Organic Panic: is farming with genetically modified material more sustainable than organic farming?
A Bayer model for GMO and organic scientific outreach programs
***Note: This webpage is for instructional purposes only and was not actually commissioned by the Bayer company.
Hypothetical task force Report and Outreach Model for the Bayer Marketing Divisions of the Departments of Crop Sciences, Consumer Health, and Pharmaceuticals.
Bayer Task Force Members:
Dorian Buening, Department of North America Crop Sciences
Madison Hummel, Department of North America Crop Sciences, Marketing Division
The Bayer™ company has enlisted a task force with only the most qualified outreach representatives to address the negative portrayal of agricultural genetic engineering in the mass media pertaining to the social, economic, and environmental aspects. The representatives are expected to review the arguments surrounding the agriculture of genetic engineering and organic farming using the most updated scientific literature available. The research will seek to answer how the sustainability of farming using genetic engineering compares to that of organic farming. Additionally, another question that will be answered is whether these two systems can act together to optimize sustainability. The representatives are expected to highlight in their report the welfare of the consumer, the economic risks of technology development, and the environmental impacts. The task force will host outreach programs available to all groups across the United States and will post the schedule and locations by mid-May 2021. Members of the task force reviewed the literature, discussed the scientific findings, and interpreted publications in order to produce the report. An executive summary of the report will be made available as a publicly available web page (see below).
Abstract | Introduction | Data Collection Methodology | Perception of GMOs in Social Media | GMOs and Agriculture | Hybridization of the Two Systems| A Model for Science Outreach | Conclusions | Citations
Farmers are presented with a choice every year: GMO or Organic. It may seem innocuous but there are pros and cons to both sides, and there isn’t always a clear choice. The goal of our program is to educate the general public on each set of issues so that they can make informed decisions in their day-to-day life. GMOs have poor perception in the public eye due to rampant misinformation and a lack of educational opportunities, while organics are idolized for unfounded health claims while simultaneously being scarcer and more expensive; it is strongly the belief of Bayer that a blended “orgenic” approach is truly the best solution for issues of economic, social and environmental sustainability. Analyzing data regarding both sides, and utilizing the benefits of both systems in a blended format confers maximum benefits with minimal risk, and offers long-standing sustainable benefits.
The USDA finds “Organic” to be defined as “produce grow on soil that had no prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest” and excludes GMO products (McEvoy, 2019). The list of prohibited substances includes many herbicides, fungicides, synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides, among other substances, a full list can be found here. Organic farmers often purport their practices to be more sustainable than conventional and GMO methodologies.
The middle part about misinformation
Most notably, farming practices have been associated with lower yields of up to 75-80% (Niggli, 2015; McDivitt, 2019). This lower yield indicates that a much larger proportion of labor and land must be dedicated to the same amount of organic produce as compared to conventional practices. Due to these considerations, organic products are often correlated with higher price tags - posing a risk of economic unsustainability. However, organics have been found to be beneficial in a number of areas however, from increased biodiversity and efficiency of ecological compensation areas to being correlated with decreased nitrogen pollution and increased CO2 and CO2 equivalent sequestration (Niggli, 2015).
Organic products: seen advertised on everything from fresh herbs to clothing, and hailed in society as a “better” alternative to mass-manufactured products; to choose the latter would harm the planet and increase health-related risks. Organic farming involves crop and animal production without the use of pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, or advanced technologies. These mass-manufactured products are usually genetically modified, a process through which dire technology is used to impart a genetic aspect of one animal/plant into another. Despite the endless contributions to caloric and nutritional biomass, the viability of crops in adverse conditions, and medicine, genetic engineering is viewed negatively in society, most likely due to the general misunderstanding of the technology. Unfortunately, food security and malnutrition issues arise when individuals cannot obtain a stable intake of nutrients and calories, and result from inaccessibility to resources. Genetic engineering can help solve this issue by providing higher crop yield, denser nutritional content, and adaptability to extreme conditions. Increasing the prevalence of this technology would require increased social acceptability, but the distrust in society presents itself as an obstacle.
In order to gain public support, this technology will be discussed in terms of its risks and benefits to sustainable agriculture and compared to that of organic farming. Difficulties in analyzing and comparing these data include measurably defining a genetically modified organism (GMO) or organic product, and making appropriate assumptions. Data collection focuses primarily on crop agriculture in developed countries, as this technology is not easily accessible to developing countries. Since sustainability is a complex problem, it is crucial to define what “better” is and to consider optimized systems of mixed methods. Here we aim to answer several questions pertaining to the sustainability of GM and organic crops and to offer a possible solution to this issue by considering a system that combines organic practices with genetic engineering.
