Saturday, April 26, 2008

America must rebuild, not destroy, agricultural research programs

In an op-ed piece today, Nobel Peace Prize winner, Norman Borlaug, describes a new strain of stem rust fungus that could reduce world wheat production by 60 million tons, or 10% of the world's wheat harvest. “If millions of small-scale farmers see their wheat crops wiped out for want of new disease-resistant varieties, the problem will not be confined to any one country. Widespread failures in global wheat production will push the prices of all foods higher, causing new misery for the world’s poor.”

Is there anything we can do to avoid a global crop failure of this magnitude? Yes. Borlaug argues that it is critical to continue American support for the international agricultural research centers (The State Department is recommending ending this support as well as support for important research centers, including the Department of Agriculture’s essential rust research laboratory). If publicly financed international researchers move together aggressively and systematically, high-yielding replacement wheat varieties can be developed and made available to farmers before stem rust disease becomes a global epidemic.

The story of papaya provides an excellent example of how plant biologists can thwart such a disease.In the 1950’s, the entire papaya production on the Island of Oahu was decimated by papaya ringspot virus.

Because there was no way to control the disease, the papaya farms moved to the island of Hawaii where the virus was not yet present. At the same time, Dennis Gonsalves, and coworkers initiated research to develop strategies to control the disease.

In 1992, the virus was discovered in the papaya orchards and by 1995 the disease was widespread, creating a crisis for Hawaiian papaya farmers. By 1998 papaya production had dropped to 26 million pounds.

Fortunately, Gonsalves’ group was able to develop papayas resistant to the virus by using genetic engineering. Gonsalves’ group spliced a small snippet of DNA from a mild strain into the papaya genome. Similar to human vaccinations against polio or small pox, this treatment immunized the papaya plant against further infection. The GE papaya were highly resistant to the viral strain.

After release of GE papaya to farmers in May 1998, production rapidly increased with a peak of 40 million pounds in 2001.

The story of the Hawaiian papaya is an example where GE was the most appropriate technology to address a specific agricultural problem. There was no other technology then to protect the papaya from this devastating disease, nor is there today.

This brings us to the question, what if genetic engineering, the most promising method for controlling stem rust, is used to develop new high-yielding resistant wheat varieties? Will the public’s anxiety about the process of GE, a technology that has been used in agriculture for 15 years (and in medicine even longer) without a single negative environmental or human health affect, paralyze us and prevent release of life-saving wheat varieties?

Just as the public’s embrace of the political strategy of “manufactured uncertainty” about global warming delayed much needed action, so can whispers of uncertainty about GE delay our focus on helping feed the poor and malnourished.

Friday, April 25, 2008

First reading on Tomorrow's Table

Last night Raoul and traveled to Mrs. Dalloway's bookstore in Berkeley to discuss our book "Tomorrow's Table". Here are some questions/comments from the audience and our answers:

Beth Greenfield, stellar yoga teacher in Berkeley: " It does seem like a very complicated subject when you consider everyone's opinions and prejudices. How do you prove that GE produce is safe to consume and grow? And would diehard anti-GE people even listen? You made a good case when you compared it to GM produce and that it is considered okay. But I guess people still think "don't fool with Mother Nature".

Unknown citizen "How can you prove the nutritional content of GE food is not damaged?"
Pam: "Of all the concerns about GE food, this question of risk presents the biggest worry for the most people. The U.S. National Academy of Science addressed a broader question by asking, ‘Is the process of adding genes to our food by genetic engineering any more risky than adding genes by traditional breeding?’ The answer is no. Virtually everything we eat has been genetically modified in someway, and virtually every food we eat poses some kind of risk, albeit a very, very small risk. The NAS committee determined that both the process of GE and conventionalbreeding pose similar risks of unintended consequences."

Jon Agee, author of children’s picture books, husband of Audrey and idol of our children. "I don't think you reached the woman that asked about nutrition. She left early and did not buy a book".

Old friend of Raoul's, Tom Schwartz, Berkeley: "I heard that transgenes were found in traditional corn varieties in Mexico, is this a problem?"
Pam: "In a study of corn landraces in Northern Oaxaca, Ignacio Chapela, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, published a paper in Nature providing evidence for the presence of transgenic DNA in these landraces. The published results ignited an explosion of worldwide publicity because transgenic corn had never been approved for cultivation in Mexico and there was concern that the presence of transgenes might compromise the genetic diversity of these landraces. Although the results presented in the initial publication were widely disputed and then refuted by a larger peer-reviewed study, the paper prompted an important debate over possible biological, economic, and cultural implications of gene flow. These issues are increasingly important because Mexican corn growers want to use GE to improve productivity and poor consumers rely on this staple.

Each crop GE or conventionally bred variety needs to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis as to whether gene flow will create a problem in a particular environment. In California’s central valley it is not such an issue, because most of the crops grown here (GE and not GE) do not cross-pollinate native species nearby. It is as if California were a large, oval-shaped, flat-bottomed platter with steep, slippery sides holding all the domesticated crop plants at the bottom."

Rick Ronald, favorite younger brother: “You should cut the talk in half and leave more time for questions- that part was hot.”

Tom: “I hear that the farmer Percy Schmeiser was sued by Monsanto and it was nothis fault. It sounds like he had a terrible time.
Pam, passing on the question to an audience member. “Peggy (UCB professor and creator of, would you be willing to comment?”
Peggy: “I have heard Percy talk and read some of the court documents. The court found that Schmeiser had either known or ought to have known that he had planted Roundup Ready canola in 1998. The court also found that by selling the seed harvested in 1998 Percy further infringed Monsanto’s patent.”

Mateo Burtch, tech writer and funny guy "You spelled my name wrong in the acknowledgements"

Mrs. Dalloway’s staffer 30 minutes after closing time “Would you please leave now?”

Monday, April 21, 2008

In lean times, Biotech Grains are less taboo

Those who care about the future of global agriculture, may be interested in reading this article by Andrew Pollack of the New York Times.


Thank you for you comment sciphu. I completely agree that we need researchers to test and retest scientific hypotheses.

As for the debate on crop genetic engineering there are plenty of good and necessary debates that are needed.

For example, there has been much concern about the spread of pollen from GE plants and how this movement could affect non-GE crops and native plants. If organic crops cross-pollinate with GE crops, it is possible that consumers would reject the crops. Quite naturally, too, people are worried about food safety. Is it safe to eat transgenes? Is it safe to eat the products of the transgene such as Bt toxin? Finally, there is fear that this technology is owned, and will continue to be owned, by large corporations.

These are some of the questions we address in "Tomorrow's Table" and "The New Organic".

Yet, the debate on GE crops seems to have veered away from the scientific realm into the supernatural.

In his review of David Berlinksi's new book, David Engber writes "Berlinski's radical and often wrong-headed skepticism represents an ascendant style in the popular debate over American science: Like the recent crop of global-warming skeptics, AIDS denialists, and biotech activists, Berlinski uses doubt as a weapon against the academy—he's more concerned with what we don't know than what we do. He uses uncertainty to challenge the scientific consensus; he points to the evidence that isn't there and seeks out the things that can't be proved. In its extreme and ideological form, this contrarian approach to science can turn into a form of paranoia—a state of permanent suspicion and outrage".

Engber points out that the strategy of "manufactured uncertainty" has become refined in the last 40 years and is now used by groups on the left and the right.

