How can GMOs be safely integrated into organic farming to ensure food security?

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and organic farming have historically been regarded as opposing forces in agricultural practices. While GMOs utilize genetic engineering to introduce specific traits into plants, such as resistance to pests or herbicides, organic farming practices prioritize natural processes and generally prohibit the use of GMOs. Nonetheless, given current concerns about global food security, the potential benefits of integrating GMO technology into organic farming deserve exploration.

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GMOs and Organic Farming: Bridging the Divide

GMO and organic farming seem contrasting approaches, which has led to traditional conflicts and misconceptions. Organic farming advocates often view GMOs as unnatural and potentially harmful to the environment and human health.

Additionally, concerns exist about the potential for GMOs to contaminate organic crops, jeopardizing their certification. Conversely, proponents of GMO technology highlight its potential to address global food security challenges by increasing yields and reducing reliance on chemical pesticides.

 A crucial question in this debate is identifying the true risks associated with current agricultural practices. While GMOs are often perceived as unnatural due to their human-driven manipulation, the greater concern lies in the widespread application of agrochemicals like pesticides and herbicides, which may (or may not) be associated with the adoption of GMO technology.

For instance, the risks associated with introducing a drought-resistance gene from a naturally resistant plant (e.g., sunflower) to a more susceptible one (e.g., wheat) should ideally be minimal, approaching zero. Conversely, the risks associated with transgenesis dramatically increase when it is coupled with the use of herbicides/pesticides to which the plant was specifically engineered for resistance. Therefore, GMOs carrying resistance traits acquired from evolutionary-related species could perfectly align with organic principles by eliminating the need for harmful agrochemicals.

Innovative approaches can reduce the distance between GMOs and organic farming by integrating GMOs into organic systems while upholding core organic values. One approach involves utilizing precision gene editing techniques like CRISPR to introduce resistance genes from closely related species into crops1. This eliminates the introduction of foreign DNA from unrelated organisms, a key concern for organic advocates. Scientists are developing novel and more effective genome editing systems in laboratories2.

Additionally, there are emerging genetic engineering tools based on enzymes that can modify specific chemical groups naturally present in DNA, influencing gene expression without physically cutting the DNA sequence. This process, known as epigenetics, holds immense potential. By shaping the epigenetic landscape of crops, these “epigenetic tools” can induce reversible and transgenerational changes in response to environmental conditions, potentially leading to enhanced stress resilience and adaptation3

Potential Benefits of GMOs in Organic Agriculture

Focusing on traits like pest or disease resistance derived from evolutionary close sources aligns with the organic principle of promoting ecological balance and minimizing reliance on external inputs, including harmful chemicals and biopesticides. Furthermore, developing GMOs with enhanced nutrient use efficiency could significantly improve organic crop yields, addressing a major concern often associated with organic farming. Rigorous safety assessments and transparent communication with the public remain crucial throughout this process.

By embracing these innovative approaches, we can potentially bridge the gap between GMO technology and organic practices, ultimately enhancing food security and promoting a more sustainable agricultural landscape.

Several GMO innovations directly align with the core principles of organic farming. One example is the development of drought-tolerant crops. By introducing genes from naturally drought-resistant plants, scientists can create crops that require less water, minimizing dependence on irrigation systems and reducing stress on water resources.

Researchers have successfully performed CRISPR/Cas9-mediated gene editing of the GmHdz4 transcription factor in soybean (Glycine max [L.] Merr.)5 to enhance drought tolerance. This supports the prior hypothesis that GmHdz4 plays a role in the soybean's drought stress response and aligns with the organic principle of promoting ecological balance and minimizing external inputs.

Furthermore, GMOs with enhanced nutrient use efficiency offer significant potential.  The CRISPR/Cas9 technology has already been used to increase nitrogen use efficiency (NUE) and yield potential by manipulating the abnormal cytokinin response1 repressor1 (ARE1) gene in wheat6.

Challenges and Ethical Considerations

GMO technologies present challenges and ethical concerns that need careful consideration. First, we must consider consumer perceptions, which often associate GMOs with potential health risks, posing a significant hurdle to public acceptance.

Additionally, regulatory frameworks for GMOs within organic systems are currently underdeveloped, requiring clear guidelines to ensure compliance with organic standards and consumer expectations.  A clear example of this is the lack of regulations regarding epigenetic editing systems before the commercial release of epigenetically edited crops.

