drawbacks of both organic and conventional farming methods could be a boon for both types of farmers and researchers. As I see it, current college education in either one includes little about the other. How can a conventional farmer or researchers know how to make their farm more sustainable if they aren’t at least given an introduction to the subject? How can organic farmers apply new technologies that benefit their farming methods if they aren’t exposed to them? Obviously some methods are more transferable than others, but knowledge is always useful.

For example, a friend of mine in ISU’s sustainable ag program has told me about a recent experiment that tested the yield and pest incidence of two farm “layouts”: one large field planted with alternating years of soy and maize, or planting the field in strips of soy and maize (wide enough for farm equipment) then alternating the strips each year. The second layout had higher yields and decreased pests, presumably because most pests (insect, fungus, virus…) attack either soy or maize, not both. The strips isolated the pests, meaning that less pesticides were needed. There was also more biodiversity in the field. This method would certainly be considered more sustainable, and it is also more profitable for the farmer (minus slightly longer time on the tractor). Extension agents told farmers about the experiment’s results, but none switched, preferring to stay with the method they are used to. If their minds had been opened to the possibility of alternative ways of farming while they were in college, maybe they would have been more receptive to the idea.

There is much that organic farmers could gain from methods that aren’t conventional to their methods as well.

Walnut trees by Judi Berdis via Flickr.One example is walnut farming. Walnut trees, like apple and other trees, are generally farmed as chimeras. Each tree is made up of roots from one variety (called a rootstock) and the crown from another variety (called a scion). They are grafted together to ensure that each tree has strong roots and good fruit (breeding for both is a lot harder than breeding for one or the other).

Walnut trees in some areas are devastated by a certain type of nematode, which conventional farmers kill with soil fumigation. There is no organic counterpart to the fumigant, so organic walnuts are very difficult and expensive to produce in these areas. A rootstock resistant to the nematodes could be developed with genetic engineering (probably using RNAi that targets a specific nematode pathway) and grafted to a non-GM scion.

The walnuts themselves come from the crown, so wouldn’t be GM. Whether or not they are organic would be up to the regulators to decide, but they would certainly be lower in price and higher quality than walnuts not grown this way, and would be more sustainable than conventional walnuts.

Another example is GM papaya. Papaya plants are crippled by a virus that has become common. The only known way to control the virus to genetically engineer the plant to be resistant. The GM plants can be used in organic papaya farming by planting them around an organic plot. The GM plants serve as a barrier, so the non-GM plants don’t get sick.

For an in depth explanation of both of these examples, check out Tomorrow’s Table.

Just think of the good that could be accomplished if all farmers were at least introduced to this creative way of thinking! I wonder if I can get something going at Iowa State…

William Anderson, Professor of Agronomy at the University of Wisconsin at River Falls, is also considering the benefits of such collaboration. His research, which appears in the Journal of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Education, was essentially a survey given to students before and after a sustainable agriculture course. After the course, students better understood both sustainable agriculture and genetic engineering.

My one complaint with his methodology is that they may have gone too much to extremes in their selection of “two textbooks that differed greatly in the presentation of sustainability concepts”. I don’t feel that Saving the Planet with Pesticides and Plastic by Dennis T. Avery or Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture edited by Andrew Kimbrel are very good representatives of their repective topics, as both are too fundamentalist, failing to recognize any benefits of the opposing ideology, and depending too much on deception and propaganda. I suppose that was the point, though.

If I was to design a course like this, I would attempt to choose textbooks that discuss each topic without railing too much on the opposing side. If I was teaching a course in politics, I certainly wouldn’t assign anything by Ann Coulter. A variety of summaries of the paper College Students’ View of Biotechnology Products and Practices in Sustainable Agriculture Systems (pdf) can be found, but I don’t think they effectively grasp the ideas in the paper. If nothing else, I recommend that you take a look at the survey Dr. Anderson gave to students along with the average answers before and after the course. He concludes his paper by saying:

This author feels that it is critically important for faculty to expose today’s students to both sustainable agricultural systems and agricultural biotechnology without introducing personal biases. Students should be encouraged to hear contrasting opinions as well as express their own opinions. They should interject their own educated voices into the evolving debate.

He makes a strong point – students need to be able to hear information from many sources without the introduction of bias. It’s time to set aside the stereotypes and move forward to produce food, fuel, and fiber in the best possible ways.

Ronald Herring also promotes the idea that we need to separate past problems (real or perceived) from our future decisions regarding sustainability and biotechnology. We need “more splitting and less lumping”. See Herring’s article Opposition to transgenic technologies: ideology, interests and collective action frames, or my comments Science and Emotion for more on the subject.