Shortly after moving to Lincoln,NE in 2013 I decided to attend the Heuermann Lecture Series at UNL. The speakers that day were Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak, both on faculty at UC-Davis. This couple is in fact married and fall seemingly on two sides of a very polarized topic based on their titles and fields of study. The topic is conventional farming including the use of genetics, organic farming and their roles in global food system. Instead of constantly being at odds with each other they are able to look at that possible dynamic with humor. Adamchak is an organic farmer with the Agricultural Sustainability Institute at UC-Davis, and his wife Ronald is a professor of plant pathology, faculty at The Genome Center, and Director of Grass Genetics, Joint Bioenergy Institute. So as you can see they could easily fall on polar opposite ends of the spectrum instead of meeting in the middle.
To lighten the mood and set the tone they made a joke about how many people ask how an organic farmer and geneticist could be married let alone have a civil dinner together. “You may think geneticists and organic farmers don’t speak to each other, But we have the same goal, which is an ecologically based system of agriculture,” Ronald said, setting the tone for the lecture. This power couple of agriculture powerfully presented research data to support the necessity for and benefits of integrating genetics and organic farming. It’s a refreshing change from the polarized fear-based mud slinging argument that this topic often slides quickly into. Adamchak and Ronald are also authors of the book “Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food”. In their book and their lecture they introduced their data, personal extensive experience and a possible plan to approach the global threat of food security in a rational and efficient manner.
A few key points from the lecture that drew me into purchasing the book and embracing the possibility and necessity in my mind that conventional and organic farming work together to create sustainability and maintain a sufficient food system. The first point was that they addressed the shortcomings in each of their camps. For example Ronald was very forthcoming with the fact that some conventional methods are indeed harmful to the environment highlighting the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, a result of chemical runoff of conventional farms pooling from the Mississippi River. Here is where genetic engineering enters the conversation and could be incredibly useful in sustaining the world food system. Adamchak, an organic farmer agrees that while his methods can help alleviate somewhat the impact of chemical issues facing conventional farming, it falls short on its own to avoiding the impact of pests and also maintaining the high yields of conventional methods.
Focusing on the future of the global food system and sustainability is the target in their combined method of integration. One of Ronald’s most impressive examples in my eyes is the work she did that led the isolation of the rice led the isolation of the rice XA21 immune receptor and the rice Sub1A submergence tolerance transcription factor. In layman’s terms Ronald and her team were able to locate and isolate these pieces in the genome of a strain of rice and engineer a varietal of rice that is extremely flood and disease resistant. The benefits of this greatly impact the global food system by allowing areas of the world that effected by heavy flooding to not suffer from devastating losses economically and through starvation. Highlighting the real impact of organic farming Adamchak draws on his experience with the sustainability within his own projects and community. One of Adamchak’s hats is that of Market Garden Coordinator at UC-Davis, managing the supply and distribution end on top of production of the campus farms bounty. A model system of crop sharing this is also a great tool that Adamchak is able to educate students on the practices of organic farming but also the joy of growing something yourself and reaping and sharing the benefits of your efforts. Locally faculty and students are able to enjoy this produce creating a sustainable market within the community.
Adamchak and Ronald in their book also share many professional and personal anecdotes as well as some family favorite recipes that are familiar and delicious. One poignant story involves baking at a family get together and the topic of genetically modified organisms came up in conversation. Again I can relate to this as I have many family members in the farming industry as well as involved in the genetic industry. It’s often as difficult as the conversation described in their book, which they pinpoint as a result of widespread fear-based information. Unfortunately, this information is seldom sourced in sound data or an unbiased source at that and both ends of the spectrum are guilty of this.
I have adopted their method directly to seek out information not completely driven or set in the emotion of fear. Instead I challenge myself and everyone to find and examine sources, examine the data, and start a conversation. No matter what end of the spectrum you fall on it’s not a mission to change your mind, but to change the methods to help us sustain together, safely and smartly.
If I’ve piqued your interest pick up a copy of their book and check this out!
Pamela Ronald’s Blog: Tomorrow’s Table