Furthermore, potential ecological impacts on biodiversity need thorough assessment. GMOs with unintended consequences on non-target organisms could irreversibly disrupt natural ecosystem homeostasis, thereby requiring strict policy regulations.

Future Directions in Integrated Farming Practices

Beyond GMOs, alternative approaches like manipulating non-coding RNAs (ncRNAs) deserve significant attention. These regulatory molecules (ncRNAs), found in both crops and pests, offer exciting possibilities for organic farming. Unlike GMOs, ncRNAs can be manipulated as sprays without altering the target organism's genome, an excellent alternative in eco-friendly pest management systems.

This manipulation can effectively regulate gene networks within both crops and pests, leading to increased resistance against diseases or pests without directly modifying the plant's DNA7,8.

Conclusion

As the global population continues to grow, innovative approaches are crucial to ensure food security and environmentally sustainable practices. Integrating genetically engineering and organic farming practices holds immense potential. When carefully designed and ethically implemented, GMO technology can offer solutions for drought tolerance, enhanced nutrient use efficiency, and natural pest resistance, all of which align with core organic principles.

By embracing gene editing tools that manipulate naturally occurring genetic and epigenetic mechanisms or introducing genes derived from naturally resistant varieties, we can minimize potential environmental risks and address consumer concerns. Rigorous scientific assessments, transparent communication, and robust regulatory frameworks are essential for ensuring the safety and ethical integration of GMOs within organic systems.

References and Further Reading          

  1. Bilichak, A., Gaudet, D., Laurie, J. (2020). Emerging Genome Engineering Tools in Crop Research and Breeding. In: Vaschetto, LM. (eds) Cereal Genomics. Methods in Molecular Biology, vol 2072. SpringerNature (Humana press), New York, NY. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4939-9865-4_14
  2. Tripathi, L., Ntui, V. O., Tripathi, J. N., Norman, D., & Crawford, J. (2023). A new and novel high‐fidelity genome editing tool for banana using Cas‐CLOVER. Plant Biotechnology Journal, 21(9), 1731. Doi: 10.1111/pbi.14100
  3. Selma, S., & Orzáez, D. (2021). Perspectives for epigenetic editing in crops. Transgenic Research, 30(4), 381-400. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11248-021-00252-z
  4. Eckerstorfer, M. F., Grabowski, M., Lener, M., Engelhard, M., Simon, S., Dolezel, M., ... & Lüthi, C. (2021). Biosafety of genome editing applications in plant breeding: Considerations for a focused case-specific risk assessment in the EU. BioTech, 10(3), 10. https://doi.org/10.3390/biotech10030010
  5. Zhong, X., Hong, W., Shu, Y., Li, J., Liu, L., Chen, X., ... & Tang, G. (2022). CRISPR/Cas9 mediated gene-editing of GmHdz4 transcription factor enhances drought tolerance in soybean (Glycine max [L.] Merr.). Frontiers in Plant Science, 13, 988505. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpls.2022.988505
  6. Zhang, J., Zhang, H., Li, S., Li, J., Yan, L., & Xia, L. (2021). Increasing yield potential through manipulating of an ARE1 ortholog related to nitrogen use efficiency in wheat by CRISPR/Cas9. Journal of integrative plant biology, 63(9), 1649-1663. https://doi.org/10.1111/jipb.13151
  7. Vaschetto, L. M., & Beccacece, H. M. (2019). The emerging importance of noncoding RNAs in the insecticide tolerance, with special emphasis on Plutella xylostella (Lepidoptera: Plutellidae). Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: RNA, 10(5), e1539. https://doi.org/10.1002/wrna.1539
  8. Vaschetto, L. M. (Ed.). (2022). RNAi strategies for pest management: Methods and protocols. SpringerNature, New York, USA. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-0716-1633-8

Last Updated: May 22, 2024

Dr. Luis Vaschetto

Written by

Dr. Luis Vaschetto

After completing his Bachelor of Science in Genetics in 2011, Luis continued his studies to complete his Ph.D. in Biological Sciences in March of 2016. During his Ph.D., Luis explored how the last glaciations might have affected the population genetic structure of Geraecormobious Sylvarum (Opiliones-Arachnida), a subtropical harvestman inhabiting the Parana Forest and the Yungas Forest, two completely disjunct areas in northern Argentina.

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