For example, the Bush administration exploited this approach in its lead-up to the Iraq war. Most Americans were readily persuaded by President Bush's argument that Iraq might have weapons of mass destruction. Apparently, that idea was easier to embrace than the idea that we should use a scientific approach to scrutinize the likelihood of harm.

"Meanwhile, environmental activists draw from their own ample reservoir of skepticism. If private industry can bewitch the government with contrarian science, so, too, can they. The greens pursue an equal-but-opposite approach: They warn of hidden dangers and put uncertainty in the mind of the consumer... Doubt is their product, too, in the form of the "precautionary principle."

According to this moral and political dictum...the manufacturer of a new technology carries the sole burden of proving its safety. So if you wanted to introduce a genetically engineered crop into the wild, you'd first have to demonstrate, beyond any possible doubt, that it does no harm. That sounds reasonable enough. But let's say your crop had the potential to feed thousands or millions of people? [Or if the GE crop can eliminate millions of pounds of toxic pesticides into the environment?] If the precautionary principle were law, someone who wanted to stop you from sowing this golden rice would only have to produce the whisper of uncertainty and the suggestion that more studies were needed."

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Cranks Sowing Seeds of Doubt

Thanks to Alex Palazzo for alerting us to the article The Paranoid Style in American Science by Daniel Engber of Slate.

This is a three-part series on radical skepticism and the rise of conspiratorial thinking about science. Unfortunately it is all too familiar. As Alex notes, the series discusses how certain people (i.e. climate skeptics, the ID movement, and the tobacco industry) have cultivated a notion of super-skepticism in an attempt to discredit current scientific consensus. Sadly, crop genetic engineering has also often been the target of such attacks.

The book I wrote with my husband Raoul, Tomorrow's Table, has only been out on the stands for 2 weeks and already I have been accused of being a "corporate shill" because I proposed in the book and on this blog that food labeling should be informative and dared suggest that this is not always so easy to do.

Why do some people avoid a scientific debate and instead fall back on reactionary responses? Jim Holt, a writer for the New York Times Magazine, cites a survey indicating that less than 10% of adult Americans possess basic scientific literacy. For nonscientists, it may be the sheer difficulty of science, its remoteness from their daily activities, “that make it seem alien and dangerous” (Holt 2005). Yet, the societal values that science promotes—free inquiry, free thought, free speech, transparency, tolerance, and the willingness to arbitrate disputes on the basis of evidence—are exactly the qualities needed when debating the future use of GE in generating new plant varieties. In the words of Ismail Serageldin, Director of the Library of Alexandria and past Vice President for Environmentally and Socially Sustainable Development of the World Bank, an understanding of the scientific process is important “not just to promote the pursuit of science, but to yield a more tolerant society that adapts to change and embraces the new” (Serageldin 2002).

Misrepresentation of science for ideological or political purposes simply muddies the debate, and sadly, with respect to the GE foods, this often occurs.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Tomorrow's Table in Berkeley

Raoul and I will give a talk about our book "Tomorrow's Table: Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food" at Mrs. Dalloway's bookstore in Berkeley next Thursday evening. This will be our first public talk that we have given together since the book was published.

If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area and are free at 7:30 pm Thursday, please come by. Here are the details.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The state of our food and the creation of our universe

I am often asked “Even if GE crops are considered safe by most scientists, why not simply label the produce from these crops and let people decide for themselves? People like to know what they are eating and make their own choices.”

I am also a label reader. If there is an excess of added sugar or too many ingredients with names that I don’t recognize then I don’t buy the product. Not all information, however, is useful.

A few months ago our local food coop began posting red “consumer alert” signs that say, “Conventional foods that contain corn, soy, or canola may be genetically engineered.” I find these signs more annoying than helpful. It is a little bit like the warnings posted on science textbooks in some states that say, “This textbook discusses evolution, a controversial theory which some scientists present as scientific explanation for the origin of living things, such as plants and humans. No one was present when life first appeared on Earth. Therefore, any statement about life’s origins should be considered as theory, not fact.”

Neither statement says anything informative about the state of our food nor the creation of our universe. With no specific hazards associated with GE foods or evolution, how can a consumer use these statements to make a more informed choice about the risk to their health or to their faith in God?

The National Research Council Committee states that attempts to assess food safety based solely on the process are scientifically unjustified. Rather than adding a general label about the process with which a plant variety was developed, it would make more sense to label food so that consumers are informed about what is actually in or on the food. But this, too, is not necessarily helpful. For some people it may be informative to read a label that says, “may contain traces of carbamate pesticides, which at high concentrations are known to cause death of animals” or “may contain trace amounts of purified Bacillus thuringiensis protein, which kill Leptidoptera (a class of insects).” But is it helpful to most consumers who are not familiar with the science?

Here is another example. If we carry forward with labeling the product, then organic produce treated with rotenone, a “natural” pesticide favored by some organic farmers, would need to be labeled with the following, “may contain trace amounts of rotenone—chronic exposure can cause damage to liver and kidney.” Organic super sweet corn would require this label: “Carries a genetic mutation induced by radiation mutagenesis, resulting in the presence of a mutant protein.” Organically grown papaya would need to be marked: “may contain vast amounts of papaya ringspot viral RNA and protein." These labels are so ominous that it is not likely that many people would feel comfortable eating these organic fruits and vegetables. Still, there is no evidence that any of these food products are hazardous. After all, we have been eating sweet corn
and organic papaya safely for years.

It seems to me that if the labeling statement does not help with safety interventions or inform consumer choice, it does not serve the purpose. It only confuses and unnecessarily alarms people.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Science Debate 2008

While McCain, Obama and Clinton debate the use of the word "bitter", America continues to lose its competitive edge.

"For the last 60 years, science and engineering have been responsible for half the growth in the U.S. economy. But if current trends continue, by 2010 90% of all scientists and engineers will live in Asia. Do the candidates have a plan to keep the American economy strong and to tackle America's major challenges like climate change, energy security, education and healthcare - all of which revolve around science? Who really deserves your vote?"

Shawn Lawrence Otto
CEO, Science Debate 2008

The idea for A Presidential Debate on the role of Science in America’s Future is a national, non-partisan discussion endorsed by most of the American science, academic, medical and technology communities, including thousands of major business leaders, university presidents, Nobel laureates, scientists, and journalists.

Click here to support Science Debate 2008

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Rising Food Prices: What Should Be Done?

"Most Americans take food for granted", reports the New York Times in an editorial today. I would add that we also take aboundant water, vast expanses of wilderness and clean air for granted. Now, however, the price of oil, global warming and skyrocketing food prices are changing the way we think about land. More and more people are remembering that land and its resources are precious. They are remembering that we need to be good stewards of the earth.

In an editorial this week in the NYT, Paul Krugman places part of the blame for rising food prices on biofuels: "We need to pushback against biofuels that turns out to have been a terrible mistake." But this conclusion is premature and overly simplistic.

Whether biofuels offer carbon savings depends on how they are produced. If we destroy rainforests and grasslands to plant food crop–based biofuels, then Krugman is right. This would be a terrible mistake. Such an approach would release 17 to 420 times more CO2 than the annual greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions that these biofuels would provide by displacing fossil fuels. (Fargione et al, science 2008).

But there is more to the story. The same study indicates that biofuels made from waste biomass or from biomass grown on degraded and abandoned agricultural lands planted with perennials (so called cellulosic biomass) incurs little or no carbon debt and can offer immediate and sustained GHG advantages. Research on cellulosic biofuels have only just begun and there are tremendous opportunities. For example, plant biologists are working towards developing new and more productive non-food crops that can be grown on marginal lands. If we triple the yield of biomass we can use 1/3 less land. If we use the most ecologically responsible farming practices available (e.g. organic farming) to produce this new crop biomass, we can reduce the environmental impacts.

In an interview with Ira Flatow on Science Friday today discussing the demand for food and fuel, Nathanael Greene makes the point that we need new innovations and we need to use them smartly. That is what should be done.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The complexity of the natural world

In response to my article, "The new organic" (Boston Globe, Ideas, March 16), Charolotte Vallaeys of the The Cornucopia Institute argues that genetic engineering will not likely find a following within the organic movement. But her arguments are not convincing.

She points out, as does my article, that insects can evolve resistance to genetically engineered crops with built-in pesticides. Yet she fails to acknowledge that resistance first evolved in non-GE crops sprayed with the organic pesticide and thus was predicted from these earlier studies. One of the points of the article is that the best way to benefit from GE seed is to incorporate good stewardship method such as organic farming methods.

Vallaeys also argues that one of the organic movement's key principles is reverence for the productive complexity of the natural world. I agree. Yet then she goes on to draw an artificial and highly sterotypical distinction between geneticists and farmers. Surely those who spend their lives studying the natural world rare are cognizant of its complexity. For is that not what drew us to research in the first place?

As the physicist and philosopher Jacob Bronowski pointed out fifty years ago, “We live in a world which is penetrated
through and through by science and which is both whole and real. We cannot turn it into a game by taking sides. . . . No one who has read a page by a good critic or a speculative scientist can ever again think that this barren choice of yes or no is all that the mind offers” (Bronowski 1956).

Genetic engineering and organic farming are key

By the year 2050, the number of people on Earth is expected to increase from the current 6.7 billion to 9.2 billion i (Population Division, 2007). What is the best way to produce enough food to feed all these people? If we continue with current farming practices, vast amounts of wilderness will be lost, millions of birds and billions of insects will die, farm workers will be at increased risk for disease, and the public will lose billions of dollars as a consequence of environmental degradation. Clearly, there must be a better way to resolve the need for increased food production with the desire to minimize its impact.

Some scientists and policy decision-makers have proposed that genetic engineering (GE), a modern form of crop modification, will help create a new generation of plants that will dramatically reduce our dependence on pesticides, enhance the health of our agricultural systems, and increase the nutritional content of food. They believe GE will be a dramatic step forward that will allow agriculture to topple decades of criticism about the dangerous overuse of pesticides and toxic herbicides, leading us to a more ecological way of farming.

Or will it? While the public has generally accepted the application of GE for the production of new medicines, some consumers indicate grave unease over the consumption and production of GE food, viewing it as unnatural, potentially unsafe to eat and environmentally disruptive. Of these skeptics, the organic farming com- munity has been particularly vocal in its criticism. Some consumers believe that because organic farmers have learned how to produce healthy nutritious food, GE plants are not needed.

One of the major themes of our book "Tomorrow's Table: Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food" is that the judicious incorporation of two important strands of agriculture—genetic engineering and organic farming—is key to helping feed the growing population in an ecologically balanced manner. We are not suggesting that organic farming and GE alone will provide all the changes needed in agriculture. Other farming systems and technological changes, as well as modified government policies, undoubtedly are also needed. Yet it is hard to avoid the sense that organic farming and genetic engineering each will play an increasingly important role, and that they somehow have been pitted unnecessarily against each other. Our ambition in this book, therefore, is not to be comprehensive, but to identify roles for both GE and organic farming in the future of food production.

Another theme of the book is that the broader goals of ecologically responsible farming, and the adherence to those ideals, are more important than the methods used to develop new plant varieties. To this end, we have generated a list of key criteria
to help guide policy decisions about the use of GE in food and farming.

Reviews of Tomorrow's Table

--Stewart Brand, creator of the Whole Earth Catalog
"Here's a persuasive case that, far from contradictory, the merging of genetic engineering and organic farming offers our best shot at truly sustainable agriculture. I've seen no better introduction to the ground truth of genetically engineered crops and the promising directions this 'appropriate technology' is heading."

Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food and The Omnivore's Dilemma
"Whether you ultimately agree with it or not, Tomorrow's Table bring a fresh approach to the debate over transgenic crops."--

L. Val Giddings, President, PrometheusAB
"Welcome as water in the desert-at a time when partisans compete to see who can deliver the hardest slam against those who think differently, what a welcome surprise to find this book building bridges between unnecessary antagonists. The developers of crops improved through biotechnology and the practitioners of organic agriculture want the same thing-a way to grow food that helps farmers tread more gently on the land. Ronald and Adamchak explain how simpatico these two approaches are at heart. For a future that will bring unprecedented challenges we will need all the tools we can muster. Tomorrow's Table shows how organic and biotech can coexist and complement one another. Bravo, and bring on Volume II."--

Peter H. Raven, President, Missouri Botanical Garden
"A unique, personal perspective on the ways in which genetically enhanced crops can improve wholesome agricultural productivity, helping to achieve the low chemical inputs that are the goal of organic agriculture and of those who care about our environment and health. Highly recommended."--

-Sir Gordon Conway KCMG FRS, Professor of International Development, Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College, London, and past President of the Rockefeller Foundation, from his foreword
"This book is a tale of two marriages. The first is that of Raoul and Pam, the authors, and is a tale of the passions of an organic farmer and a plant genetic scientist. The second is the potential marriage of two technologies-organic agriculture and genetic engineering. ... Like all good marriages, both include shared values, lively tensions, and reinvigorating complementarities. [The authors] share a strong sense of both the wonder of the natural world and how, if treated with respect and carefully managed, it can remain a source of inspiration and provision of our daily needs."-

Booklist, April 1, 2008
With the world’s population projected to grow some 50 percent by mid-century, rigorous agricultural planning becomes indispensable to forestall the onset of ecological and human disaster. Ronald and Adamchak, a wife-husband team from the University of California at Davis, combine the training and insights of a geneticist and the know-how of a committed organic farmer. They examine the often-passionate debate about genetically engineered food and how it may affect the food supply of the future, meticulously dissecting arguments for and against such application of science. This wildly eccentric book juxtaposes deep scientific analysis of genetically engineered agriculture with recipes for such homey kitchen staples as cornbread and chocolate chip cookies. In a marvelously useful table, they outline a history of biological technology from 4000 BC through the dawn of the twenty-first century. A glossary of agricultural genetics and an extensive bibliography supplement the text. —Mark Knoblauch

Seed Magazine
Genetically-engineered versus organically-grown. It’s a choice
often framed as being between science and nature, but it’s a
false one, says this wife-husband team. In a literal marriage of
two entrenched camps, Ronald, a plant genomics researcher
at UC Davis, and Adamchak, an organic gardener, shed light
on the unfounded fears of gene modification and the merits a
more-holistic approach to agriculture. Recipes include “Sticky
Rice with GE Papaya” and “Isolation of DNA from Organically-
Grown Strawberries.” -

The Sacramento News & Review
Opposites attract
By Kate Washington

At first glace, the relationship between organic food farming and genetic engineering might seem adversarial. Certainly, we’d expect proponents of the former to be hostile to the latter. But it ain’t necessarily so—or so goes the argument of Tomorrow’s Table, a new book by Davis residents Pamela C. Ronald and Raoul W. Adamchak.

