Cell Fusion Considered Organic by USDA

cell fusion

Cell fusion comes to organic corn

Imagine a guy in a lab coat hovering over a test tube. His petri dish contains two different strains of organic corn, one more pest resistant, one more disease resistant.

He hooks the test tube up to some electricity, zaps the cells, and they combine into a new type of cell. Straight out of Frankenstein, right?

Now it’s time to test the new cell and see if the characteristics that were being looked for have materialized.  This is called cell fusion and the USDA just approved its use for organic farming this past Friday.

What is cell fusion?

It’s combining the material from two different cells through either chemical (enzymes) or electrical stimulation. You are breaking down cell walls and intermingling material to see what comes out. Doesn’t sound very organic, does it?

There are three ways that plants can be altered to create better crops.

  • Plant/Crop Level:  Using farming techniques such as grafting and plant selection to improve crops.
  • Cell Level:  Cell fusion would count here as would techniques like in vitro pollination.
  • DNA Level:  Using DNA strands to manipulate plants to find the most desirable traits.

What the USDA just did was approve fiddling with things at the cell level as long as what’s being used is in the same taxonomic plant family. Problem is, this is something that most organic supporters disagree with. The USDA says it’s okay to use cell fusion with two different types of potatoes, but not with a broccoli and a potato.

What does this mean for organic produce? Well, it’s going to get a bit more complicated.

There is an international group called IFOAM (the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements) which is comprised of 750 members across 116 countries who advocate for organic farming. They do not use cell fusion as part of their farming methods and in fact they’ve banned it. So my guess is that cell fusion will be used by some of the Big Agra companies who are looking to capitalize on the burgeoning organic movement.

All of this makes me wonder how organic is organic? The USDA paper notes that sometimes cell fusion happens on its own, spontaneously in plants, and that’s why it should be okay for scientists to replicate within the same plant families. To me this is really pushing it. Yes, it can certainly occur naturally, but that’s quite different than using a lot of lab time to breed for specific traits, most notably disease and pest resistance.

The USDA paper notes that one of the tenets of organic farming is “not possible under natural conditions” and to me an occasional freak occurrence in nature isn’t remotely the same as a white-coated lab tech.

The U.S. organic program just got murkier. We’ll have to keep an eye out for what this means for our pantries in the months to come.

Cheers,

Lisa

photo credit: skinnydiver

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2 Responses to Cell Fusion Considered Organic by USDA

  1. James February 5, 2013 at 4:01 pm #

    Wow, your opening description is so far from what is happening with cell fusion. In veg crops hybrid seed producers require male and female lines. To get this they look for a naturally occurring trait of male sterility. This trait can be developed via breeding, but cell fusion between Families speeds the process. It doesn’t actually result in some new “Frankencell” like you suggest. These type of articles scare organic consumers. Makes me wonder if Monsanto funds them. Maybe talk to a scientist or an organic seed producer next time before you run around screaming THE SKY IS FALLING!

  2. admin February 10, 2013 at 8:26 pm #

    LOL, thanks for your comment James. I can tell you Monsanto definitely didn’t compensate me in anyway for the post, nor would I ever accept money from them. The process of cell fusion is difficult to fully understand and I read several articles. What I’m wondering with the process is what BigAgra will do with it … what will they move it into … also to me the definition of organic is being subverted, if it occurs naturally then just use it when it does. Forcing it to happen through “sped up” science seems not true to what organic is. To me, it’s then something else … does that make sense?

    If I do have a sky is falling mentality it’s my concern for what BigAgra will do with this new leeway. BUT if you have an article that you’d like to point me to, please do … always happy to learn more.

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