Ron Bailey’s one of my favorite science writers and I’m completely on board with his complaints about alarmist reactions against genetically modified food. Yet in this post of his about a newly passed Hawaiian ban on growing GM coffee, I’m sympathetic to the coffee farmers who supported it. They’ve succeeded in creating an immensely popular brand — rather above its actual quality, in my experience — and their livelihood depends on keeping it intact and protecting their organic certification. Their fears of losing certification in US markets are likely overblown, but I can understand why they have them. (Even so, as Ron has previously written, it’s not at all obvious that organic farmers deserve legal protection against potential contamination.)
If there’s anyone to blame here it’s the USDA’s and Europe’s organic certification programs and the consumers who demand products bearing their labels. It’s weird that certification, which depends mostly on the farming techniques used in production, also addresses the genetic composition of the plants at issue. It would be nice if we could decouple these standards because right now there’s no convenient way to convey to consumers that a product is GM yet otherwise grown under organic conditions. This is especially problematic given that a major aim of genetically modified crops is to make it easier to avoid the pesticide use that drives many people to prefer organics.
Is there a future for GM coffee? Maybe. Trials for pest-resistant varietals have been successful despite attacks from vandals hoping to derail the project. Coffee is an incredibly complex crop though, and it’s hard to predict how a new varietal will taste under different growing conditions. If scientists do create a GM bean that tastes great and makes it easier for farmers to work without pesticides, coffee lovers should welcome it with open arms. Under current regulations, however, we won’t be able to market it as organic no matter how naturally it’s grown.