On an anecdotal level, they seem to be living proof that the two can be paired: Ronald is a professor in the department of plant pathology at UC Davis whose research focuses on genetically engineering rice for disease resistance; Adamchak is an organic farmer, formerly of the celebrated Full Belly Farm and now at UC Davis’ certified organic farm; and the two are married, so clearly, some proponents of these seemingly very different approaches to food production can get along.

Ronald and Adamchak’s thesis will no doubt be controversial, but it makes good sense. They contend that genetically engineering certain plants for certain traits—resistance to pests, for instance—is one way to improve farming and food-production methods without relying on the enormous amounts of fertilizers and pesticides currently being pumped into fields. As the authors point out, the world’s population is growing fast, and supporting it through environmentally sustainable farming will require some new ideas. One of which, they say, can be the wedding of genetic engineering and organics—concepts that aren’t as black and white, or as diametrically opposed, as many assume.

The advocacy is balanced, though frequently impassioned, and chapters cover the nature of organics and GE, respectively; how GE is done, technically; whether GE food poses special risks (adducing GE food that has been consumed safely for years, such as papaya); conservation; the problem of weeds; and the problems of seed and gene ownership, proposing some innovative solutions to keep new varieties in the public domain. The book ends with a chapter, “Deconstructing Dinner,” that seems partially inspired by Michael Pollan’s approach in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, tracing the origin of a dinner eaten by Ronald and Adamchak’s family—complete with some delicious-sounding recipes, like a plum kuchen. Local readers may also take special enjoyment in picking out references to regional foods and farmers.

The book’s unusual format—the two authors switch off chapters and range stylistically from personal anecdote to hard science—makes for a lively read, even through some fairly dry and technical material. (The one seriously awkward part of the writing is the stilted nature of recalled “conversations” transcribed for the book—many are rather obviously reconstructed, and they break the flow.) Along the way, you can even find out how to isolate DNA from a strawberry at home—assuming you have a zip-lock bag, an organic berry and some ice-cold ethanol lying around.

Some of the most powerful parts of Tomorrow’s Table are also the most personal—even aside from the simple example of the authors’ marriage. In a discussion of the risk of GE foods, for instance, Ronald describes how assiduously she avoided risky foods when pregnant with her first child—and then reveals, painfully, that their son was stillborn because of an unpreventable umbilical-cord accident. It’s an associative style of argumentation, to be sure, but no less affecting for it as an example of how “all the essentials of life—food, family, and work—have associated risks,” Ronald writes, continuing, “In the end, we can only gather the most accurate information from reliable sources and make the best choices possible. I know the GE crops currently on the market are no more risky to eat than the rest of the food in our refrigerator.” Adamchak’s farming experiences are similarly rendered with immediacy and verve; the hard work of clearing weeds and battling pests comes through clearly and we see why he (and other farmers) might wish to explore technologies that improve organic farming.

Such arguments, as Ronald herself admits in other sections of the book, may not convince die-hard anti-GE types. But this book, with its fresh and intriguing premise, its unconventional style and its passion for improving farming and food production, is worth reading with an open mind.

"If you care about food, you would be well-served by reading Tomorrow's Table"
Karl Mogel, geneticist, blogger, radio show host and journalist, has just posted a review of Tomorrow's Table.

Here is teaser from the review:

"The chapter on politics... begins with a grisly scene..." Read on

While I was in the process of applying for graduate school, in late 2006, I was chasing down a letter of recommendation from my former boss, and somehow, the conversation turned to a book he was asked to proof-read. That book, a year and a half later, was to be published as Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming and the Future of Food, by Pamela Ronald and Raoul W. Adamchak. Pamela Ronald is a rice geneticist and genetic engineer, the chair of the plant genomics program at UC Davis, now also the Director of Grass Genetics at the Joint Bioenergy Research Institute in Emeryville. (She is also a former professor of mine.) The second author, Raoul, is an organic farmer, who runs the UC Davis Student Farm’s Market Garden, a stone’s throw from where I used to garden in Davis.

When I first heard about it in production, I couldn’t wait to read this book, because I knew what it would be about, an idea that both Pam and Raoul have promoted and embody in their lives. You see, Pam and Raoul are married, and they think Organic Agriculture and Genetic Engineering should be, too.

Tomorrow’s Table opens with a concise explanation of relevant concepts, to get everyone on board the same train. For those who are not familiar with plant breeding, genetic engineering, or what the differences are between organic and conventional agriculture. With a forward by Sir Gordon Conway, they are ready to demonstrate to the reader that the political lines as currently drawn, that keep genetically engineered crops out of organic agriculture, are not only arbitrary but may be keeping us from realizing truly sustainable agriculture. Their strategy is to take turns at the dinner table - sometimes literally - to lay it all out.

Alternating with each chapter, Pam teaches a course on genetics, explaining and comparing plant breeding and genetic engineering, while Raoul takes you onto the farm and describes how the organic folks do things differently. An analogy emerges in the book, although not explicitly stated, between Raoul’s trusty pocketknife and Pam’s restriction enzymes - molecular scissors that are used to snip DNA into pieces to be stitched together. How does the scale of the cutting tool determine whether or not you can use it in an organic system?

Next, Pam delves into many of the issues surrounding genetic engineering: Safety, regulations, politics, and how to figure out what is true or not. Does the information come from a trusted source such as a peer-reviewed scientific journal, or a biotech company or an activist group? Are the fearful warnings about ‘frankenfood’ destroying the planet likely to be true or instead false alarms? Pam brings in the research of a sociologist who found that the source of the warnings are a very good predictor of whether or not they are true or false. Not to give it all away, but the warning’s aren’t exactly coming from the most reliable sources.

The chapter on politics, I might add, begins with a grisly scene: my home county of Sonoma, CA, embroiled in an anti-GE measure, proposition M. Farms and houses were littered with Yes and No on M, which would have made it illegal to grow or sell GE crops in the county. The most wide-sweeping measure of its kind in the country, it even, accidentally, would have banned medicines based on genetic engineering. Fortunately, it failed.

Next, they plow through each of the classic issues brought up in discussions of genetic engineering. Trust, risks, the environment, gene flow, and seed and genetic ownership. It turns out that GE does not conflict with the regular practices and goals of organic agriculture today, and the distinction is merely political (and social). They end with a Pollan-esque deconstruction of their food choices.

Without a doubt, this is one of the most informed books I have read on the topic of genetic engineering in agriculture, which neither over-blows nor undercuts the significance of its achievements and promise, and they recognize that GE has issues ahead of it when it comes to intellectual property and consumer acceptance. On organic agriculture as well, they are well-measured in their enthusiasm for a more biological method of growing food, which can reduce the need for agricultural inputs like pesticides and fertilizers, but still has many challenges ahead of it. Garden of Eden it is not… yet. Many GE traits such as drought tolerance, enhanced nitrogen uptake, pest resistance, and disease resistance would work beautifully in an organic agricultural system of agriculture

Most of the critics of genetic engineering have ties to the organic sector of food production in one way or another, and I often hear people enthusiastic about genetic engineering who sneer about organic’s small, yet growing acreage. The animosity between the two camps hurts both efforts, especially because they are often working toward the same goal - sustainable agriculture that you can sink your teeth into. For this reason every critic, skeptic, cynic, advocate, or eavesdropper of either genetic engineering or organic agriculture issues, should check out this book. It is written for them. Heck, it should be read by any person who wants to be able to have a full meal of delicious, healthy food 20 years from now. If you care about food, you would be well-served by reading Tomorrow’s Table. Literally.

