The Organic Sectors ‘Zero Tolerance’ Approach to Gene-Editing May Seal Its Own Demise

a close up of a blue and purple structure

The rejection of gene editing by the organic lobby makes less sense every day—and even some of the industry’s best friends are starting to appreciate the case for this important new technology.

Gene editing introduces no foreign DNA in food. It can help reduce or eliminate the need for synthetic pesticides. And it’s immeasurably more precise and effective than older forms of mutation breeding using chemicals and radiation, which many organic farmers already accept.

Those who oppose gene editing may perceive some form of marketing advantage in remaining GE free, even if it consigns their farming systems to less productive, and in many cases more environmentally damaging, forms of food production.

But the jury is out on that one. Twenty-five years ago, scaring people about the hidden dangers of GMOs may have lifted organic sales, but the world is different today.

War in Ukraine, the pandemic, climate change, and spiraling food and energy costs have changed people’s outlook. The public is much more willing to embrace new food and farming technologies to tackle challenges of food security, health, and climate change.

This was evidenced in recent research conducted by the Food Standards Agency, which showed that almost two thirds of the consuming public would eat gene edited food if, for example, it offered health benefits (65%), was better for the environment (64%), was safer for people with allergies (64%), tasted better (62%), was cheaper (61%), or was more resilient to a changing climate (60%).

Surely those polling figures are remarkable, and a marketeer’s dream when bringing out a new product to find, pre-launch, that two-thirds of your potential customer base want to try it out.

And this is precisely how early applications of these techniques are being used.

To date, nine field trial notifications for gene edited crops in the UK have been announced by the Department of Food, Environment, and Rural Affairs since simplified arrangements were introduced in March last year for experimental release of gene edited plants. Virtually every application is focused on innovations which will improve our food supply, health, and environment, whether in terms of reducing food waste (pod-shatter resistant oilseed rape, non-browning potatoes), reducing pesticide use (late blight resistance in potatoes), healthier eating (Omega-3 enriched camelina, tomatoes higher in provitamin B3), or safer food (low-asparagine wheat).

In closing its mind to these technologies, the organic sector may be passing up a major opportunity to transform the productivity, sustainability and viability of its future farming systems.

This is particularly the case if, as is widely predicted, the use of gene editing rapidly becomes commonplace in conventional breeding, but remains prohibited under organic standards.

Thankfully, some voices within the organic industry are beginning to speak in favor of gene editing.

That certainly seems to be the position of Danish organic body Økologisk Landsforening (Organic Denmark), whose response to recently published EU plans for the future regulation of new genomic techniques (NGTs) questioned the proposed ban on NGTs in organic farming, suggesting that this position should be reviewed with such techniques expected to become widespread in conventional plant breeding.

Another leading proponent of organic agriculture, Swiss researcher Urs Niggli, who was director of the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) from 1990 to 2020, has also urged the European organic industry to change its position on gene editing to avoid being left behind.

In a recent interview with the German magazine Spektrum, Niggli acknowledged that “GMO-free” is a selling point for organic, and that organic associations have deliberately stoked the fear of molecular biological breeding methods in order to distinguish themselves on the market.

But he suggests that this view is outdated, with new gene editing techniques such as CRISPR-Cas9 enabling targeted mutations at individual sites of the genome, as happens all the time in nature or in conventional breeding. And while these changes can also occur in nature, with CRISPR-Cas9 breeding progress is much faster, bringing many advantages for agriculture and society, he says.

Niggli warns 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 such as reliance on copper-based fungicides for disease control.

Meanwhile he predicts that gene edited crop varieties will become the norm in five to ten years, led by the Chinese and American markets, supporting a global trend to move away from manufactured nitrogen fertilizer and chemical pesticides. This would put organic farming in danger of being left behind, especially in terms of sustainability, according to Niggli.

This poses a major dilemma for the organic industry, since the viability of organic farming when practiced at scale hinges critically on routine access to non-organic inputs under “emergency” derogations where the equivalent inputs are not available in organic form.

Although organic consumers paying a hefty premium may be blissfully unaware, there are many examples of situations in which organic producers rely on non-organic inputs of seed, feed, forage, youngstock, breeding stock, antibiotics, and anthelmintics.

Last year, for example, despite a long-term decline in the area farmed organically in the UK, authorizations of non-organic seed use by organic sector bodies reached a record high, at more than 17,000 individual derogations.

If the organic sector maintains its “zero tolerance” approach to gene editing, while these techniques become routinely used in mainstream plant breeding, such derogations will no longer be available. Organic growers will be left with older genetics gradually becoming more and more outclassed, more prone to disease and pest infestation, further widening the productivity gap between organic and non-organic.

So I urge the organic sector to open its mind to the potential opportunities offered by these technologies and listen to the advice of their friends in Denmark and Switzerland.

What is there to lose?

There’s an awful lot to gain.

Featured image photo by Sangharsh Lohakare

Paul M. Temple

Paul M. Temple

Paul Temple volunteers as a board member for the Global Farmer Network and farms in the north of England in the United Kingdom. The farm practices conservation agriculture on a mixed beef and arable family farm. Paul grows wheat for seed, barley, oilseed rape, vining peas and beans. They've recently added grass leys back into the arable rotation. On the beef side they utilise a wide range of environmental grasses with suckler cattle, rearing calves that are either fattened or sold as stores. Additionally, the farm is in a high level environmental scheme with educational access.

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