Combination of organic farming and genetic engineering can increase global sustainability

To increase global sustainability, EU law should be revised to enable the use of gene editing in organic farming. In an article published in the journal Trends in Plant Science, an international team of researchers involving the University of Bayreuth and the University of Göttingen has demanded this change.

Combination of organic farming and genetic engineering can increase global sustainability
Professor Dr Kai Purnhagen, University of Bayreuth. Image Credit: University of Bayreuth.

The EU Commission presented its “Farm-to-Fork” plan, which is part of the “European Green Deal,” in May 2020. The goal of this strategy is to make the European agriculture and food system more sustainable.

The amount of organic farming in the overall agricultural land of the EU should be raised to 25% by 2030. But if the existing EU legislation stays in force, this increase will not ensure more sustainability, as demonstrated by a new analysis performed by investigators from the Universities of Bayreuth, Göttingen, Düsseldorf, Heidelberg, Wageningen, Alnarp, and Berkeley.

Many applications extracted from novel biotechnological processes are considerably limited or even prohibited by the existing EU law. This is particularly true for gene editing, a modern precision technique employed in plant breeding.

Expanding organic farming further under the current legal restrictions on biotechnology could easily lead to less sustainability instead of more. Yet gene editing in particular offers great potential for sustainable agriculture.”

Kai Purnhagen, Study Lead Author and Professor, German & European Food Law, University of Bayreuth

Organic farming targets greater agricultural diversity and forbids the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers and. Hence, it could have a positive impact on environmental biodiversity and protection at the local level. But organic farming results in lower yields when compared to traditional farming. As a result, more land is required to grow the same quantity of high-quality food.

As global demand for high-quality food increases, more organic farming in the EU would lead to an expansion of agricultural land elsewhere in the world. This could easily result in environmental costs that exceed any local environmental benefits in the EU, as the conversion of natural land into agricultural land is one of the biggest drivers of global climate change and biodiversity loss.”

Matin Qaim, Study Co-Author and Professor, Agricultural Economics, University of Göttingen

The integration of modern biotechnology and organic farming may offer a solution to this problem.

Gene editing offers unique opportunities to make food production more sustainable and to further improve the quality, but also the safety, of food. With the help of these new molecular tools, more robust plants can be developed that deliver high yields for high-quality nutrition, even with less fertilizer.”

Stephan Clemens, Study Co-Author and Professor, Plant Physiology, University of Bayreuth

Clemens is also the founding Dean of the Kulmbach campus’s new Faculty of Life Sciences: Food, Nutrition, and Health.

Furthermore, gene editing is used for breeding fungus-resistant plants that survive in organic farming without pesticides that contain copper. Copper is specifically harmful to marine species and soil but its application to regulate fungi is still allowed in organic farming due to a dearth of non-chemical substitutes, so far.

Organic farming and gene editing could therefore complement each other very well and, combined, could contribute to more local and global sustainability,” added Qaim.

But the use of genetic engineering in organic farming needs legal changes at the EU level.

There is certainly no political majority for this at present, because genetic engineering is viewed very critically by many. Yet perhaps improved communication could gradually lead to greater societal openness, at least towards gene editing, because this form of genetic engineering enables very targeted breeding without having to introduce foreign genes into the plants. Highlighting this point could dispel many of the widespread fears of genetic engineering,” concluded Purnhagen.

Source:
Journal reference:

Purnhagen, K. P., et al. (2021) Europe’s Farm to Fork Strategy and Its Commitment to Biotechnology and Organic Farming: Conflicting or Complementary Goals? Trends in Plant Science. doi.org/10.1016/j.tplants.2021.03.012.

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