Technology seen as boost to agriculture


POSTED: Saturday, February 21, 2009

Can organic farming and genetic engineering coexist?

For most of us, organic farming and genetic engineering represent two extreme ends of the agricultural spectrum. Are they really so mutually exclusive? A University of California geneticist and her organic-farmer husband insist that these two agricultural technologies can and should work together.

In their book, “;Tomorrow's Table,”; Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak present a convincing and balanced case for both organic farming and genetic engineering to play essential roles in future sustainable food production that is environmentally friendly.

Question: What are the advantages and disadvantages of organic farming?

Answer: The most obvious advantages are reduced use of pesticides and synthetic chemical fertilizers. Enhanced soil quality and environmental friendliness are among the many other advantages. But crop yields are generally lower and less predictable with organic practices. And some “;natural”; pesticides such as rotenone are used in organic farming and can leave toxic pesticide residues on crops.

Q: What is genetic engineering?

A: Genetic engineering, or GE, is a fast-track way to develop plants with specific desired characteristics. Since the beginning of agriculture, farmers have been selecting plants with desired traits and cross-breeding them with similar varieties to develop new plants with properties never before found in nature.

This has been somewhat of a shotgun approach because traditional cross-breeding involves mixing thousands of genes in one plant with thousands of genes in another. Consequently, failure to obtain the desired traits is much more common than success.

GE allows plant breeders to greatly shorten the time it takes to develop new varieties with desired characteristics. One of Ronald's projects involved the development of a rice variety that could survive heavy flooding. This was accomplished by finding a specific gene in an old rice variety that could survive for two weeks under water but had a low yield. The gene was then introduced into the DNA of high-yielding rice varieties, giving them the flood tolerance trait.

Q: Isn't GE food dangerous?

A: Ronald and Adamchak state that based on good science, foods made from current GE crops are no more risky than any other foods we eat.

Q: Are GE crops dangerous to the environment?

A: “;Tomorrow's Table”; encourages good science and tight regulation of GE practices but stresses that GE crops can protect the environment. For example, many GE crops are designed to reduce pesticide use.


Joannie Dobbs, Ph.D., C.N.S., and Alan Titchenal, Ph.D., C.N.S., are nutritionists in the Department of Human Nutrition, Food and Animal Sciences, College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, University of Hawaii-Manoa. Dobbs also works with University Health Services.