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.
photo credit: skinnydiver