You will be well served by their unique style of bringing the genetics and diversity of food right to your dinner table - because they also included their favorite recipes. Enjoy “Waxy” mutant rice, which Thai restaurateurs know as sticky rice, along with GE papaya and sweet coconut sauce. Or how about corn bread made with GE canola oil and corn meal, and buttermilk? Delicious!

By including recipes in a book about food issues, they are connecting their tastes in food to the reader, especially their tastes in the genetics and growing methods behind the food that Raoul and Pam choose to eat and feed to their children. They start and end with the question of what kind of agriculture we want, and the answer is emphatically and convincingly, this one.

And stay tuned for an interview with Pam and Raoul on the Mindcast!

The Davis Food Coop, our local grocery store, has come out with a review of Tomorrow's Table.

Here is our response to the review:

A local, fresh perspective on genetic engineering and organic farming

Our existing agricultural system, while productive, has serious problems that negatively effect the environment and it’s inhabitants. These problems are caused by the overuse of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and farming practices that lead to soil erosion. A major goal of sustainable agriculture is to greatly reduce or eliminate these problems while maintaining yields and farm incomes. In our book, Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food, we suggest a few essential ideas to help forge a more sustainable agriculture. We advocate adopting technologies or farming practices that:

Produce abundant, safe and nutritious food
Reduce harmful environmental inputs
Provide healthful conditions for farm workers
Protect the genetic make-up of native species
Enhance crop genetic diversity
Foster soil fertility
Improve the lives of the poor and malnourished
Maintain the economic viability of farmers and rural communities

Not surprisingly, given our expertise, we believe that organic farming and genetic engineering each have something to contribute to a sustainable agriculture. Rather than embracing “GE crops as the unqualified answer” as Miller states in her review of our book, we advocate that each new approach be evaluated on a case-by-case basis in light of these criteria.

An appropriate technology for food and farming, as asserted by the economist Schumacher in his book Small is Beautiful, should promote health, beauty, and permanence. It should be low cost and low maintenance. Considering Schumacher’s ideas and our goals for ecological farming, it is apparent that GE will sometimes be appropriate for crop production and sometimes not. This is because GE is simply a tool that can be applied to a multitude of uses, depending on the needs of farmers, and consumers.

Still, as we attempt to show in our book, GE comprises many of the properties advocated by Schumacher. It is a relatively simple technology that scientists in most countries, including many developing countries, have perfected. The product of GE technology, a seed, requires no extra maintenance or additional farming skills. GE seeds can be saved and then passed down from generation to generation and improved along the way. It is therefore clear that humans will likely reap many significant and life-saving benefits from GE. This is because even incremental increases in the nutritional content, disease resistance, yield, or stress tolerance of crops can go a long way to enhancing the health and well-being of farmers and their families. Applications of GE have already been used to reduce the adverse environmental effects of farming and enable farmers to produce and sell more food locally.
For example, when small-scale papaya farmers in Hawaii were confronted with a devastating viral disease, GE papaya was the most appropriate approach (funded by non-profit sources and distributed free to growers) to restore the industry. There were no conventional or organic methods to control the disease then, nor are there now.

GE crops in combination with organic techniques have already helped farmers in less developed countries. For example flooding is a major problem for millions of farmers that live on less than a dollar a day in Bangladesh, and India. Yet for over 50 years, breeders were unsuccessful in developing flood-resistant rice using conventional breeding. Today, using advanced genetic techniques, we (Pam and her colleagues) have been able to produce such a variety that has been embraced by growers because of its 2-5 fold higher yield in flood zones. Scientists predict that the lives of thousands of children dying from vitamin-A deficiency will be saved once GE rice fortified with precursors to vitamin A (so-called “Golden Rice”) is released in 2011.

The best way to determine if practices are effective is through scientific study and peer review. Trying to evaluate agricultural technology without peer-reviewed science is like trying to determine if there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq without inspections. When scientific information is available, we should use it. For example we now know that the introduction of GE cotton has dramatically reduced the use of insecticides in the US and abroad. In fields where the GE cotton is not used, the scientific data on the effects of chemical insecticides on insect biodiversity are unequivocal; they devastate local populations.

In regards to eating GE foods currently on the market, the overall issue is health. We would be quite concerned if genes in GE crops could harm people. But this is not the case. There is broad scientific consensus that the GE crops on the market are safe to eat. Over the last 15 years, 1 billion acres have been planted and not a single instance of harm to human health or the environment has been documented. In contrast, each year tens of thousands of people are poisoned by pesticides.

Agricultural advances need to be shared globally. The oft-repeated idea that because we have an abundance of food to eat in the US (thanks to good soils and abundant water and advances made by geneticists, farmers and breeders), we don’t need to continue to improve crops in other countries is short-sighted. It doesn’t make sense for the US to grow food and ship it to Africa or S. Asia where people cannot afford to buy it. Plus it takes precious energy to move it. Farmers in less developed countries need their own local production, improved seed, farming practices and sound government policies. That way they can feed themselves, just as we do here.

Pitting genetic engineering and organic farming against each other only prevents the transformative changes needed on our farms. Rather than opposing all applications of a particular technology, lets direct the technology to help forge a sustainable agriculture. In the words Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring (1962):

"A truly extraordinary variety of alternatives to the chemical control of insects is available. Some are already in use and have achieved brilliant success. Others are in the stage of laboratory testing. Still others are little more than ideas in the minds of imaginative scientists, waiting for the opportunity to put them to the test. All have this in common: they are biological solutions, based on understanding of the living organisms they seek to control, and of the whole fabric of life to which these organisms belong. Specialists representing various areas of the vast field of biology are contributing—entomologists, pathologists, geneticists, physiologists, biochemists, ecologists—all pouring their knowledge and their creative inspirations into the formation of a new science of biotic controls."

Pam and Raoul, Davis Food Coop shareholders since 1980

“Tomorrow’s Table” is now available in the coop. To view peer-reviewed citations, learn more about GE and organic farming, to see other reviews of the book, or to continue this dialog, please check out Pam’s blog at

"A must read for those interested in GMOs and/or the organic farming movement"
Check out the review of Tomorrow's Table by evolutionary biologist Jonathan Eisen.

Here are my favorite parts of his review (just a little cherry picking here):

"I personally like the book a great deal, and enjoy how it switches back and forth between the authors (Pam and her husband Raoul Adamchak) and how it interweaves personal stories with discussion of the science and practice of organic farming and plant genetic engineering...

...the book really is a must read for those interested in GMOs and/or the organic farming movement as well those thinking about "slow food" and other related topics. In addition it is a wonderful personlized story, with a mixture of recipes, stories of research, discussions of teaching about organic agriculture, and some minor family drama. For the same reason that I like Amy Harmon's New York Times stories (such as the recent one on evolution) I like this book - it personalizes what is frequently a boring impersonal discussion..."

Jonathan's full review:

Tony Trewavas has an interesting review (Redefining “Natural” in Agriculture) in PLoS Biology of my friend and colleague Pam Ronald's new book "Tomorrow's Table: Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food."

I was planning on eventually writing my own review of her book but not sure when I will get to it. I personally like the book a great deal, and enjoy how it switches back and forth between the authors (Pam and her husband Raoul Adamchak) and how it interweaves personal stories with discussion of the science and practice of organic farming and plant genetic engineering.

Trewaras has some things in the review I agree with a great deal like

"The text deals with many of the questions raised by the public about GE crops in a sensible and balanced manner, quoting various sources of reliable information on the concerns about risks to health and environment that often recur. It also mentions Richard Jefferson, who is Chairman of CAMBIA, a non-profit organisation that attempts to make the tools of biotechnology widely and freely available ( As a scientist, I cannot help but applaud!"

