Question for permaculture practitioners…

GM and permaculture: acceptance, rejection or maybe?

An application for approval of genetically modified wheat raises the question of permaculture practitioners’ attitude towards the technology.

HOW WOULD you react to being offered a sandwick made of bread that was genetically modified (GM)?

It’s not a hypothetical question because GM bread might appear in our shops now that an application to grow and market a GM wheat is before Food Standards Australia New Zealand.

Peter Bowditch (Skeptics in Australia): “As bread is made from wheat with a mixture of chromosomes from different plants, I’d say that people have been eating GM bread for several millennia.”

What does the application for genetically modified wheat include?

Application A1232 was logged by Food Standards Australia New Zealand on 8 June 2021. Administrative assessment report 165–21 is dated 3 August 2021.

The application is for approval of food derived from wheat line IND-00412–7, which is genetically modified for drought-tolerance.

A search on the applicant's website, Trigall Genetics, reveals no information on the application. Trigall is an Argentina-based company with investments in agricultural biotechnology.

A six week public consultation period is slated to start in early November.

The application is on the public record here: https://www.foodstandards.gov.au/code/applications/Documents/A1232%20AAR.pdf

What is Food Standards Australia New Zealand?

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) is a statutory authority in the Australian Government Health portfolio that administers food standards for Australia and New Zealand.

The standards are enacted by state and territory government departments as well as by local councils in Australia, the Ministry for Primary Industries in New Zealand and the Australian Department of Agriculture and Water Resources for food imported into Australia.

FSANZ website: https://www.foodstandards.gov.au/Pages/default.aspx

What would be the benefit of the modified wheat?

At a time when mention of the genetic modification of food raises fears, doubt and opposition, will the availability of a modified, drought-tolerant wheat variety — and, perhaps, other drought-tolerant grains in the future — offer solutions to food security and agriculture in a time of global heating?

The August 2021 report by the International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) warns of: “…increases in the frequency and intensity of hot extremes, marine heatwaves, and heavy precipitation, agricultural and ecological droughts in some regions…”.

In its regional fact sheet for Australia, the IPCC report says: “Australian land areas have warmed by around 1.4°C and New Zealand land areas by around 1.1°C between ~1910 and 2020 (very high confidence), and annual temperature changes have emerged above natural variability in all land regions (high confidence).”

It goes on: “Changes in several climatic impact-drivers (e.g., heatwaves, droughts, floods…) would be more widespread at 2°C compared to 1.5°C global warming and even more widespread and/or pronounced for higher warming levels.”

We should anticipate the promotion of drought-tolerant GM grains as an agricultural and food security solution if global heating significantly impacts grain production.

What is genetic modification?

A little background here.

The purpose of genetically modifying agricultural products, including plants and animals, is to increase their yield and resistance to insect pests, plant disease, weed competition and drought. Weed competition is commonly achieved through making crops resistant to synthetic herbicides. A significant number of current applications listed by FSANZ are for herbicide-tolerant varieties.

GM plants carry modified DNA that does not occur naturally through breeding or natural recombination. It inserts traits into a plant cell after which the variety may be reproduced by tissue culture. Developed in 2012, the CRISPR-Cas9 system is a genome editing tool used to alter genes in cells. It is claimed to increase the efficiency of genetic engineering and make working with plants easier than previous methods.

For some, modifying the genetic structure of plants is akin to the traditional process of selective breeding, only faster and more accurate. Others see it as being unnatural because the process is different to selective breeding and to how hybrids occur in nature.

Why is there conflict over GM?

Many are the arguments for and against GM. We will look briefly at just a few.

Proponents of GM list a few main arguments in the technology’s favour:

  • changing climatic conditions make GM a necessity to provide food and other agricultural products because of environmental change
  • natural adaptation will be too slow as global heating outpaces the capacity of species to adapt to climate change and changing environmental conditions
  • GM is necessary to feed a growing global population
  • management of crop competitors — plant, animal and microbial — is made easier through the application of GM techniques.

In offering a solution to these problems, GM advocates see themselves responding creatively to the needs of a changing world. For the corporations developing the solutions, GE spins a profit as do other agricultural seeds.

The argument against GM focuses on several big picture possibilities:

  • health — human, soil and environmental as well as the allegededly lower nutritional value of modified foods
  • environmental impact including food web disruption and the spread of modified genes through populations of related species
  • corporate control of food.

Let’s briefly look at these concerns.

