CORVALLIS, Ore. — As scientists devise more intricate ways to create new plant cultivars, organic breeders are wary of techniques that cross the line into methods that are “excluded” under regulations.
Genetically engineering crops to incorporate foreign DNA is prohibited in organic production, as is gene deletion or alteration through “editing” technology such as CRISPR.
However, the propriety of some other techniques remains ambiguous in the organic industry, which is complicated by the fact organic farmers have already been unwittingly growing crops developed with such methods.
One example is male sterility, a common tool in breeding hybrids. It can be achieved with “cytoplasm fusion,” under which organelles from one plant species are combined in the same cell with the nucleus of another plant species.
Such a combination between two plants of the same family would be considered natural, but mixing families would be considered unnatural and more likely to be disallowed from organics.
While organic growers may be urged to “stretch the rules” to incorporate new techniques, the industry should be guided by its basic values such as maintaining the integrity of life and using ecological approaches, said Edith Lammerts van Bueren, a retired plant science professor at Wageningen University in the Netherlands.
“The issues are not just about safety, and that’s what I want to stress,” she said Feb. 16 during the Organic Seed Growers Conference in Corvallis, Ore.
Refraining from certain methods also forces organic farmers to come up with other innovative strategies, Lammerts van Bueren said.
It’s been suggested that organic breeders could still indirectly use new technologies, such as CRISPR, to identify the function of certain genes, she said.
The idea is “tricky” because such identification could assist traditional breeding without directly altering genes, she said.
However, with limited funds for organic research, it’s probably best to avoid dedicating money to a technological direction in which the organic industry doesn’t want to go, Lammerts van Bueren said.
“Is it opening the side door for such a technique?” she said.
In the past, crops developed with exposure to gamma radiation were adopted by organic growers, but the industry now has a more cautious approach to new technology, said Brian Baker, president of the International Federation of Organic Movements North America.
Whether organic growers can identify seeds bred with questionable new techniques is another question.
Patent filings may disclose which plants were bred with these methods, Baker said. “The owners of the technology have an incentive to protect their investment.”
Baker would prefer greater transparency through labeling to ensure organic growers aren’t “stuck with the bill” of identifying crops that don’t fit organic production.
Using patents for identification isn’t ideal because the information may be difficult or impossible to find, he said. “That’s not what I’m advocating, that’s just what we have at our disposal now.”