I personally love what CAMBIA is doing and found the discussion of CAMBIA in the book to be interesting. I have gotten to know Richard Jefferson over the last few years and think he is a true pioneer in revolutionizing biotechnology and freeing it from the shackles of over protectionism.

Trewavas also has a very interesting thread about the value of different opinions. Since this was printed in PLoS Biology and is under a CC license I can reprint it here (with acknowledgment of the source - Citation: Trewavas T (2008) Redefining “Natural” in Agriculture. PLoS Biol 6(8): e199 doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0060199) and it is worth doing so:

The continuing conversation did not resolve the issues between them. It convinced me, however (if I needed convincing), that while everyone is entitled to their opinions, when dealing with detailed technical matters of science or medicine or any subject that requires enormous qualifications and experience, the notion that all opinions have equal validity is simply downright wrong. If you want real information on the safety of heart surgery procedures, do you follow the advice of a qualified heart surgeon or the local butcher? If you want advice on flying a jumbo jet, do you ask the local bus driver or a pilot with 10,000 hours of experience flying jumbo jets? And if you want advice on how to captain a supertanker, do you ask a person whose experience is limited to rowing a dinghy? Mistakes by surgeons are not uncommon, 70% of air crashes result from pilot error, and occasionally supertankers hit the rocks. But relying on rank amateurs instead of professionals would guarantee instant catastrophe. Many branches of science are very complex. However, being a scientist isn't enough, of course, as being a scientist doesn't qualify you to advise on any subject except your specialty. To provide advice that can lead to sensible policy requires not only a thorough understanding of the workings and literature of the particular scientific area but many decades of experience in that field.

It is unfortunate that for the past 40 years, agriculture in particular has been damaged by opinionated groups of the public that have forcefully used fear and anxiety and carefully selected information to try and coerce policy makers to adopt their own mistaken and unqualified views. Fear and emotion do not make for good policy. I applaud Ronald's conclusion that “if citizens vote, it should be for a specific matter on which they are well informed, not because of general concerns about a new technology.”

The corollary is that on most technical matters, the public can never be well enough informed. If scientific knowledge does not form the basis of policy on technology, basing such policy on ignorance can be guaranteed to generate disaster. It was Slovik in his classic Perception of Risk [3] who demonstrated that non-experts overestimate the frequency of death from rare causes while underestimating the frequency of common causes of death, and who established clearly how additional knowledge changed expert understanding. The use of the local ordinance by activist groups to stop GE farming is only too reminiscent of the damage done by Lysenkoism to Soviet farming in the 40s, which took decades to recover from, once it was abandoned.

Basically, he is indirectly agreeing with Ronald/Adamchak that some negative opinions of GE are simply not valid. Here I think I disagree with all of them. I think much of the objection to GE modification of plants is an esthetic objection and thus presenting scientific arguments for why it is OK to do is a bit off tangent. It is kind of like when someone says "that house is ugly." Do you respond by saying "Well, actually, the shape and color patterns have been shown to appeal to human sensory systems" Not too helpful. I feel that the same is happening with GE plants --- if people's instinctively do not like them, telling them about the science is not necessarily going to help. Nothing wrong with educating about the science, but I think it is a red herring to say that some of the anti-GE folks do not understand the science and therefore their objections must be wrong. I feel similar vibes in the evolution education discussion going on around the world. I think many people latch on to ID and Creationism because it appeals to them in a esthetic sense. And one needs to be really gentle/careful about bringing science into the discussion (except of course, when one is teaching a science class --- then you teach the science).

So sure - I have some quibbles about parts of the book. As does Trewavas (he has to raise some objections - any book review that does not have them seems like fan mail and not a review).

Despite my quibbles here and there, the book really is a must read for those interested in GMOs and/or the organic farming movement as well those thinking about "slow food" and other related topics. In addition it is a wonderful personlized story, with a mixture of recipes, stories of research, discussions of teaching about organic agriculture, and some minor family drama. For the same reason that I like Amy Harmon's New York Times stories (such as the recent one on evolution) I like this book - it personalizes what is frequently a boring impersonal discussion.

And of course it does not hurt that the heart of the story / discussion is good. Ronald/Adamchak present an overall idea I have a hard time arguing against - GE and organic growth practices both have a lot to offer the world and if we took the good parts of both, a "GE-Organic" system might be highly beneficial to all. For example, in principle, GE plants can lead to a reduction in the use of pesticides and fertilizer. Similarly, they could lead to a reduction in water use and higher crop yields. Since it seems unlikely that the current organic movement will embrace the benefits of GE crops, it will probably require a whole new movement to merge the two. It will also require the companies and organizations that push GE to do it with the environment and health of people and the planet in mind. To me, the biggest problem with GE food and farming is that it seems to be used more to help the farmers and the companies selling stuff than the consumers and the public. If that changed, I can see people embracing GE plants in much the same way they embrace GE medicines.

PS - For more on the book see Pam's blog here.

Posted by Jonathan Eisen at 8/27/2008 08:19:00 A

"I highly recommend the book" says Sean Feder

For the Capital Press

Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak say they're not proposing a seismic change in mainstream farming practices - just the next step in a long evolution.

Ronald and Adamchak are the husband-and-wife authors of the book "Tomorrow's Table: Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food," published in April. Ronald is a professor of plant pathology and chair of the Plant Genomics Program at the University of California-Davis; Adamchak manages UC-Davis' organic farm.

"It's not so much replacing conventional agriculture as (altering it)," Adamchak said.

The authors advocate combining genetically engineered crops with organic growing practices as a means of feeding the world in a sustainable manner. They say they've heard criticism from both sides.

The organic-farming community tends to show a protectiveness of federal organic-certification standards, they say. Defined by federal rules in the 1990s, organic certification cannot be awarded to any crop created through genetic modification. But these authors don't want to mess with organic standards.

"One of the things we're encountering is that people are posing this false choice - conventional or organic?" Ronald said.

Those categories tend to be defined by current realities. For example, bioengineered crops are often connected with large corporations that control the distribution, pricing and use of seeds.

Observers describe such practices as counterproductive in impoverished regions of the globe. Ronald and Adamchak are not advocating any current market structures - they're describing the value of two growing systems from the perspective of agricultural science.

As organic farming gained popularity in the last 15 years, bioengineering has also ascended the market. Now, bio-engineered crops account for 50 to 90 percent of commercial crops for which they are available, the authors say - notably cotton, corn, canola and papaya.

When a virus nearly wiped out Hawaii's papaya crop in the mid-1990s, scientists responded by engineering a resistant strain. Today, that strain accounts for most of Hawaii's papaya crop, allowing for a reduction of chemical usage.

Engineered crops do have their limits. Chinese cotton growers found success with a bio-engineered crop that is resistant to caterpillars. But when they found it susceptible to other pests, they turned again to chemical pesticides.

Ronald and Adamchak say those growers might still have avoided chemicals by combining the bio-engineered plant with organic growing techniques, such as crop rotation and integrated pest management. It's that sort of combining of practices that is necessary to feed the world's population in a sustainable manner, the authors say.

Because they cannot use chemical crop applications, organic growers rely on the best-performing seeds they can get, Adamchak said. Those seeds were developed through selective breeding, a technique by which new strains have been created for centuries. The end result of that process, Ronald says, is no different from what is created by laboratory methods.

"To me it doesn't matter if it's genetically engineered or conventionally bred," she said.

