Is a bioengineered potato organic?

by Donella Meadows

It's tempting for someone who has grown some carrots any old way to slap the label "organic" on them and get a higher price. Whenever there's real value around, someone will come up with a counterfeit.

So farmers who raise their vegetables with the care that the word "organic" implies have been working on certification programs with strict rules about what is and is not organic.

For example, my farm is certified organic by the state of New Hampshire. The inspector came to visit us just last week, toured our place, asked detailed questions about our soil-improvement plan, and made sure our fields haven't been touched by a chemical fertilizer or pesticide within the last three years.

Some states have strict rules and regular inspections. Some don't have any at all. So growers who ship and stores that buy across state lines are pressing for uniform national organic standards. The Department of Agriculture is drawing up those standards now and running into one huge area of disagreement. Most organic growers would never use gene-spliced crops. Biotech companies are pushing hard to include them in the definition of "organic."

"Why wouldn't you grow our potatoes?" an insulted Monsanto scientist asked me once. Those potatoes carry a gene spliced out of a bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis, known to its friends as Bt (pronounced bee-tee). Bt is a natural killer of Colorado potato beetles. If a beetle grub happens, while chomping on a leaf, to ingest a Bt cell, that cell will multiply in its gut. Within hours, thousands of Bt offspring will produce a poison that will kill the grub. Then the bacteria will pour out of its body. A potato beetle is Bt's way of making more Bt.

Organic farmers spray Bt to control beetles. It's not a poison; it's a natural enemy. It doesn't infect bees or worms or birds or people or anything but the particular beetles that are its host.

Monsanto has snipped out the gene that tells Bt how to make its beetle-poison and has stuck it into the DNA of the potato. Now the potato plant can make the poison in every one of its cells. A grub takes one bite anywhere, and it's a goner.

To my Monsanto friend, this potato is a wonderful advance, saving organic farmers the trouble of spraying Bt and conventional farmers the danger of spraying insecticides. He can't understand why organic farmers wouldn't welcome it with praise and rejoicing. Sigh. The reasons seem so obvious to me. In order of increasing seriousness, they are:

1. Food safety

When I spray Bt on my potatoes, its poison gets made only within beetles. It barely touches the potato leaves, and it quickly washes away. The Monsanto potato has the toxin everywhere, even in the tubers we eat. We can't wash it out. Everything we know says that toxin harms only beetles. But we don't know everything.

2. Pest resistance

Whenever a pest comes in contact with a poison, it's possible that a few of its multifarious, fast-breeding number can survive. Those resistant pests are the ones that produce the next generation. The more exposure, the faster the whole pest population will develop resistance. The Colorado potato beetle is second only to the green peach aphid in its acquired resistance to hard-core pesticides. But it is not yet resistant to Bt. Exposing the beetle to fields of potatoes carrying Bt toxin in every leaf during the whole growing season is just asking for wide scale resistance. Monsanto's potato will destroy both itself and a good organic crop protection tool.

3. Company goofs

Monsanto revealed recently (and quietly) that another of its biotech products, a gene-spliced canola seed, had been mistakenly sold with the WRONG GENE in it, a gene that had not been tested or licensed. The problem here is not that companies make mistakes of course they do. The problem is that genetic engineering, like nuclear power, is not an arena where we want mistakes to be made.

4. Further consequences in nature

We don't know what ecosystems will do with genetically altered species. Will the ability to make beetle toxin suddenly show up in, say, wild nightshade, which is a relative of the potato? (A gene-spliced cultivated mustard has recently been shown to transfer its bioengineered gene to wild mustards.) Or could resistant beetles, no longer held in check by wild Bt, wipe out the whole nightshade family (which includes tomatoes and eggplants)? The worst nightmare of genetic engineering is the gene that gets loose. That isn't likely. But it isn't impossible.

5. Breaking the species barrier

Nature doesn't normally mix the genes of bacteria and potatoes, or frogs and lettuces, or pigs and people. A species barrier prevents sunflowers from mating with chimpanzees. The barrier isn't absolute, especially not with bacteria and viruses. But, contrary to the claims of biotech companies, moving genes from any species to any species is not just a small extension of the age-old human practice of breeding new varieties of roses or cattle. It's a whole new twist in evolution.

6. The pace and the selection mechanism

For several billion years, evolution has proceeded very slowly, selecting species according to their ability to fit into ever-changing ecosystems. In the hands of bio-technicians, the rate of evolution speeds up enormously, and species are selected by their ability to fit into economic markets.

This is no minor change. Its sends the most fundamental adaptation mechanism of life off at a breakneck pace in a whole new direction.

I can't imagine anything more incompatible with organic agriculture than genetic engineering. Organic growing is about learning from nature, dancing in harmony with it, using its forces gently to further the health of people and ecosystems. It is based on caution and deep humility. Genetic engineering is about playing God, dictating to nature, shaping it for human purposes and not always the noblest of human purposes.

It's a good thing that there will be federal guidelines for organic labelling. We need them. They should not permit a genetically engineered crop to be labelled organic.

Donella Meadows is co-author of "Beyond the Limits," and an adjunct professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College. She is also the exclusive columnist for "The Grove," the free e-mail newsletter of the Liberty Tree Alliance. The Liberty Tree Alliance is a national association of writers, scientists, and activists concerned with the preservation of the natural world. Liberty Tree Alliance 1140 Broadway Suite 1205 New York, NY, 10001 Tel: (212) 683-1226 Fax: (212) 683-1753 E-mail: