The Amish use GMOs, you know.

More than once I’ve thrown that title into a conversation–in real life or on twitter–and I’m usually met with stunned responses or disbelief. And if it’s on twitter it usually gets some retweets, which reminds me that some people are hearing that the Amish use GMOs for the first time. I have known for a while. I  remember reading about the very curious situation of low-nicotine tobacco that was a controversial anti-smoking strategy developed at the turn of the century. Read more about the details here in a piece in Wired in 2003, but just to give you a taste:

…the bucolic setting isn’t exactly what it seems. Drying inside Dienner’s barn are 10,000 pounds of genetically modified tobacco – one of the most scientifically advanced agricultural products in the world. “Amish law doesn’t say anything about growing genetically modified tobacco,” he says.

A BBC documentary clip lets you hear from a farmer who chooses Bt corn. Click to watch.
A BBC documentary clip lets you hear from a farmer who chooses Bt corn. Click to watch.

That’s not the only story I know about. The BBC did a documentary a while ago that had a fascinating clip of an Amish farmer talking about his Bt corn. This is the one I usually share on twitter because it’s so remarkable to hear the farmer himself talk about using a GMO crop. Go and listen to him yourself.
The farmer talks about his need to use heirloom equipment while at the same time being a sustainable and competitive farm. And using Bt corn is the right choice for him to accomplish what he wants.
Are you qualified to take tools that he wants to use away from this Amish farmer?
Think about that for a minute.
I was thinking about this again as I was reading Heirloom Technology. It’s a great read about inventor and MacArthur Genius Grant winner Saul Griffith, who straddles an interesting divide. What is the point where a tech device would be useful, durable, and appropriate–with the bonus of being sustainable? He’s not saying to get rid of your cellphone. He’s wondering if there’s a way to make it better. If you want to hear some of his earlier thinking on these issues, watch this Long Now seminar he gave before the birth of his child on that bike that’s on fire in the Heirloom piece. He talks about examining his own life in mathematical detail to find efficiencies and energy sinks, including the external energy costs having children, and it’s pretty amusing: Climate Change Recalculated.
I understand the appeal of certain low-tech and heirloom devices. I personally own a 1917 Singer treadle sewing machine that I use and love. The images of the durable items in the Heirloom piece made me laugh–I cook with cast iron pans and I have ensured that I can make coffee if the power is out–even if I use the one with the clock timer the rest of the time.
But I don’t confuse my hobby-level sewing and cooking with the need for large-scale production of fabric and food for the rest of the world. There are efficiencies that can come from larger- or industrial-scale production that are beneficial–they can provide ways to reduce energy use and water use, as well as reducing intensive human labor needs. And although I’d never withhold anyone’s right to use a hand loom, I don’t think it’s the solution to increasing happiness and prosperity for everyone else on the planet.
And that’s the same way I feel about GMOs. There are going to be some GMOs that provide major benefits for people–sometimes on a small scale, and sometimes on a larger scale–and sometimes it won’t always be obvious to people who don’t understand that they can bring benefits. An example of this was provided in a recent issue of Science that explores the current state of pesticides (don’t miss the companion podcast!), with a great comment from Jeff Dangl:

It’s imperative that we grow our food in a sustainable way and that we do so with less chemical input. The example I gave earlier, late blight in potato–in Europe there are currently anywhere from 25 to 50 sprayings. And so if you can reduce that by tenfold down to two or three sprays per season with a genetic solution, I think that’s a huge win for environmentalists. In fact, it’s hard to be an environmentalist and not embrace genetically modified technology for trading in genetic technology for chemical use, so I think this is a hugely important issue.

Reducing pesticide spraying is a good thing for both farmers and consumers. Yes some people think it shouldn’t be examined at all and have tried to halt or have damaged the scientific trials. Similarly, virus-resistant beans or cassava may benefit some of the folks who are the most food insecure and reduce their chemical exposure.
I’m asking you to think like the Amish. Can you consider about the potential benefits of the technology before dismissing it entirely? Can you get past any fearmongering you might have been exposed to, and ask yourself why an Amish farmer might use Bt corn? Don’t you think some of these technologies deserve a look to see if they offer useful features that can benefit farmers and consumers? Consider that something you don’t need in your backyard is fine to dismiss for your personal situation–but are you qualified to withhold that from people in other situations?
Nobody is trying to withhold heirloom tech for those who want to use it. And there may be times when that is exactly the right technology to employ. But there are some cases where integrating new tech when it’s appropriate will have real and vast benefits. It would be reactionary to abandon these options without evaluating them. If you want to be techno-lapped by the Amish, that’s your call. Just decide if you have the right to withhold it from others.

Science & Society


  1. Thanks for an interesting post. I think it points out a lack of understanding about the nature of technology and how certain groups of people (like the Amish) make choices about the technology they use.
    I’m not an expert on Amish culture, but my understanding is that the rules are more or less set with the strength of the community foremost in mind. If all you’ve got is a horse and buggy, spending your weekends in faraway places or driving 50 miles to buy cheaper groceries isn’t very appealing. And without TVs and telephones, you’re much more likely to gather with your neighbours than sit on the couch every evening. On the other hand, what genes are in the corn crop you grow probably doesn’t matter that much. The bottom line is that they pick and choose technology based on a set of principles, not on whether the technology is “modern” or “heirloom.”
    Organic agriculture is much the same: there are a set of principles (obviously much more agri-food specific) that guide decisions about which inputs and practices are acceptable and which are not. Again, it has nothing to do with the age of the technology (which is why allusions to “1950s-style” farming are so inaccurate).
    The thing is, we all make decisions about technology based on a set of principles, although most of us make them about most aspects of our lives without much reflection. For the most part, our decision-making matrix is ingrained and reinforced by the culture we are raised in. That’s why we find it so surprising, amusing, or ridiculous when we encounter groups who don’t conform. Until we understand the underlying principles, we’re apt to dismiss the choices as Luddism, anti-technology, anti-progress, or anti-science. But once we understand the principles, we can start to have productive discussions about the costs and benefits of the choices.

  2. I actually find the Amish set of rules to make more sense than the organic rules, to be honest. I try to understand the rules, but it really does seem like there was a date cut off (hence the 1950s style claim that we often see). When I first learned more about organic (through Tomorrow’s Table, and then through classes and discussions with the Sustainable Ag folks at Iowa State) I thought the rules were based on biology-based rather than chemistry-based farming – which I can totally understand even if I disagree to some degree. But genetic engineering certainly seems like a biology-based solution (as Pam and Raoul so eloquently describe in Tomorrow’s Table) so why is that ruled out? I just don’t understand how something like a nematode resistance gene doesn’t fit into the idea of biology-based farming. A trait like that could help any size farm, could be integrated into an integrated pest management program, and would reduce the need for harmful pesticides. As a geneticist, it’s so confusing that genetic engineering is so demonized by organic folks.

  3. I think your characterization of organic farming as biology-based is accurate. I would also agree that a gene for nematode resistance in compatible with that idea (this year I grew late-blight resistant tomatoes, high beta-carotene spaghetti squash, and high anthocyanin tomatoes, for example – but they were all bred using “traditional breeding.”)
    So we’re left with conflicting impressions about whether or not genetic engineering is biology-based! Based on my personal experience here are the objections: 1) by “artificially” transferring genes (sometimes across species barriers) you are defying biology 2)GMOs are developed, owned, controlled by multinational corporations (one in particular) 3)when introduced, it was a novel technology, based on a rudimentary understanding of genetics, and insufficiently tested for safety.
    Now I know that there are valid rebuttals for each of these arguments, and I’m pretty sure I’ve heard most of them – I’m just sharing information. I think we also need to admit that the first generation GMO crops offered zero direct benefit to organic growers or to consumers, and that they were put on the market with the assumption that no one would object, or that any objections would quickly be overwhelmed. It’s an object lesson in how NOT to introduce novel technologies.

  4. Which ones do you call first generation? I would have thought papaya and Bt would be in that group. And both can reduce chemical pesticides, which I also would have thought been a benefit to organic growers.

  5. Yeah, those are pretty easy to rebut. Unfortunately confirming that organic rules are not science based. They may be biology based but only with a certain (could be characterized as pre-1950s) definition of biology. So we are back at the same point. I’m not a lumper, but inappropriate lumping does seem to be the MO of much of organic. I don’t like to be cynical, but I’m calling it as I see it.

  6. I think we also need to admit that the first generation GMO crops offered zero direct benefit to organic growers or to consumers

    Roundup ready certainly offered no benefit to organic growers. As stated though the only reason Bt would offer zero benefit is because organic growers couldn’t use it, given that organic operations use Bt sprays it should be abundantly obvious that the technology would offer benefits in this arena (assuming the cost of the trait is lower than the cost of purchasing and spraying Bt).

    It’s an object lesson in how NOT to introduce novel technologies.

    I’m not convinced that it is. GM corn, soy and cotton are now the rule rather than the exception, I’m not sure many technologies have been so ubiquitously and enthusiastically adopted in the decade following their release.