The key questions addressed in this study included:
As representatives of Bayer, we recognize the inherent bias we would have towards genetic engineering. In order to prevent this bias from affecting the analysis, the collected data will describe the social, economic, and environmental risks and benefits of both systems. The goal is to identify the strengths and weaknesses of both systems, dispel any false claims within the community, and compare them in terms of sustainability. The results and interpretations of these data will be presented through the lens of a public outreach program in order to address the large distrust of genetic engineering within the community. “Consumer acceptance is conditioned by the risk that they perceive from introducing food into their consumption habits processed through technology that they hardly understand” (Bawa, 2013). By interacting with consumers directly in an environment that facilitates learning and encourages open discussion, we hope to diminish the fear and negativity associated with genetically engineered products.
We reviewed data from a number of reliable, peer-reviewed sources in search of viable figures and statistics. These sources were pulled from scholarly sources, such as AGRICOLA, ScienceDirect, and Google Scholar, and assessed for relevance based on the goals of the team. The data were then statistically analyzed for evidence surrounding the sustainability of GMOs vs organic products in farming. Given that this is a theoretical study utilizing pre-collected data, Bayer additionally hopes to use the results found herein as a litmus test for future, more costly, and comprehensive primary endeavors of research. Examples of misrepresentation of GMO and organic products were pulled from social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, based on the popularity and validity of the claims.
The collected data were filtered such that only conventional farms that utilized transgenic and cisgenic modifications via biotechnology, organic farms that utilized organic practices and products, and organic farms that utilized GMOs were used.
Before we dive into the specifics of the data and determine how the information can be best conveyed to the audience, we first must assess how GMOs are portrayed in the media. Below are examples of Facebook posts from the GMO Free USA foundation, which will be briefly analyzed, but fact-checked in a later section (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Perception of GMOs in social media. All graphics were sourced from the GMO Free USA Facebook page. Figure A details “How to spot a GMO apple,” figure B details a study that found “Fragments of GMO DNA in [...] rats fed GMO feed,” figure C details “What’s in your corn,” and figure D details the “New pipeline of products” from Bayer.
In addition to the graphics, GMO Free USA also makes frequent statements about GMOs and Bayer specifically, of which one is analyzed below (Figure 2).
Figure 2. Critical statement on Bayer-Monsanto. This statement was sourced from the GMO Free USA Facebook page.
GMO Free USA contributes to a significant portion of online misinformation, and bases most of their claims on the article “Failure to Yield.”
Genetic engineering is defined as outlined by the Convention on Biological Diversity (an international “treaty” under which nearly every country on the globe has signed) as: “organisms modified by in vitro nucleic acid techniques, including recombinant DNA and direct injection of nucleic acid into cells or organelles, or fusion of cells beyond the taxonomic family” (Lombardo, 2016). The desired DNA (usually acquired from another organism or directly synthesized) and usually few choice enzymes are inserted into cells via a needle or through other techniques including usage of CRISPR/TALEN systems, gene guns and bacterial intermediaries, among other methodologies (Ceccarelli, 2014). Organisms produced by these genetic engineering practices are referred to as Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs.
In order to achieve the highest degree of sustainability, both systems should be exploited for their strengths by using organic farming practices in conjunction with yield-boosting GMO. Crop production that was previously ruled out in our analysis of the individual systems for utilizing GM crops operating under organic conditions have the potential to analyze these two systems in cooperation. Several methods can be used to achieve a genetically modified crop that still fulfills the criteria of being “organic.” Plants modified using Genome Editing with Engineered Nucleases (GEEN) technology may be deleted or inactivate DNA regions in order to change the behavior of the plant. By inactivating growth limiting genes or enzyme suppressors, or creating large-scale genome deletion, the end result of any given product can be drastically different. However, due to the definition of GMO requiring the addition of DNA, not deletion, the products would still be considered eligible for “organic” status. In 2016, APHIS ruled that a white button mushroom mutated using gene deletion methods from Penn State would not be regulated by the USDA (Firko, 2016). Other methods including Oligotide-Directed Mutagenesis, where site-specific mutations are induced in specific genomic regions- while the organism’s genome has been changed, no “unoriginal” DNA was inserted, and therefore the organisms are not considered transgenic and have been excluded from legislation targeting GMOs, such as Cibus LLC’s SU Canola and HT rapeseed oil plants (Lombardo, 2016). Through these advanced techniques, plants can not only be modified in ways to increase yields, but they can be modified in such a nuanced method that they would still be considered non-GMO and therefore eligible for “Organic” status. Bayer proposes a new classification of farming, a hybrid “Orgenic” solution, involving genetic engineering practices that complement organic farming. These plants would be engineered to increase yield, rather than to deter pests, in order to compensate for the decreased yield organic farms face when compared to conventional practices. They act as a major proponent on solving the food security crisis without increasing land usage (Ceccarelli, 2014). Orgenic plants are also able to overcome many of the shortcomings of traditional GM plants. For example, some crops can have inserted monogenic resistances for a specific disease, insect, or weed. Monogenic resistances inevitably fail over time. This creates an unstable dynamic in which GMO producers must continually innovate mechanisms as the threat of natural selection increases the chance of pests with a multitude of resistances, meanwhile minimizing costs on already expensive technology. Here, the only appropriate sustainable option for GM crops would be methods that promote polygenic resistance. The required mutations to survive are more complex than the abilities of evolution to provide resistance since multiple weak selective pressures require more successful random mutations than for single selective pressure. Much in the same way that antibiotic creams usually come as a trio of antibiotics, any given bacteria may develop resistance to one, but developing resistance to all three is impossible (Ceccarelli, 2014).
