Organic Farming and Modern Technology: Friend or Foe?

Posted on June 27, 2014


I just listened to a recent interview with Julie Borlaug, associate director for external relations for the Norman E. Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture at Texas A&M. Julie is the daughter of the scientist who is often referred to as the ‘father of the Green Revolution,” which saw the introduction, beginning in the late 1950s, of advanced breeding techniques, synthetic fertilizers and other technological innovations to boost yields.

The conversation focused on the importance of biotechnology in advancing global crop production. There is, of course, heated debate around the relative importance of biotechnology (GMOs in particular) in “feeding the world,” and I don’t intend to address that now. However, what struck me most about her comments was Borlaug’s stark and inaccurate contrasts between farming with and without GMOs. If we want to bridge the gulf of misunderstanding and mistrust between proponents and opponents of genetic engineering, we need to stop intentionally polarizing the debate.

The Interview

About three minutes in, Borlaug says: “[W]e can’t turn back the clock…we have to have modern agriculture and biotechnology.” A little over a minute later she comments: “[I]t’s a lovely thought that we can turn back and only do organic…but they don’t have a right to take technology and all the tools it offers off the table for those farmers who want the ability to utilize it.” After commenting on the food challenges facing the world, Borlaug concludes: “There is no way to go back to an only organic farming method – it’s just not feasible.”

The interviewer then goes on to ask Borlaug about the disconnect and miscommunication that allows the myth of a bucolic past to be perpetuated among modern consumers. Borlaug responds by criticizing “foodies” and others who communicate about food “who don’t understand basic agriculture” and “only fuel the fire”. The interview concludes with a call for continued access to the tools of biotechnology and more communication about the advantages of “modern tools and technology.”

The Problem

I really only have two issues with the argument as presented by Ms. Borlaug:

1) ALL agriculture is modern.
2) ALL agriculture uses technology.

Until someone invents a time machine, there is no such thing as “going back.” There may be some people who have failed to think through all the consequences of rejecting the last 100 years of agricultural progress, but I’ve never encountered an organic farmer who wants to return to the early 20th century, even if it were possible. To me, Borlaug comes across just as sweeping and simplistic in her characterization and dismissal of organic farming as she believes foodies are of GMOs.

It is undeniable that technology has delivered huge gains in agricultural productivity. But it is equally undeniable that both organic and conventional farmers alike have benefited from these changes. Setting aside the relatively recent introduction of GMO seeds, organic farmers enjoy the same access to genetic advances in crops and livestock as their conventional counterparts. The time and labor efficiencies brought about by mechanization are also available to organic farmers, and they are grateful for it. Relatively simple technologies like electric fencing, drip irrigation and plastic-covered hoop houses have practically revolutionized small-scale farming, particularly for organic producers.

Advances in our understanding of soil, crop and animal sciences have helped all farmers increase productivity; there are websites and programs devoted to communicating this information to organic farmers, and some organic farmers have used the modern technology of computers, internet, and social media to do the job themselves. Organic farming is a management-intensive and knowledge-intensive undertaking. Indeed, without the convenience and predictability of GMO seeds and synthetic chemical fertilizers and pesticides, organic farmers need to compensate by optimizing their use of other tools and techniques – doing nothing is simply not a viable option. As a result, there’s no shortage of technological sophistication and management ability on most successful organic farms.

And yes, organic farmers even rely on biotechnology, if not on transgenics. As the ISAAA points out, biotechnology is “A Lot More than Just GM Crops.” The use of marker-assisted breeding in crop development and genomics in livestock production can both benefit organic farmers by developing healthier, more disease-resistant plants and animals. Modern bio-controls for pest management are also the product of biotechnology; they represent cutting edge technology, and they are employed by organic and conventional farmers alike as alternatives to chemical pesticides. Sure, the process of genetic engineering is one application of biotechnology in agriculture that is currently not permitted for use in organic farming, but it doesn’t mean that organic agriculture rejects biotechnology, technology, or science.

Simply put, organic agriculture is the choice to use different tools and technologies to produce food; it is NOT the rejection of technology or science, as some GMO proponents claim.

The Consequences

My guess is that Julie Borlaug realizes this. But sometimes in their zeal to respond to the zealous fringe of ant-GMO campaigners, they begin sounding a lot like their extremist critics. Failing to acknowledge the complexities of agriculture and instead creating false dichotomies between organic farming and other methods hurts everyone. Caricaturing organic farmers and their techniques as tools of the past is not much better than calling for a ban on GMOs – it excludes potential solutions from the conversation.  Farmers who may be inclined to adopt some of these beneficial practices hesitate for fear that they’ll be labeled “anti-technology” or “anti-science”.

But most importantly, the general public–the eaters, advocates, and voters who have the greatest influence on food and agricultural policy—are presented with a distorted view of the choices available. Rather than recognizing that all farmers employ technology of one kind or another and actually share the majority of innovations in agricultural production, consumers are misled into black and white thinking: the bucolic past vs. the industrial modernity. For a great many, telling them that the bucolic past is nice but unattainable will only make them yearn for it more; the reasoning goes that it must contrast horribly with the contemporary reality.

If we want to stop the food fight between pro- and anti-GMO factions, if we want more courtesy and civility in our food discussions, if we want to start addressing some of the most pressing concerns in food and farming, we must stop polarizing the debate, begin to recognize the truth breadth and nature of the gap, and respect the choices available, as well as the people who make them.


Posted in: Agriculture, Food, Organic