  7. I have read some of the literature around the definition of organic, and some philosophers have asserted that organic agriculture is based on methods that are “essentially biological.” What this means in practice is that if something requires the intervention of a person with technical expertise, and if it could not happen without such expertise and the involvement of the person to make it happen, then it is not essentially biological. I was reading a paper that was considering whether tissue culture or embryo rescue was considered “essentially biological” or not. I forget what their conclusion was, actually. What I found interesting about it is that planting seeds, mowing weeds, and even mutagenesis could fit under “essentially biological” processes because they could each happen without human involvement (seed dispersal, grazing, natural mutations). And then genetic engineering, due to the in vitro nature of it, could not be considered essentially biological.
    But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it doesn’t in fact describe the demarcation between organic and non-organic at all. The obvious counter-example is grafting. Grafting trees is not an essentially biological process because it, too, requires the intervention of a technically trained individual to make it happen. European grape vines will not find themselves naturally grafted onto American grape rootstocks just as we wouldn’t be likely to find millet genes transferring to rice. The strange thing is, we have actually found horizontal gene transfer between millet and rice, but we have not found interspecies grafts as far as I know.
    What happened is that organic agriculture “Grandfathered” in these other techniques, like grafting, that are not “essentially biological” because they have been used for a while. They also don’t prohibit tissue culture, mutagenesis, and all these other modern techniques that are not-quite-natural, and as a result, the definition of organic does not have a consistent philosophical basis. Heck, it even allows genetically engineered animal vaccines (that’s right!) if no others are available.

  8. I should have been more specific – I was referring to RR and Bt traits. To be honest, I hadn’t heard of the papaya example until the past couple of years. Maybe that displays my ignorance, but I don’t think I’m alone. I’ll elaborate on Bt in my response to Ewan below.

  9. First of all, Karl, I believe you’re misreading the organic standards with respect to animal vaccines. Here’s what the Canadian Organic Standard says:
    “All materials and products produced from genetic engineering as these are not compatible with the general principles of organic production and therefore are not accepted under this standard, except for vaccines only that have been grown on genetically engineered substrates but are not themselves a product of genetic engineering, as specified in CAN/CGSB-32.311, Organic Production Systems — Permitted Substances Lists”
    This is based on the recognition that vaccines produced on non-GMO substrates were not commercially available and that the value of the vaccine outweighed the philosophical objection to GE tech (which could arguably be called a post-1950s understanding of biology!)
    I appreciate the insight into “essentially biological” – hadn’t read that before!

  10. I have read some of the literature around the definition of organic, and some philosophers have asserted that organic agriculture is based on methods that are “essentially biological.”

    I worked at an organic farm for four years. Among my jobs was using a diesel-powered bucket loader to turn vegetable scraps that had been delivered to the farm via trucks and vans, in order to make compost. This was then spread on the fields using a PTO-driven John Deere manure spreader.
    I also had to run a machine that dispensed mulch over the beds, essentially laying out sheets of polyethylene plastic made by Dow Corporation.
    The farm had several greenhouses made of aluminum alloys, covered in vinyl, and wired for lights, irrigation, and ventilation, not to mention the big oil furnaces in the back.
    I was trained as a pesticides applicator and frequently sprayed insecticides that were imported from Kenya.
    I would be curious to know how these methods are “essentially biological.”

  11. I posted the BBC video to my Facebook and received a lot of interesting, positive responses to it. So it seemed a lot of people don’t know about GMO’s and the types of people that use them.
    This was a good find and a great way to introduce people to the topic. We need more of this.

  12. I’m delighted to hear that Keith. Thanks for coming by to tell me. Ya nevah know if these things spread out and are useful.

  13. Easy one first: you are correct about the rapid uptake by farmers; it was public (consumer) acceptance that I was referring to. The biotech companies did an excellent job marketing to their customers, but as is not uncommon, they neglected to consider the ultimate consumer.
    As for Bt: many organic farmers reacted to the introduction of Bt crops with no small amount of consternation. A product that they had used as part of the integrated pest management system required by organic certification standards had now had its active ingredient engineered into a plant so that it would be expressed by every cell, all the time, across millions of acres. It was, they (correctly) assumed, a recipe for eventual resistance.
    I’m not aware of any organic farmers who have ever used a Bt spray on field corn: the extensive rotations of organic farms (and until recently, even the simple alternation of corn/soy) sufficiently managed the insect pests Bt corn targeted (although a lot of Bt corn was sold “just in case”). In my experience, the vast majority of Bt spray used by organic growers is on brassica crops and potatoes.