In order to overcome the barriers of public opinion, our task force researched different strategies for effective science outreach in order to increase public support and education about the technology. The model utilized here is a science outreach event for all backgrounds, which aims to cultivate an open discussion and active participation. The goal of science communications should be to inform the public about the risks, benefits, and other costs of their decisions to allow them to make sound decisions; while limiting erroneous assumptions about the publics’ background and learning behaviors (Fischoff, 2013). The objective of this program would be to decrease the anxiety surrounding GMOs and improve brand representation by taking an active part in the community.
Science outreach programs may contain a variety of activities and approaches in which information can be exchanged between the public and scientists, and ought to increase capacity, create mutual trust, and achieve a shared understanding of the relevant science (Varner, 2014). In order to maximize public interaction, we plan to host the event in an online format, of which has its own challenges. The “Ten Rules for Effective Online Outreach” were reviewed and, if applicable, interpreted as follows (Bik, 2015):
Rule 2) Be strategic and be deliberate
In the interest of building trust and understanding with the community, we hope to educate about the pros and cons of organic and GMO practices in the short term, while in the long term we hope to shepherd communities towards adopting more sustainable practices utilizing Bayer technologies.
Rule 3) Find your niche and story
Bayer aims to focus on Outreach, not Inreach. By expanding the locus of the conversation to new people who have new ideas, thoughts and experiences, we can spread understanding while also gaining some ourselves. Encouraging others to comprehend the technology can foster a culture of understanding and teaching that will last a lifetime.
Rule 6) Focus on the story
Communication of the material is not enough to effectively reach our audience: we have to communicate our passion for science. Genetic engineering is a technology that demands appreciation and respect, as it pushes the frontiers of knowledge and our understanding of the natural world.
Rule 7) Leverage multiple tools to disseminate content and build up your network
This rule vies for effective social media engagement, which includes participation in discussions with our key audience. This will be addressed by creating subsequent social media accounts, such as Twitter, Facebook, and/or Instagram, and assigning a social media coordinator.
Rule 10) Create prestige for public scholarships
As of March 17th, 2021, Bayer has launched an Opportunity Scholarship Program for Students graduating Grade 12. We believe in giving back to the community, and in supporting students and helping them on their post-secondary journey (Bayer, 2021).
We used the concrete framework provided by Johanna Varner to develop a model for a highly adaptable online science outreach program for education on GMO and organic farming (Figure 3).
Figure 3. Varner’s concrete, evidence-based, iterative model for scientific outreach. Development, implementation, and evaluation are the three main sections of this model. The development section seeks to define the goals, collaborations, and audience that we will be catering to. The implementation section seeks to create dynamic activities and formative assessments to ultimately facilitate a conversation and identify misconceptions not previously encountered. The evaluation section seeks to reflect on the session as a whole and identify weaknesses and strategies to improve future sessions.
The outline for the proposed dynamic activity of the program consists of three parts, a story part, an interactive part, and a survey part, and will be broken down as follows:
The program will be conducted over Zoom and is expected to take less than half an hour to complete, although the format may be adapted to fit a longer or shorter period. The first part of the program will be conducted to gauge the level of understanding of the audience. The second part will be conducted to allow the participants to move to any of the six topics/”rooms.” Outreach members will move throughout each room to either facilitate discussion or answer questions. The objective is to allow participants to freely discuss the material without interjection or correction, but to be able to clarify concepts if needed.
The research and our findings showed that genetically engineered crops are currently less sustainable than Organics in all categories except yield, but have the potential to better sustainability; that GMOs pose significant risks to biodiversity, limiting pest resistances, and allergenicity of products; that organic products pose fewer risks to these factors, however, cross-contamination with neighboring crops may occur and affect health; and that by using outreach programs to conduct one-on-one interactions with the technology and breed a productive and welcoming discussion.
