Reilly Center Blog Post - Organic Biotech – The Pursuit of Green Genes

Author: Margaret Carroll Boardman

In spite of the common perception that organic and biotech foods are diametric opposites, a new group of scientists, farmers, and policymakers think that “organic biotech” represents the future.  They use this term to impart the concept that organic and biotech food producers share a common goal to reduce pesticides and achieve sustainable development.   As the term begins to appear regularly in print media, it offers a tantalizing hope that “green genes” are the solution to increased yields and an improved environment.  The concept is part of an intense global debate over future global food security.  In the United States, the fact that it has been rejected by representatives of the organic industry highlights the fierce competition between these two growing sectors of agriculture.

Last year, “organic biotech” was the subject of a routine U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) report written by Cyndi Barmore.  Entitled, “The Unexplored Potential of Organic-Biotech Production,” it drew attention because it concluded that “the divide between organics and biotechnology is an artificial construction maintained by ideology rather than science.”  This generated a firestorm of protest from the organic industry that included an organized campaign by the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), which eventually resulted in the report being expunged from the USDA website.

“Organic biotech” is also discussed by plant geneticist Pamela Ronald and her husband, organic farmer Raoul Adamchak in Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food (Oxford University Press, 2008) and “Green Genes” (Forbes, March 2010).  Ronald explains how the science behind gene-engineered (GE) crops is targeted at reducing pesticides and fertilizer, as well as reliance upon groundwater and irrigation. Adamchak provides insight into the challenges of organic farming including an honest assessment as to the uncertainty of how to increase yields to meet a larger percentage of the U.S. food market and at the same time address labor shortages, the increased need for organic fertilizer, and the potential need to expand farmland acreage.  Both authors conclude that “organic biotech” is the solution for the future because it combines organic farming techniques and the selective use of (GE) crops. 

While the sources above use “organic biotech” to emphasize common goals, this author sees it as also highlighting differences between the organic and biotech/GE food industries.  First, both the organic and biotech/GE food industries compete with one another for market share of the U.S. and global food market.  As the chart below demonstrates, in the United States, the acreage that is certified organic is quite small compared to the acreage planted with GE crops.  The chart also shows that acreage planted to GE crops is growing much quicker than organic acreage.  Given these statistics, it is quite understandable that the organic food industry would want to: 1) defend and grow its market share and 2) not dilute its organic brand by allowing GE crops to be certified organic.    


Total U.S. Certified Organic Acreage

Total U.S. GE Acreage








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Source: Margaret C. Boardman, “The Fight Against World Hunger: Phase II of the Green Revolution,” presented at the University of Notre Dame, 11 February 2009.

Second, from a historical perspective, competition between the organic and biotech/GE food industries can be attributed to the fact that both are relatively new contributors to the U.S. economy.  The impetus for both industries began in the period between the 1950s and 1970s.  For the organic food industry, Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring published in 1962 set a benchmark with its exposure of the environmental damage caused by DDT.  Its findings influenced a new generation of farmers who started up small organic farms as part of the “Back to the Land” movement of the 1970s.  The biotech/GE food industry’s foundation began with the discovery of the double-helix model of DNA structure in the 1950s.  In 1975, scientists at the Asilomar Conference set voluntarily recombinant DNA experimentation regulations. 

In the 1980s, both industries achieved important milestones.  Organic farming received it first series of national recognitions from the USDA, U.S. Congress and the National Academy of Sciences.  For the biotech/GE food industry, in 1980 the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling that genetically altered life could be patented.  In 1986, the executive Office of Science & Technology Policy created a “Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology” overseen by the USDA, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Food & Drug Administration.  In 1987, the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the transferring of genes between species posed no serious environmental hazard.     

Full national recognition did not come to the organic food industry until the 1990s.  Under The Organic Food Production Act of 1990 the USDA was required to develop a national standard for organic produce.  The National Organic Standards Board was created in 1992 and tasked to create a federal regulatory framework governing organic food including terms for the “USDA organic” label.  Negotiations were contentious and ultimately took ten years.  They involved synthesizing standards already being adhered to be 40 different non-governmental organizations and state organic certifiers. 

In 1996, the Clinton administration authorized the first commercialized plantings of GE crops. When the first draft of the new organic crop rules was released in December 1997, it included steps for certifying GE crops as organic.  Organic industry lobbyists campaigned to eliminate GE crops from certification.  They were successful for when the final rules were completed in 2002, GE crops were not included.  

Given the historical background of the national organic certification standards, it is highly unlikely that GE crops will ever be certified as organic.  Today, the market is divided between organic, GE, and conventionally produced foods.  In this structure, organic foods represent the selective brand, the one that wealthier consumers chose to purchase.  What is often not explained to the general public is that a widespread adoption of organic agriculture will require a serious reallocation of labor, capital, and possibly land resources.  Related financial, societal and environment costs need to be studied and compared to other agricultural methods.

In the “organic biotech” debate, public opinion has focused on the unknown health and environmental dangers posed by GE crops and not the challenges posed by expanding organic agriculture.  In the past decade, nations around the world have passed biosafety laws to restrict and regulate GE crops.  Each year, more is learned.  The next generation of GE crops is being developed with “precision engineering” and gene-markers.  Some of these technologies are “more natural,” simply speeding up the hybridization process, while others rely upon patented herbicides.  The global dissemination of gene-engineering technology is sparking competition between scientists working in the public and private sectors.  It is also generating greater scrutiny for final product approvals. 

In order to earn widespread public support for their work, the burden is on plant geneticists to explain “green gene” technology.  Tomorrow’s Table meets this challenge as it uses simple language that the general public can relate to and understand.  Other scientists need to follow this example.  They will only garner public acceptance for the concept of “organic, biotech, green genes” if they clearly explain the vital role science can play in sustainable development.

- Margaret Carroll Boardman