  14. The comments here perfectly illustrate the dynamic tension of setting organic standards: some complain that they are too “old-fashioned” (pre-1950s) while others complain that they are too “modern” (diesel and plastic). The fact is, the organic standards are routinely updated and revised to reflect certain current realities. I can now use 100% biodegradable plastics, for example, as well as an increasing variety of biological pest-control products (which makes the concept of a “date cut-off” rather indefensible), and if you want to produce certain organic vegetables in northern areas, greenhouses are going to be necessary.
    The standards process is also more or less open and democratic (depending on the country) and is quite receptive to consumer input: so no, it’s not going to be 100% “science-based” (although calling it “not science-based” purely for its position on GMOs is not very accurate either). I do believe that the standards revision process could use more input from the scientific community, but I’m not about to suggest that “science” should be the only determinant.

  15. As the very foundation of the organic movement is unscientific, it’s irrelevant to consider whether “‘science’ should be the only determinant.”
    From the NOP:

    As a general rule, all non-synthetic substances are allowed in organic production and all synthetic substances are prohibited. The National List of Allowed Synthetic and Prohibited Non-Synthetic Substances, a section in the regulations, contains the specific exceptions to the rule.

    We know what this means: Natural is allowed, unless it’s prohibited, and human-made is prohibited, unless it’s allowed. This nonsense might be termed The Appeal to Nature by Fiat.
    What follows is a byzantine, often nonsensical list of ad hoc “exemptions,” or what you might call a process by which “standards are routinely updated and revised to reflect certain current realities.”
    The chief reality is that “organic” means whatever we wish it to mean, given that science is regularly put into scare quotes, as the sentence quoted at the beginning testifies.

  16. Has putting words in my mouth become the new hobby of people on Biofortified?
    Please tell me where I said that conventional Bt was immune to resistance. And then please explain how the introduction of Bt crops would NOT increase the selective pressure for resistance.

  17. So organic growers shopwed consternation that a product they already used, which had already seen resistance occur, was going to be available to other farmers to use with the risk of resistance existing?
    Color me utterly unconcerned.
    The assumption that resistance might arise is a moot point given that in their own systems of use… resistance had arisen. It seems a rather poor arguement that “hey, we can use it, but you can’t, despite the outcomes being the same” (also, if species sprayed are different, how much of an overlap is there in pest type (serious question, I don’t know – I do know that there is a decent amount of overlap between soy, cotton and corn in terms of pests (not total, or rotation of soy/corn wouldn’t have as much of an impact, but the overlap exists) – if the overlap is not large then the concern is even lower (assuming organic corn farmers don’t spray Bt then resistance to Bt of corn specific bugs is utterly meaningless to them)
    I do love the delicious juxtaposition of the following statements however….

    Has putting words in my mouth become the new hobby of people on Biofortified?

    And then please explain how the introduction of Bt crops would NOT increase the selective pressure for resistance

    Have you no dignity sir?

  18. This is your statement:

    It was, they (correctly) assumed, a recipe for eventual resistance.

    And so is sprayed Bt. Because that’s the way biology works. And as I showed, it had done so before any GMOs arrived on any scale.
    If you are trying to argue that only some people should get to use Bt and others don’t, because one team gets resistance, that’s obviously not the case.

  19. Sorry, I did not intend the put words in Mary’s mouth – I simply meant to imply that she had missed the point of the original comment. Which no one seems to be willing to address. So can we start again?
    My original point was that organic farmers used Bt spray as part of an integrated pest management (IPM) system.
    Bt corn negates the concept of IPM by having the toxin present in the environment at all times.
    It’s not about “some people” getting to use it, it’s not even about GMO vs non-GMO; it’s about responsible management. To state the obvious, IPM programs are designed, in part, to delay resistance. In retrospect, I think we can agree that the refugia strategy proved relatively effective, but I’m simply trying to explain the reaction of growers at the time – they saw IPM being chucked out the window in favour of the convenience of GMO Bt corn. (As an aside, while organic growers don’t use Bt on field corn, some do use it on sweet corn, so there is a basis for concern.)

  20. I don’t know why i didn’t think of this before but, if the Amish were just starting out today, they would have to flee Europe, not because of religious persecution as they did in previous centuries, but now because of technological persecution !!

  21. Here’s what I haven’t heard addressed: long-term animal studies to show the impact (if any) of these new proteins on DNA and the normal flora of these animals.

  22. There have been some discussions of this. Our GENERA project is cataloging many of such studies, and some are even looking at the gut flora in pigs, for instance. No differences have been found.

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