Ronald has worked for years with several other researchers to modify a rice strain to tolerate consecutive weeks of submergence beneath floodwaters. The findings were published in 2006, and the rice has become popular in Bangladesh, where flooding periodically destroys rice crops.

"We have to put things in perspective, and I think people are fixated on how dangerous (genetic engineering) is, without knowledge to back it up," said Sean Feder, an agricultural professional who oversees organic-crop inspections in California.

Feder works for California Certified Organic Farmers and stressed that his opinions are not his employer's.

"I highly recommend the book," he said. "I think we can use a bit more of an open mind."

Freelance writer Wes Sander is based in Sacramento. E-mail:

Review of Tomorrow's Table: A soothing draught and an easy glide
This review just in from Edible East Bay, a quarterly newsletter that celebrates the abundance of local foods, season by season:

"Our world is facing several converging crises—environmental, social, and political—that are affecting, or will affect, the availability of food to all people. This convergence on the issue of food is making our food policies and production practices more visible than ever. Genetic engineering has become a topic of hot debate in this climate, and it is long overdue for citizens to educate themselves on the matter...

In Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food, we hear from practitioners in the field of genetic engineering: Pamela Ronald, professor of plant pathology and chair of the Plant Genomics Program at UC Davis, and her husband, Raoul Adamchak, a veteran organic farmer who assists in his wife’s research. The two believe that the technology can be (and is being) put to work to the benefit of humanity and global environmental stewardship. In these confusing times, I for one find such creative solutions to the world’s problems to be a soothing draught, and the arguments put forth in this book are compelling enough to make one want to rethink the whole matter. Ronald and Adamchak wrote the book, tag-team. It’s such an easy glide that we are happily led back through lessons we once slept through in high school, like basic biology and what constitutes the scientific method. This book also includes memorable characters, recipes, and a fabulous glossary of terms useful in the debate over genetic engineering."

Cheryl Koehler

Check out the latest review of "Tomorrow’s Table" published in PLoS Biology.

Redefining “Natural” in Agriculture

Tony Trewavas

Citation: Trewavas T (2008) Redefining “Natural” in Agriculture. PLoS Biol 6(8): e199 doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0060199

Published: August 19, 2008

Copyright: © 2008 Tony Trewavas. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

Abbreviations: GE, genetically engineered

Tony Trewavas is with the Institute of Molecular Plant Science, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom.

The place of genetically modified crops in sustainable agriculture has been the subject of heated debate for decades. A new book takes an innovative approach to this debate by presenting the perspectives of an unlikely pair of co-authors [1]. Pam Ronald is a plant molecular biologist, genetic engineer, and supporter of genetically engineering crops for the benefit of humanity. Raoul Adamchak is an organic farmer. Given the known antagonism of many organic advocates to genetically engineered (GE) crops, one would not have thought these two authors would be able to provide an agreed text. But Adamchak is married to Ronald and, to judge from the text, happily so. The authorship of the individual chapters alternates between the two. The subject matter deals with organic farming methods, GE methods, questions of environmental conservation, risk, trust, and ownership of seeds and genes. The last chapter, and the only one written jointly, concludes that some marriage of organic and GE technology will represent the agriculture of the future.

I must admit to holding the same view some 15 years ago, but not now. I assumed that the use of GE technology would be rather like the green revolution. Universities and research institutes would make new crop plants available and free to those that needed them. What has intervened of course for GE is the input of commercialism, which has muddied the waters. Organic farming is not immune to commercial pressures either, and there are strong suspicions that the organic industry's antagonism to GE is a marketing ploy. Mutated crops, induced by radiation, for example, have been used for many years by conventional and organic farmers alike, and it is now known that radiation mutation causes much greater genomic change than GE technology [2].

The text deals with many of the questions raised by the public about GE crops in a sensible and balanced manner, quoting various sources of reliable information on the concerns about risks to health and environment that often recur. It also mentions Richard Jefferson, who is Chairman of CAMBIA, a non-profit organisation that attempts to make the tools of biotechnology widely and freely available ( As a scientist, I cannot help but applaud!

A substantial part of the book gives accounts of conversations between Pam Ronald and others about GE, enabling her to easily justify why it is supported by many in universities. I particularly enjoyed an account of one conversation between Pam Ronald and a relative (a lawyer) who argued against GE crops. This particular discussion started because several counties of California had voted on an ordinance that would have banned GE farming. The relative had voted for the ordinance. I quote several passages to give a flavour to this discussion.

Lawyer: “I voted for the ordinance because it will send a message to the large corporations that the onus is on them to prove their products are safe.”

Ronald: “I point out that the ordinance contained no language concerning the role of corporations and I mention that the US National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society in London (the supreme scientific bodies in these countries) have both indicated that these crops are safe.”

Lawyer: “Even if they are safe to eat I don't like the idea that many of the GE crops grown in the US are sprayed with herbicides.” [The reference here is to glyphosate, used to control weeds in GE herbicide-tolerant crops.]

Ronald: “The good thing about glyphosate is that it is known to be non-toxic to mammals and does not accumulate in water or in soil.”

Lawyer: “But even if the herbicide is non-toxic, I have read that there is a chemical mixed with the herbicide that can harm fish.” [This refers to a surfactant used in some glyphosate formulations.]

Ronald: “Well if it is the surfactant you object to, wouldn't it make more sense to simply ban the surfactant or the herbicide itself?”

Lawyer: “ It would be a political dead end to ban the herbicide because lots of people like to use it in their garden.”

The continuing conversation did not resolve the issues between them. It convinced me, however (if I needed convincing), that while everyone is entitled to their opinions, when dealing with detailed technical matters of science or medicine or any subject that requires enormous qualifications and experience, the notion that all opinions have equal validity is simply downright wrong. If you want real information on the safety of heart surgery procedures, do you follow the advice of a qualified heart surgeon or the local butcher? If you want advice on flying a jumbo jet, do you ask the local bus driver or a pilot with 10,000 hours of experience flying jumbo jets? And if you want advice on how to captain a supertanker, do you ask a person whose experience is limited to rowing a dinghy? Mistakes by surgeons are not uncommon, 70% of air crashes result from pilot error, and occasionally supertankers hit the rocks. But relying on rank amateurs instead of professionals would guarantee instant catastrophe. Many branches of science are very complex. However, being a scientist isn't enough, of course, as being a scientist doesn't qualify you to advise on any subject except your specialty. To provide advice that can lead to sensible policy requires not only a thorough understanding of the workings and literature of the particular scientific area but many decades of experience in that field.

It is unfortunate that for the past 40 years, agriculture in particular has been damaged by opinionated groups of the public that have forcefully used fear and anxiety and carefully selected information to try and coerce policy makers to adopt their own mistaken and unqualified views. Fear and emotion do not make for good policy. I applaud Ronald's conclusion that “if citizens vote, it should be for a specific matter on which they are well informed, not because of general concerns about a new technology.”

The corollary is that on most technical matters, the public can never be well enough informed. If scientific knowledge does not form the basis of policy on technology, basing such policy on ignorance can be guaranteed to generate disaster. It was Slovik in his classic Perception of Risk [3] who demonstrated that non-experts overestimate the frequency of death from rare causes while underestimating the frequency of common causes of death, and who established clearly how additional knowledge changed expert understanding. The use of the local ordinance by activist groups to stop GE farming is only too reminiscent of the damage done by Lysenkoism to Soviet farming in the 40s, which took decades to recover from, once it was abandoned.

