'Genetic modification has been going on since the beginning of agriculture'


Capital Press

PORT TOWNSEND, Wash. -- A deep well of genetic resources is equally important to both organic and conventional agriculture, and it comes from thousands of years of biodiversity.

Laura Lewis, director of Washington State University's Jefferson County Extension, said certified organic growers, who are required to use certified organic seed, have a vested interest in that biodiversity. When she speaks this weekend at the annual conference of the Tilth Producers of Washington, Lewis said she will illustrate how all growers have seed and soil in common.

"Genetic modification has been going on since the beginning of agriculture," she said. "Now there are more sophisticated ways of doing that. We want to really present the big picture for a more nuanced discussion about genetic modification. That doesn't necessarily mean its transgenic."

Michael Neff, associate professor of crop biotechnology at WSU, will air the pros and cons about genetically modified organisms and transgenic crops, discussing the science behind the technology.

"If you give people information, they have the power to make an educated decision," he said. "You have to keep open the channels of communication."

Research and development of new varieties of crops have focused largely on conventional farming, Lewis said, with little intentional breeding for organic growers.

"They have less control over environment than conventional farmers," she said. "It's not just about inputs, but a different type of farm system."

As genetic resources are developed for organic farming, the entire system must be considered, she said. Though conventional farming can focus on maximizing production per acre with heavy inputs, organic farming has to look at sustainable and profitable yields.

As Lewis develops research on the university's new farm on Marrowstone Island, she intends to look at local adaptation in different species and let them evolve onsite.

"Regional breeding programs strengthen agriculture in general, not just organic," Lewis said. "They bring resilience -- agricultural systems able to bounce back from economic and environmental disturbances," such as climate change, habitat destruction, loss of agricultural land and governance of intellectual property.



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