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Time for an organic-GM peace treaty

19-May-2008
Last updated the 30-Jan-2009 at 13:23 GMT

The war between the GM and organic movements has been bitterly fought. However in the midst of a global food crisis the time has come for these old enemies to bury their differences and concentrate on the benefits an alliance may bring.

With increasing food prices and an estimated 854 million undernourished people worldwide (FAO 2006 estimates), debate is raging over how to feed the world's growing population. The debate is, however, unhealthily polarised.

On the one side the organic proponents are advocating less technology and a return to more traditional farming methods which they promise will increase yields and reduce the unsustainable environmental load of current agricultural methods.

On the other side we have the GM supporters claiming the ability of the technology to produce higher yield crops that are resistant to pests and diseases, and may help farmers adapt to future changes in climate.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, we are after all dealing with big business - the organic movement included, each side is promoting its corner with almost religious zeal.

Within such a climate it is almost unthinkable that organic agriculture and GM technology may sit side by side, and could even complement each other. But in the absence of convincing scientific evidence of dangers to the environment and human health there is no reason why these two historical foes should not live together in peaceful harmony.

Plant pathologist, Pamela Ronald, working at the University of California in Davis, believes combining the two approaches is the future of global food production. Genetically modified seeds grown using organic agricultural methods can significantly increase yields whilst reducing the use of environmentally damaging chemicals, she says.

This hypothesis is not dissimilar from the conclusion of the recently published IAASTD (International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development) report.

This two year intergovernmental project was designed to investigate the role agricultural science, knowledge and technology can play in reducing world poverty. The report concluded that a complete agricultural revolution is needed where agriculture is no longer thought of as production alone.

This was of course music to the organic movement's ears which has been advocating a holistic approach to solve food security for some time. However what was evidently less palatable to some, and has been frankly ignored by others, was the recognition the report gave to the need for new tools, meaning increased investment in agricultural knowledge, science and technology, including biotechnology.

Unfortunately this relatively balanced conclusion has not been prominent in the reactions to the IAASTD report. Instead we have seen the usual polarisation of opinions that we have come to expect in this debate.

For example the UK-based organic certification body The Soil Association highlighted the recognition the report made of organic agriculture and concluded that it had 'raised doubts as to the GM industry's current claims to be the solution for either poverty, world hunger or climate change'.

Tom Wakeford, writing in the Guardian, suggested that as a result of the IAASTD conclusions policy makers should start eating 'GM humble pie'. The public has been proved right, 'GM crops are no panacea', he stated.

What seems to be woefully missing from these commentaries is any celebration in the conclusion that GM and organic may complement each other. Indeed, the reactions seem to reflect the belief that collaboration would signal failure, that the war would be lost if one side were to acknowledge the positive qualities of the other.

Commenting on the polarisation of the industries (and yes she thinks organic farming is at times no less of a profit hunting big business than GM) Ronald writes: "Pitting genetic engineering and organic farming against each other only prevents the transformative changes needed on our farms."
The exact contribution organic agricultural methods and genetic modification may have on future food production remains unknown. However, it is clear that continuing the battle for supremacy is not helpful. The stakes are high and it is humanity and its ability to feed itself that stand to benefit from intelligent, cooperative discussion on this subject.

Katie Bird is a science reporter writing on industry-related issues in several Decision News Media publications. If you would like to comment on this article, please e-mail Katie.Bird 'at' decisionnews.com.