Labels multiply in supermarkets faster than salmonella at a convenience-store sushi bar. It’s important to keep up; we should all be well-informed eaters. But the onslaught of clean food, natural products, sustainably produced, gluten free, butterflies everywhere, and GMO-free sea salt are just too much. The average consumer is overwhelmed by all the words and symbols.
It’s about to get worse, because the National Organic Standards Board, the group responsible for the USDA “organic” label, is splintering. There’s a fight between hydroponic producers who want the organic label and more-traditional producers who think hydroponic shouldn’t qualify, as well as disagreement between smaller and larger organic producers. All have their own organizations, sincerely and earnestly arguing over who should qualify for the price premium flowing to organic farmers.
The Coalition for Sustainable Organics, which should get style points for the most buzzwords in a name, has weighed in with a statement: “The CSO would not support efforts that may denigrate fellow organic farmers by claiming their various production methods are superior.” That’s fairly precious, as we all know that present food labels are in no way intended to imply superiority over products without one or more of these ubiquitous labels.
Meanwhile, back at the lab, a recent Italian paper reviewing over 6,000 studies and 20 years of data found that genetic modification has increased corn yields anywhere from 6 to 25 percent, while decreasing the presence of cancer-causing mycotoxins by a third. Another recent study found increased production in corn, soybeans, and canola resulting from the use of GMOs.
Scientists are experimenting with genetically modified rice and wheat varieties that have the potential to increase yields by 50 percent. Researchers are close to increasing the efficiency of photosynthesis in a number of crops, including crops important to tropical agriculture.
All these advances have come and are coming from traditional genetic modification, with its attendant consumer-acceptance problems, regulatory burdens, and extremely high costs of development and licensing. But CRISPR, a new gene-editing technique, offers an end run around the cost associated with traditional genetic engineering, allowing smaller companies and public institutions to enter the market. Not only that, but crops with a market too small to be of interest to GM researchers are now in play.
Research is also being accelerated because the capital costs to participate are dropping. In 2001, it cost $100 million to sequence a genome. By 2015, the cost had declined to $1,000. The continuing decline in the cost of computing and cloud data storage has allowed small companies to maintain data sets that a decade ago could have been supported only by the Monsantos of the world.
Google CRISPR, and you’ll find websites promising to set you up in the gene-editing business for just a few dollars. Most of us won’t start parking our cars outside to embark upon gene editing in our garage, but broad access to these technologies is changing the world of research in ways that we can’t even begin to grasp.
Most of us won’t start parking our cars outside to embark upon gene editing in our garage, but broad access to these technologies is changing the world of research in ways that we can’t even begin to grasp.
CRISPR has already allowed the development of naturally polled (no horns) dairy cows and a strain of pigs resistant to PRRS, a swine disease that costs the pork industry hundreds of millions of dollars each year. Both of these technologies are in regulatory limbo, as an Obama-administration rule written in their last week in office has set a ridiculously high bar for the approval of gene-editing techniques in animals. The Obama rule is overkill because both of these breakthroughs came from editing existing genes in cattle and pigs.
CRISPR research is being done to increase yields, nutrients, and resistance to disease and pests, improve photosynthesis and drought tolerance, and develop plants that can thrive in a changing climate. Not all of these projects will be successful, and we’re a long way from a risk-based regulatory scheme that makes sense, but gene editing holds great promise.
Since 1960, the percentage of income spent on food in the United States has been cut nearly in half, due to a continued and relentless application of technology to agriculture. The new breeding techniques offer the promise that long-term positive trends in farming productivity and food prices will continue.
The groups arguing over labels have rejected the technologies that are responsible for the decrease in food prices. For much of the last century, increases in food production involved the addition of resources, from chemical fertilizers to crop-protection chemicals, that come with an environmental cost. While those costs pale in comparison with the benefits that we’ve received, including the generally accepted claim by Vaclav Smil that 40 percent of the people alive today owe their lives to the use of nitrogen fertilizer, organic production is an attempt to mitigate the harm done by the use of these inputs. Many consumers will pay more for labels attesting to that fact.
That tradeoff between added inputs and increased yields changed in the mid 1990s with the advent of the first genetically modified crops. We’ve seen a decline in environmental damage coupled with increased yields because of genetic engineering. CRISPR technology promises an acceleration of those benefits. The kind of advanced breeding rejected by organic purists offers an actual free lunch, increasing yields while decreasing the amount of environmental harm per bushel, pound, or meal.
It hardly seems necessary at this late date to point out the obvious, but I will anyway. Every regulatory agency in the world that has examined these breeding techniques has found them safe.
The price and productivity gap between organic crops and cutting-edge agriculture will only increase, while the difference in environmental outcomes will continue to shift in favor of producing more with less through advances made possible by gene editing. The keepers of the organic flame are nearing a schism, arguing over the equivalent of ancient texts, while modernity is solving the problems that created the demand for organic production in the first place.