Health fears

Health fears include the development of antibiotic resistance in bacteria and human microflora and potential damage through the ingestion of modified genes in food.

Science Direct cites an example of allergenicity as a genetic hazard: “One example is the production of soybeans enriched in the amino acid methionine. The enhanced synthesis of this amino acid is the result of a gene isolated from Brazil nuts. As a consequence, some consumers allergenically sensitized to these nuts have allergic reactions to the transgenic soybean.”

The US National Center for Biotechnology Information says on its website that GM “may cause some common toxic effects such as hepatic, pancreatic, renal, or reproductive effects and may alter the hematological, biochemical, and immunologic parameters. However, many years of research with animals and clinical trials are required for this assessment”.

There is little evidence of harmful effects

It is useful in any assessment of new technologies, like genetic modification of plants and food, that we take a skeptical — ie. a questioning — approach and to make decisions based on evidence. Evidence is more reliable than the alternative approaches of hearsay, assumption and faith and is really the only thing we can reliably base decisions on.

In an article on the health impacts of GM, Harvard University’s Megan Norris writes: “Though knowing who to trust and what to believe regarding this topic is an ongoing battle, major health groups, including the American Medical Association and World Health Organization, have concluded from the research of independent groups worldwide that genetically modified foods are safe for consumers.

“Scientists across the U.S. and the rest of the world have sought to rigorously test the assertions of the IRT and others to uncover any possible toxicity caused by GMOs. To this end, many different types of modifications in various crops have been tested, and the studies have found no evidence that GMOs cause organ toxicity or other adverse health effects”.

The article recognises the concern that genetically modified DNA could be unstable and cause damage, via unintentional mutations, not only to crops but also to whomever consumes them. But, again, experimental evidence discounts this.

It concludes this way: “After more than 20 years of monitoring by countries and researchers around the world, many of the suspicions surrounding the effects of GMOs on organ health, our offspring, and our DNA have been addressed and tested. In the data discussed above, alongside many more studies not mentioned here, GMOs have been found to exhibit no toxicity, in one generation or across many.

“Though each new product will require careful analysis and assessment of safety, it appears that GMOs as a class are no more likely to be harmful than traditionally bred and grown food sources”.

Environmental fears

Environmental impacts focus on the presence of herbicides in soil and their effect on organisms making up the soil biome. Outcrossing — the transfer of modified genetic material into related, unmodified species such as wild relatives, and the mixing of crops derived from conventional seeds with GM crops is viewed as contamination. The WHO says there have been reports of genetic material from GM crops approved for animal feed or industrial use detected at low levels in the products intended for human consumption. It does not say that the material was injurious to human health.

The National Center for Biotechnology Information raises the possibility that the insect-resistant plants might increase the number of minor pests while reducing the target pest. This could trigger a cascading disruption through the food chain. Herbicide residues might have a negative effect on soil organisms.

The Royal Society published a statement on the environmental impacts of GE, finding some of the claims of those opposing the technology was evident in both modified and unmodified cropping: “Crops do not damage the environment simply because they are GM. Some farming practices, such as the overuse of herbicides resulting in the excessive eradication of wild plants from farmland have been shown to harm the environment. These problems are similar for non-GM and GM crops.

“In a large farm scale evaluation of herbicide tolerant GM crops conducted in the UK between 1999 and 2006 it was shown that when weed control is particularly effective, insect biodiversity is reduced. It did not matter whether or not the crop was GM — the important factor was how many weeds remained in the crop. Damage to wildlife can be reduced if a small amount of agricultural land is set aside for biodiversity.

“A related issue is the growing problem of weeds becoming resistant to herbicides, due to the overuse of those herbicides. Herbicide tolerant crops, whether GM or non-GM, can cause this problem because repeated growth of the same herbicide tolerant crop involves repeated use of the same herbicide. One solution is the rotation of crops resistant to different herbicides, or rotation of herbicide use with use of other weed control strategies”.

Adding further confusion to the GM crop issue is a 2016 paper reporting the beneficial environmental impacts of biotech crops. It covers the first 21 years of adoption from 1996 and reports a reduced environmental footprint associated with pesticide use of 18.4 percent.

“The technology has also significantly reduced the release of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture equivalent to removing 16.75 million cars from the roads”. (Brookes, G and P Barfoot. 2018. GM crops: Global socio-economic and environmental impacts 1996–2016. PG Economics Ltd, UK)

Corporate control of food

GM technologies are patented giving control over, and financial returns from their use to their developers—the biotech corporations.

