‘I am an organic farmer – why can’t I use GM to save my potato crop?’

The captioned essay is by organic farmer Bry Lynas who happens to be the father of Mark Lynas. Like his son Mark, Bry Lynas was an anti-GM activist:

(…) I have undergone a slow conversion in my thinking over the last 15 years from strongly anti-GM to cautiously pro. Here, I want to explain why.

But as the years have passed and as it has become abundantly clear that people are not dying in droves because of GM, I’ve changed my mind. The famous economist John Maynard Keynes is alleged to have said to a critic who accused him of a U-turn, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” I am a scientist by training and so I constantly question and revise my views according to the evidence available. Sadly, the organic movement and other mainstream ‘green’ organisations remain as intransigent as ever in their views on genetic engineering: they seem to be stuck in a time warp 30 years out of date. Perhaps they, like politicians, don’t wish to be seen performing a U-turn despite good reasons for doing so.

Basically, I don’t understand why certain types of GM crops can’t be approved for use with organic systems. It’s hard enough growing organically as it is without constantly shooting yourself in the foot by refusing to move with the times. Let’s just take one example. Last year, potato blight struck early in the soggy, damp non-summer. The result was that my potato crop was about a quarter of what it normally is. Yet there is a blight resistant GM potato which has been developed in the public domain. If only I could have used that! But I can’t because it’s against the organic regulations and even if I wasn’t organic, I still wouldn’t be able to use it because of all the ‘green’ protests which have made sure that it never sees the light of day; not for organic growers nor for any conventional growers.

What’s so terrible about this potato? Is it Frankenfood? No, it’s just an ordinary potato with one gene inserted from a wild potato which happens to show resistance to the dreaded Phytophthera infestans, the fungal late blight which caused the Irish potato famine in the 1840s when over a million people died of starvation. Alarmingly  the fungus has begun to reproduce sexually over recent years which makes it much more virulent. It had previously reproduced itself asexually and was relatively easily controlled by spraying fungicides or growing somewhat resistant potato varieties.

So why not embrace this GM potato? The introduced gene comes from the same genus – Solanum – and so is not even transgenic. Why is this potato ‘bad’ whereas the blight resistant Sárpo potato, bred over many years by conventional means, is good? (I was growing a Sárpo variety and it succumbed to the blight like the others.)  Of course, blight resistant GM potatoes, like the Sárpo varieties, will sooner or later be overcome by P. infestans. It’s an arms race and this is where GM potatoes can leap ahead because it only takes a year or two to splice blight resistance into the genome and grow the resulting plant. It took the Sarvari family, who developed the Sárpo potatoes, some 40 years of careful selection of resistance traits to produce truly blight resistant varieties. As Pamela Ronald, Professor of Plant Pathology and Chair of the Plant Genomics Program at the University of California, Davis says: “To meet the appetites of the world’s population without drastically hurting the environment requires a visionary new approach: combining genetic engineering and organic farming”. She and her husband co-authored ‘Tomorrow’s Table’ which, argues Stewart Brand, makes “a persuasive case that, far from contradictory, the merging of genetic engineering and organic farming offers our best shot at truly sustainable agriculture”. 

3 thoughts on “‘I am an organic farmer – why can’t I use GM to save my potato crop?’

  1. I think this is an excellent example of the kind of real issues farmers face. It is too bad no one has tweeted you…I would love to read the responses!

  2. Thanks – it is exactly such an issue. Look for the comments on Mark Lynas’ tweet which I followed to find his dad’s essay:

    ‘I am an organic farmer – why can’t I use GM to save my potato crop?’ – by Bry Lynas (my dad) http://t.co/iiTQjetB

    Both Mark and his Dad have invested enough time to understand the science of alternative ways to bend nature to human requirements. Both have shifted from anti- to pro-GMO (of course, we are all “cautious”).

  3. genetic modificaton is not only bad and to condemn,
    especially in medicinal issues (i’m a diabetic and very thankful for the modern comforts of e.g. genetic engeneered insulin).
    but one has to balance the pros and cons accurately.

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