Sunday, March 19, 2017

Organic Activists Realize Hypocrisy On Gene Editing and Biotech

There is a segment of the organic movement that wants to get their ducks in a row so that they can oppose gene editing technologies without hypocrisy. Quote:

“Without regulatory review” is bad enough. But to allow the use of mutagenesis, a process that involves “dousing seeds with chemicals,” in organic is a serious breach of consumer trust in the USDA organic certification program.”

Well no kidding. Not that I agree that this is a concern for safety, but its always been odd to me that recombinant DNA technologies would be ineligible for certified organic labeling (especially when Bt traits would make it much easier to exclude pesticides) while the gross number of other foods produced via mutagenesis were perfectly fine. Perhaps this cognitive dissonance was just fine until recent advances in gene editing technologies like CRISPR-Cas9. With the FDA taking comments regarding regulation of gene editing in new plant varieties, this is likely not a coincidence. 

As I stated in my comments:

"Similar to organically certified crop varieties that use chemical and radiological methods to create in-genome changes, gene edited technologies operate within genome, vs. across species.  (one popular example of gene editing includes the CRISPR-Cas9 system).  Unlike mutagenic approaches used in organically approved plant breeding systems,  these in-genome tweaks are planned, controlled, and designed to bring about very specific outcomes."

This presents a problem. Of course the page I have linked to does not explicitly state this as their rationale, you can't oppose new technologies that are actually more precise and safer than the old technologies you stand by unappologetically. (I realize in terms of safety we are splitting hairs but those hairs represent lots of money and marketing opportunities). So I don't blame this group for trying to get everyone on the same page.  Another quote:

"How do you know if your organic food comes from mutant seeds? You don’t. If you buy local, you can ask your local farmer. Alternatively, you can avoid rice, wheat, barley, pears, cotton, peppermint, sunflowers and grapefruit. These are the only mutant crops that you could potentially find in the organic section."

Slim pickings if you want to oppose gene editing with integrity.

See also: Fat Tails, the Precautionary Principle, and GMOs.

Friday, March 03, 2017

Positive Externalities and Spillovers of Conventional Food Production on Organic Food

Jayson Lusk recently pointed out that making large scale organic work (i.e. read if we want more access to organic food that means 'large scale') we need large scale conventional producers:

"Indeed, if one wants large scale organic, it almost certainly implies (given the current population) the need for large scale non-organic.  All that life-supporting nitrogen has to come from somewhere.  Until we find a better way, right now it is coming from Haber and Bosch and is smuggled into organic agriculture via animal manure. "

So organic thrives on positive externalities related to N use in conventional production. 

Let's not forget the positive externalities of biotech traits....which not only help conventional producers use fewer pesticides but also help organic producers get by without sytnthetics:

Positive Externalities of Biotech Bt Traits on Non-Biotech Crops and Non Target Insects 

Note: To be more precise, externalities represent uncompensated benefits so technically the benefits related to N use might not be true 'positive externalities.' The point is the importance of the interdependence between production systems that have been overlooked by a broader segment of the public.

Vance Crowe and Shark Farmer Discuss Ag Outreach and Communication

Previously the ag industry and companies like Monsanto seemed to have a focus on a one-size fits all solution to crop protection and seeds. Although research indicates significant diversity within species existed in the age of hybrid corn, this was the era in which old school arguments about monoculture probably dug in along with the other critcisms that go along with 'big ag.'

With the convergence of big data and genomics, row crop agriculture is transforming. Its not your grandparent's monoculture anymore. Companies like Monsanto are both positioning themselves to compete in this new environment and playing a major role in the transformation.

Recently I discussed an interview on the Closing Market Report with Robb Fraley, Chief Technology Officer at Monsanto and the kind of people they are hiring to help lead this transformation. 

One challenge is, have those that have spent the last decade nostalgically and critically looking back at the way we used to do things missed this transformation? Will they be willing to embrace its benefits going forward.

This may be part of what Vance Crowe, Director of Millennial Engagement at Monsanto is trying to address in his role. Recently I discovered the Shark Farmer podcast, and Crowe was a guest in one of the archived episodes. One part of the conversation really got me interested. Here Vance is describing the challenge that he discovered during his job interview that made him really want the job he has:

"if the company is what everybody on the outside thinks it is then I get unfettered access...and if its not as dark as what people think it is then you have just stumbled upon one of the greatest problems of our age which is a really misunderstood company that is producing important technology that really has world changing impact that people really misunderstand"

I always wondered, how is it that people get so enamored with Apple and its great products or embrace hybrid car technology, self driving cars, or pay premiums for food at Chipotle and Whole Foods because they think they are doing great things for the environment while shunning Monsanto and all of its technologies which are basically cutting edge green technologies (see links below).  One thing they discussed in the podcast (my description not their words) was that historically the Monsanto that catered to yesterday's agriculture and had an obvious focus on its customer core, farmers, but did not really market to or emphasize outreach to consumers. I think that is an important and informing observation to make. And I think the solution going forward is a gate to plate strategy of communication, outreach, and transparency to help consumers at all levels better understand the transformation that is going on with modern sustainable agriculture.

See also:
Shark Farmer Podcast 
The Biotech Story: As told in the literature
The Convergence of Big Data and Genomics in Agriculture 
Not Your Grandparent's Monoculture
Hybrid Corn vs Hybrid Cars