I emailed Ronald and Adamchak with some questions and Adamchak took time out of their vacation to answer a few:
Q: What do you see as the major misconceptions of GE among the public?
Adamchak: GE is a tool that can help agriculture reduce pesticide use, reduce crop loss, reduce harmful environmental inputs, and help reduce soil erosion. Sometimes it is the most appropriate tool, sometimes not. What is important is building a more sustainable agricultural system. In the US a few corporations have dominated the use of this technology, but in China, India, Brazil, Korea, Argentina and other countries where feeding their population is a critical problem, the governments and universities are developing GE crops.
Q: Is your GE research different from that done by commercial companies like Monsanto?
Adamchak: Pam does basic research on plant/pest or stress interactions. Her intent is to broaden the understanding of how plants and pests signal each other at the molecular level.
Q: How high is the probability that “drift” will contaminate non-GE crops?
Adamchak: It depends on the crop. Some are self-pollinating and some are pollinated by wind or insects. Some crops are harvested before flowering, some after. What does contaminate mean? If the traits encoded by the inserted genes are harmless to humans and environment and improve the sustainability of agriculture, what is being contaminated? All crop systems that are improving sustainability need to be able to coexist. Researchers, regulators, and farmers need to work together to make that happen.
Q: How much “non-commercial” research is being done by other public institutions/scientists?
Adamchak: If you look at university plant genetics labs all over the country, you will find 90% of the students are from other countries. As I said above, China, India, Korea, countries in South America, want to be able to use this technology.
Q: How successful have you been in combining organic farming with GE?
Adamchak: Because National Organic Standards prohibit the use of GE crops, there are no certified organic farms that can use them. Therefore, the only combining of these technologies is being done on conventional farms that have integrated leguminous cover crops, compost, or integrated pest management systems into their GE cropping systems in order to meet their goals for improved sustainability. The best example of combining organic farming practices and GE crops is work that was done by Professor Matt Liebman of Iowa State University. In an effort to see if the conventional herbicide tolerant GE corn/soybean rotation in the midwest could be made more sustainable, he added a small grain and alfalfa to rotation and used compost to supplement fertility. With this system he was able to reduce herbicide use by 82% and synthetic N use by 74%, while maintaining yields and economic return.
Q: If this combo of technology and conventional organic farming gains widespread acceptance, how long do you see before it becomes a viable method on a large scale?
Adamchak: That is a big “if”. The more large scale growers are committed to reducing harmful environmental inputs and soil erosion, the sooner the combinations of organic farming practices and GE crops will be widespread.
Q: How does GE differ from conventional breeding and what are the drawbacks or “dangers” of both methods, if any.
Adamchak: I hope you can get this answer from our book. The National Academy of Science in the US, the Royal Academy, the French Academy, and EU commissions have all found that the risks of GE crops are same as conventionally bred crops.
Q: How is GE viewed by other scientists outside of the biotech community?
Adamchak: Most scientists believe in the integrity of peer reviewed science. Since the peer reviewed scientific process has shown that GE crops are safe and have been used for 15 years on billions of acres with no environmental or human harm, most scientists think that the use of GE crops can provide benefits to agricultural systems.
Q: How much, if any, resistance have you got from the organic farming community?
Adamchak: The organic farming community has not supported this idea. Some members of the community think that we are advocating using GE crops in certified organic systems, but we are not. We are advocating using organic farming practices in GE and conventional farming systems in order to improve their sustainability. Coexistence is also a challenging concept for the organic community. It will take effort on the parts of all participants to make it work on a case by case basis, but can be done.
There is no argument that a radical change needs to happen in modern agriculture. Corporate ownership of the food supply is not the answer and neither is small scale organic farming. (In the last 15 years, conventional organic farming is still only 3% of our food supply) Ronald and Adamchak have seemed to come up with a solution, but have come up against the agricultural Luddites.
Farming doesn’t have to be the province of corporations, but too many AGMs are throwing the baby out with the bathwater by not even entertaining the idea of responsible GM combined with organic and conventional farming.
Approval of GM crops is a long, tortured, expensive process which few universities and small companies have the wherewithal to pursue. Ironically, it is these very rules the AGMs support even though it gives large agribusiness a lock on the method.
There is no doubt that Monsanto, Syngenta and others are greedy multinationals. But why let them control the food of the future? AGMs need to embrace the new technology instead of acting like frightened, superstitious villagers.
Dr. Ralph Scorza from the USDA Appalachian Fruit Research Station said that when farmers and consumers have no choice, then the new technologies will be accepted.