Is this avoidable? Yes, it is. A few years ago there was an online conversation about genetic modification as an open source technology. That would enable anyone to make use of it as it would remove it from corporate ownership and put it into the agricultural commons. The argument went that GE varieties are developed from the shared commons of nature and any changes derived from the commons should remain within the commons.

An open source GM would democratise the technology and provide more-equitable access to it by developers of new varieties and by farmers. Those varieties could be freely replicated elsewhere. It would be a science-for-the-people rather than a science-for-corporate-profit approach.

While pro and anti GM attitudes to corporate control are clear-cut in their polarity, the issue muddies the water a little. Some of those prepared to accept GM in agriculture qualify it by opposing corporate control of the technology.

Speculative fiction writer and permaculturist, Kim Stanley Robinson, sums up their attitude: “To me the problem is not so much the actual genetic engineering, which in many ways is only a heightened or more knowledgable form of the selective breeding that we have been practicing for thousands of years, but rather the corporate ownership of the results and the stealing of the commons involved.

“As so often, the problem here is not intrinsic to science and technology, but to capitalism and its hierarchy of power and ownership. It’s really important always to separate these two out and support the one (a utopian drive by way of science to a clean tech and to justice) and attack the other (the urge to power of the few over the many, and the destruction that results).

“Science is a utopian process, permaculture is a kind of science, science itself is full of half-hidden good values. I could go into this at much great length and often do, but will desist here, except to repeat I have no automatic objection to the concept of genetic engineering.”

Interestingly, similar attitudes have been evident when GM has been discussed on permaculture social media. It seems that the permaculture milieu harbors a range of attitudes towards genetic modification as it does to a variety of issues. Diversity, according to David Holmgren’s list of permaculture design principles, is a good thing. What it means in relation to GM is that permaculture as a social movement is unlikely to come to any unified attitude towards genetic engineering, and that is both a good thing and a barrier to understanding permaculture at the same time.

Kim Stanley Robinson on permaculture.

Is traditional plant and animal breeding a form of GM?

Some say that traditional farming techniques such as the selective breeding of plants and animals is a type of genetic modification because it selects for desirable characteristics of gene expression such as size, flavour and drought/pest/disease resistance. The argument goes that genetic engineering is a modern version of ancient techniques.

Much of our fruit and vegetables as well as breeds of farm animals are not ‘natural’ in the sense that they occurred in nature in the form they appear today. They are human artifacts, the product of selection for desirable characteristics, and are the work of farmers over the millennia since the Agricultural Revolution around 12,000 years ago. Does the question of whether modern GM is ‘unnatural’, and traditional approaches ‘natural’, then, come down to a philosophical distinction?

The nature/humanity divide comes from a polarised understanding which sees a separation between humanity and nature. In a world in which humans have long-modified food species and the environments they come from, and in which technology biomimics nature, such as research into artificial photosynthesis (and here) and is increasingly integrated into all aspects of life, such a polarised understanding is no longer tenable.

Bound up with the humanity/nature divide are other philosophical questions related to genetic modification. One example is that humans have no right to ‘interfere with nature’. The assertion ignores the reality that they have been interfering for thousands of years with selective breeding and the modification of natural environments such as practiced by Australian Aboriginies, as evidenced by Bill Gammage in his book, The Biggest Estate on Earth-how Aborigines made Australia (2012, Gammage B; Allen Unwin , Australia; ISBN: 9781743311325).

It also presupposes that there is some right of nature that stands outside of humanity, however that is difficult to define without recourse to faith, which is itself open to questioning, and begs the question of who or what formulated that right. Humans arose from the Earth, a counter-argument goes, and humans are themselves expressions of nature. It follows that whatever humans do must therefore be ‘natural’ although not necessarily in their best interests.

Furthering the philosophical link is the continuing influence of Romanticism, a European artistic, literary, musical and intellectual movement that flourished from the end of the 18th to around the middle of the 19th century. The movement looked to the past and held the primitive and nature in high esteem. Although the movement declined, the status it affords to nature still has appeal to many environmentally-minded people. The movement sees nature as complete in itself, so genetic modification would be viewed as an unwelcome intrusion.

Is GM a dilemma for permaculture practitioners?

Where does this leave permaculture and GM?

Once thought of as a type of environmental design, the permaculture design system took a questioning and oppositional attitude to GM back in the 1980s. This was when both the technology and permaculture were young. Now, getting on for 40 years after that time, social media commentary discloses that the attitude persists.

