Finding common ground for GMOs, conventionals and organics

When you get a Monsanto officer and an organic food advocate on the same panel, one might expect the stage to burst into flames. At VERGE 2014 in San Francisco, GreenBiz's Joel Makower sat down with Monsato CTO Robb Fraley and Seed Matters (an initiative of the Clif Bar Family Foundation) cultivator Matthew Dillon without the need for a fire extinguisher.

Both Fraley and Dillon were quick to point out that using advanced breeding techniques in agriculture isn't the same as using genetically modified organisms.

"It's a fine line that distinguishes what we can do with breeding and what we can do with biotechnology," Fraley said. "You're literally breeding gene by gene. GMO is introducing a new gene very specifically."

Fraley explained the process further for the non-biology majors in the crowd: "It's basically using the biotech tools to understand genes without the insertion of a new trait."

Dillon confirmed that this new field of selective breeding did not violate organic farming principles, which frown upon use of GMOs, chemical fertilizers and spray-on pesticides.

"In the organic community, we're working to dispel the myth that organic farming is farming the same way Grandpa used to," Dillon said. "Organic agriculture is also large-scale producers in the U.S. and Canada growing 2,000-3,000 acres of grains."

To support that level of industrialized agriculture, Dillon said that Seed Matters was "using best scientific principles and practices to breed seeds specifically for the needs of organic environments."

Agriculture doesn't operate in a bubble. While Fraley and Dillon have different approaches to protecting the environment, they did find common ground on that, too.

"Everybody agrees that to go forward, we need to freeze agriculture's footprint," Fraley said.

Dillon went more in-depth, speaking about how crop rotation and soil protection are key to future yields. "Without healthy soils, we can't feed our planet long-term," he said.