Combining organic farming and modern biotechnology
The combination of organic farming and modern biotechnology could be an opportunity to achieve a more sustainable agriculture, an international research team points out in April 2021. For more sustainability on a global level, EU legislation should be changed to allow the use of gene editing in organic farming, they demand in a paper published in the journal "Trends in Plant Science".
In May 2020, the EU Commission presented its "Farm-to-Fork" strategy, which is part of the "European Green Deal". The aim is to make European agriculture and its food system more sustainable. In particular, the proportion of organic farming in the EU’s total agricultural land is to be increased to 25 per cent by 2030. However, if current EU legislation remains in place, this increase will by no means guarantee more sustainability, as the current study shows.
More organic farming in the EU could lead to an expansion of agricultural land elsewhere
Numerous applications derived from new biotechnological processes are severely restricted or even banned by current EU law. This is especially true for gene editing, a new precision tool used in plant breeding.
Organic farming focuses on greater farming diversity and prohibits the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Therefore, it can have a beneficial effect on environmental protection and biodiversity at the local level. However, compared to conventional farming, organic farming also delivers lower yields. Consequently, more land is needed to produce the same amount of high-quality food and more organic farming in the EU could lead to an expansion of agricultural land elsewhere in the world.
Developing more robust plants that deliver high yields with gene editing
Combining organic farming and modern biotechnology could be a way to resolve this dilemma, according to the researchers. Thus, gene editing offers 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.
In addition, gene editing is used to breed fungus-resistant plants that thrive under organic farming without copper-containing pesticides. Copper is particularly toxic to soil and aquatic organisms, but its use to control fungi is nevertheless permitted in organic farming because of the lack of non-chemical alternatives to date.
Targeted breeding without introducing foreign genes
However, the use of genetic engineering in organic farming requires 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," says Kai Purnhagen, lead author of the study and Professor of German & European Food Law at the University of Bayreuth. "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."
(University of Bayreuth/ile)
Read more at Universiy of Bayreuth website
Kai P Purnhagen, Stephan Clemens, Dennis Eriksson, Louise O. Fresco, Jale Tosun, Matin Qaim, Richard GF Visser, Andreas PM Weber, Justus HH Wesseler, David Zilberman: Europe’s Farm to Fork Strategy and its Commitment to Biotechnology and Organic Farming: Conflicting or Complementary Goals? Trends in Plant Science (2021), DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tplants.2021.03.012