Not completely, however. Those same conversations disclose that a small but growing acceptance of GM among permaculture people has become apparent over time. It has not become the mainstream permaculture attitude, however it may be related to the reported evidence of the past 20 or so years that no discernible health impacts have been associated with GM and uncertainty over the feared negative environmental impacts. These remain anecdotal observations of the permaculture milieu, however in the absence of a statistically significant survey they are all we have and should be treated as provisional.

If this still-minor change in attitude is significant, it goes against the common permaculture preference for open-pollinated seed. That is preferred because it removes seedstock from corporate control. Open-pollinated seeds are not patented. They also offer increased reliability over hybrid seedstock because they do not revert to the source species for the genetic material in the hybridised seed.

The three main attitudes towards genetic modification of plants and animals — acceptance of the technology; opposition to it; the qualified acceptance while opposing corporate ownership — vexes the issue for permaculture practitioners.

Let’s summarise the situation in regard to the permaculture design system:

  1. Permaculture is a system of nature-based design using biomimicry and non-biological models from nature. Biomimicry copies then adapts natural processes. It could be argued that genetic modification also does this.
  2. A principle of permaculture is to work with nature rather than against it. The principle leaves unanswered the definition of what constitutes ‘nature’ when we consider the thousands of years of selective plant and animal breeding. Are modern crops and farm animals ‘natural’ or has their modification through selective breeding changed them to such an extent that they are substantially different from their natural predecessor? Most of our fruits and vegetables as well as our farm animals are the products of selective breeding to choose particular genetic expressions to accommodate human needs. If we accept what GM does as a rapid and precise model of selective breeding, it raises the question as to whether GM also works with nature, as per the permaculture principle, to increase natural species’ fitness for human use. The work-with-nature principle does not define what working with or against nature entails — that is left to the imagination of permaculture practitioners some of whom might see genetic modification as a means of doing that.

The interrelationship of nature and human knowledge and its application through technology takes permaculture practitioners into the realm of philosophy — such as arguments about what is natural—and into conversations about human health and other topics. The dilemma for permaculture practitioners arises because ours is a science-based society applying knowledge through our technological tools.

A UK-based critic of permaculture, whose name I have long forgotten, likened the principles of permaculture to the Ten Commandments. She was explaining why she found the permaculture design course she did to have similarities to religion. In one way she was right because permaculture practitioners all too often assume the principles to be true and to be universally applicable. They go unchallenged. This can lead to a dogmatic understanding of permaculture when the design system is actually more dynamic. Its beliefs and processes change according to the application of another of its principles about observing what is going on and interacting with it. As Kim stanley Robinson said, permaculture implies permutation.

How does this apply to the GM question? It applies because permaculture’s principles are general, not specific. They are meant to be applied to specific situations, however to do so they must be stated as generalisations so that they can be adapted to different situations. This opens them to alternative definitions which, as we have seen in this story, may be contradictory. The example is permaculture’s dictum of working with nature and the question of whether GM really is a way of doing that.

Similarly, permaculture’s dictum of adopting biological solutions, a subset of its principle of working with nature, in which GM can be seen as applying that principle by artificially improving biological resources to adapt them to human needs (in the case of food and materials rather than only herbicide resistance).

Although Bill Mollison’s principles have been overshadowed by those of David Holmgren, Bill’s dictum that ‘everything gardens’ — another way of saying that life changes its environment to make it more suited to its needs — can equally be applied to GM as to organic gardening and farming. Bill’s principle that ‘permaculture is information and imagination-intensive’ can be seen as applying to its own interventions as well as for GM.

A workable solution? What would it take?

Can we find a workable solution towards GM and its acceptance or rejection by permaculture practitioners? There appears to be a dominant permaculture attitude of opposition, however it is not all-inclusive. The design system’s principles are ambiguous and open to interpretation when it comes to this question. There remains the issue of corporate control of the food system and of the seed and plant materials commons which permaculture people would reject. There is also the issue of food security and of artificially assisting crops to adapt to a warming climate that their natural adaptation process might be too slow to cope with doing. Finding a workable solution would require a long conversation among practitioners and their stepping out of their preferred positions while doing it.

Meanwhile, there is that question about the sandwich made with bread from GM wheat. The public submission period comes up this November. Will permaculture people make submissions or will the application go through without their input? For opponents of the proposal, it is too little too late when the bread appears on our supermarket shelves.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Russ Grayson

Russ Grayson

I'm an independent online and photojournalist living on the Tasmanian coast after nine months on the road in a minivan.