Bik, H. M., Dove, A. D. M., Goldstein, M. C., Helm, R. R., MacPherson, R., Martini, K., Warneke, A., McClain, C. (2015, April 16). Ten Simple Rules for Effective Online Outreach. PLOS Computational Biology. https://www.academia.edu/12883155/Ten_Simple_Rules_for_Effective_Online_Outreach.
Ceccarelli, S. (2014). GM Crops, Organic Agriculture and Breeding for Sustainability. Sustainability, 6(7), 4273–4286. MDPI AG.
Fischhoff B.. The sciences of science communication, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2013, vol. 110 (pg. 14033-14039).
GMO Free USA. (2021). Introduction to GMOs. Retrieved from https://gmofreeusa.org/education/introduction-to-gmos/.
Heckel, D. G. (2020). How do toxins frombacillus thuringiensiskill insects? An evolutionary perspective. Archives of Insect Biochemistry and Physiology, 104(2). doi:10.1002/arch.21673
Firko, M. J. (2016). Re: Request for confirmation that transgene-free, CRISPR-edited mushroom is not a regulated article . Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Riverdale, MD; Biotechnology Regulatory Services.
Funk, C., & Kennedy, B. (2016). (publication). The new food fights: U.S. public divides over food science. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/
Lombardo, L., & Zelasco, S. (2016). Biotech Approaches to Overcome the Limitations of Using Transgenic Plants in Organic Farming. Sustainability, 8(5), 497. MDPI AG.
McDivitt, P. (2019, October 18). Does GMO Corn increase crop Yields? 21 years of data confirm it Does-and provides substantial health benefits. https://geneticliteracyproject.org/2018/02/19/gmo-corns-yield-human-health-benefits-vindicated-21-years-studies/
McEvoy, M. (2019). Organic 101: What the USDA organic label means. https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2012/03/22/organic-101-what-usda-organic-label-means.
Niggli, U. (2015). Sustainability of organic food production: challenges and innovations. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 74(1), 83-88.
Varner, J. (2014). Scientific Outreach: Toward Effective Public Engagement with Biological Science. BioScience, 64(4), 333–340. https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/biu021.
About the Authors:
Dorian is a junior Genetics major with a passion for GMO projects. Taking his inspirations from the 1993 sci fi film Jurassic Park, Dorian hopes to one day take part in a de-extinction project. He maintains that GM practices can be wielded responsibly and hopes to make great changes in the field - after all, it wasn't Dr. Wu's fault the T-Rex got out, that's Nedry's problem.
Madison is a senior Biochemistry major who enjoys the topics of GMOs. Aspiring for a world where food insecurity is minimized, yield increasing GMOs are a major motivator for her interests. Allegedly, she has never seen or read Jurassic Park.
Pesticides - a substance used for destroying insects or other organisms harmful to cultivated plants or to animals
Herbicides - a substance that is toxic to plants, used to destroy unwanted vegetation.
Inorganic fertilizer - synthetically manufactured organic compounds and minerals used for aiding growth of a plant.
Biomass - the total mass of a given amount or area of organisms.
Genetic Engineering - the deliberate modification of the characteristics of an organism by manipulating its genetic material.
Sustainable agriculture - an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will over the long term: satisfy food needs, enhance environmental quality and preserve natural resources, make efficient use of non-renewables and on site resources, sustain the economic viability of farming operations and enhance the quality of life of farmers and society.
GMO - organisms modified by in vitro nucleic acid techniques, including recombinant DNA and direct injection of nucleic acid into cells or organelles, or fusion of cells beyond the taxonomic family.
Organic product - crops produced without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or other artificial agents.
Transgenic - relating to or denoting an organism that contains genetic material into which DNA from an unrelated organism has been artificially introduced.
Cisgenic - relating to or denoting an organism that contains genetic material into which contains no DNA from an unrelated organism.
Biotechnology - the exploitation of biological processes for industrial and other purposes, especially the genetic manipulation of microorganisms for the production of antibiotics, hormones, etc..
Deleted or inactivated DNA - regions of DNA that have been removed or made useless in order to inhibit their expression.
GEEN - genetic engineering technology utilizing site specific enzymes for precise genetic manipulation.
Growth limiting genes - genes responsible for inhibiting growth hormones or halting expression of related genes.
Monogenic - a phenotype expressed in an organism that is controlled by a single gene.
Polygenic - a phenotype expressed in an organism that is controlled by multiple genes.
Selective pressure - an external agent which manipulates the reproductive success of individuals in a population.
Resistance - the capacity of an organism to withstand the effect of a toxic compound or hostile environment.
Outreach - a dedicated and sustained effort to disseminate scientific information to those outside of a bubble of information (ie: the public).
Inreach - discussion and sharing of information amongst a known, closed group of people, such as colleagues in a field of study.