Adamchak describes organic farming as working through biology and conventional farming as working through chemistry. The commonest reason the public gives for buying organic food is that it is natural (or biological; in France, organic food is described as biologique) and lacks “chemicals” because pesticides are not used to control pests. Adamchak's supposition is completely erroneous; plants have always used chemicals to control pests. Allelopathic plants kill other competing plants by secreting toxins from leaves and roots, and there are at least 100,000 natural toxins (pesticides) synthesised by higher plants to kill insect herbivores and found in all fruits and vegetables. When tested toxicologically on rodents, the daily average diet is known to contain natural pesticides that are nerve toxins, many carcinogens, endocrine disruptors (that either mimic oestrogen or induce male sterility), and other pesticides that interfere with cell division, cause chromosome breakage, or damage blood, skin, or thyroid. The list is remarkably similar to the claims made by activist groups about the biological effects of synthetic pesticides.

We are not adapted to exposure to these natural chemicals. The dozen or so nerve toxins in potato have in the past killed at least 30 people and caused sickness in thousands [4]; another nerve toxin, cucurbitacin in organic courgettes, has caused illness in large numbers of people. The endocrine disruptors (genistein and others) in soy are actually recommended to menopausal women to mitigate the symptoms arising from lower oestrogen content, while psoralen in parsnip, figs, and celery causes damaging skin blisters, and so on.

Natural pesticides represent about 1%–5% dry weight of any vegetable or fruit. There is a simple seesaw relation between yield and natural pesticide content. In crop breeding, the natural pesticide content has been reduced to increase yield, making produce safer for human consumption but now requiring additional synthetic pesticide to offset the reduced resistance. The margin of health safety for natural pesticides is small; for the traces of synthetic pesticides, it is enormous. If organic advocates object to the fact that traces of synthetic pesticides can be detected weeks after consumption, solanidine, one of the potato nerve toxins, has been shown to have a half life in the liver of several months. With present technology, the solanidine consumed in one potato could be detected years later, but this is almost the only natural pesticide whose biological stability has been examined. There is nothing unnatural about farmers using pesticides; biology uses chemistry to control pests. Natural certainly does not mean safe.

Although I could offer many other criticisms of individual parts of the book, I greatly enjoyed reading it. The most important omission that cannot be glossed over, however, is that of agricultural context. Support for any kind of agricultural technology depends simply on the context of the times. There is an old saying: “one food, one problem, much food, many problems.” For those whose next meal—and the next and the next—is a bowl of rice, other problems, such as whether food is organic or not, are of little consequence. Their one problem is where to get their next meal, and the only method of acceptable farming in this context is the one that gives the maximum yield, year in and year out. Wheat is grown on more acres worldwide than any other cereal. In the United Kingdom, average organic wheat yields are four tonnes per hectare whilst conventional yields are averaging eight.

I regard the obsession amongst some for organic farming as merely a reflection of wealth, an apparent abundance of food, and a feeling that the problem of food security is solved. But the world for wealthy countries is changing. Global warming, greenhouse gas emissions, biofuels, and soaring oil and food prices are among the many new problems; food security is again becoming a hot topic. Environmental issues, clearly only part of the good times, are declining in relevance.

Although Ronald and Adamchak mention no-till agriculture only briefly, this is surely the agriculture of the future. No-till farms produce only one third of the greenhouse gas emissions of an organic farm [5]. No-till eliminates soil erosion and improves environment, wildlife, and soil. Most importantly, it maintains a conventional yield. Currently 10% of United States farms are totally no-till, and another 60% are partially no-till; this achievement is due almost solely to the availability of GE herbicide-tolerant crops.

No-till is not an amalgam of organic and GE technology but something that was derived from observations of nature in a very different way. Faulkner, the perceptive founder of no-till in 1943 [6], derived his revolutionary ideas from asking himself a very simple question: Why don't the prairies suffer from the present (1940s) problems of US agriculture? Faulkner's answer: the prairies are not subjected to that most damaging of all soil treatments: the plough. Leaving crop residues on the surface is the nearest any form of agriculture comes to mimicking the annual and natural cycle of the meadow. Herbicides are human “allelopathy” of weeds, and humans are part of nature too. If you want an agriculture that is nearest nature, then this is surely it.

Ronald PC, Adamchak RW (2008) Tomorrow's Table: Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food. New York: Oxford University Press. 232 p. ISBN (hardcover): 978-0195302755. US$29.95.

1. Ronald PC, Adamchak RW (2008) Tomorrow's table: Organic farming, genetics and the future of food New York: Oxford University Press. 232 p.
2. Batistia R, Saibo N, Lourenco T, Oliveira MM (2008) Microarray analyses reveal that plant mutagenesis may induce more transcriptomic changes than transgene insertion. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 105: 3640–3645. Find this article online
3. Slovik P (2000) The perception of risk London: Earthscan. 473 p.
4. Morris SC, Lee TH (1984) The toxicity and teratogenicity of solanaceae glycoalkaloids, particularly those of the potato: A review. Food Technol Australia 36: 118–124. Find this article online
5. Robertson GP, Paul EA, Harwood RR (2000) Greenhouse gases in intensive agriculture: Contributions of individual gases to the radiative forcing of the atmosphere. Science 289: 1922–1925. Find this article online
6. Faulkner E (1943) Plowman's folly New York: Grosset and Dunlap. 161 p.

Tomorrow's Table in the classroom
"I really enjoyed the book. It did a great job of keeping everything in perspective. Use again !"

"Use again! A great resource and easy to understand"

"The textbook was great. It had a story line to it. It was easy to remember."

These are some of the comments from Oregon State University students who read the book, "Tomorrow's Table: Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food".

Steven Strauss, Distinguished Professor of Forest Biotechnology at Oregon State University, who directs the OSU Program for Outreach in Resource Biotechnology, chose the book for his course, which give students and the public scientifically reliable information about the use of genes and chemicals in agriculture and natural resources.

Thanks Steve, for being the first to use it in the classroom!

An Excellent Introduction To Biotech and A Unique View,
July 20, 2008
By J. Canestrino (Lodi, CA United States) - See all my reviews
I made it through the book in a day or two. It is not overly technical; it is an excellent introduction to biotech and organic farming. I did not really get into the book until the last chapter; I guess I kept wishing for more technical information, for the authors to drive home their point of view.

However, the point they are trying to make cannot be more important. That is that biotech has a place in organic farming to make it more "sustainable". RoundUp ready crops have made it possible for farmers to stop using much more damaging and toxic herbicides and to go to no-till farming to preserve topsoil. It is the only answer for some problems sometimes, such as virus resistance. It would allow conventional farmers of sweet corn to stop using a slew of really noxious insecticides.

Like Dr. Savage said in his review, I do not think that the organic farming movement is going to "hear" this message and see the wisdom in it, but if they could I think they would have to redefine the way they think of organic vs. sustainable.

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
4.0 out of 5 stars Reason and humanity....Enough?, May 26, 2008
Pam and Raul's very well written book makes the rational and even emotional argument that biotechnology is fully compatible with the core ideals of the organic movement. I completely agree with that position looking back to my grandfather's version of "organic" from the 1960s.

I wish I could believe that Pam and Raul's logical arguments will fly with the core of the "organic consumer" movement. They make excellent rational arguments. I'm not sure this debate is about that. As Mark Twain said, "you can't reason someone out of a position they weren't reasoned into in the first place."

As much as I wish otherwise, I'm not optimistic that this book will succeed in its aim to reconcile "organic" and "biotech". Even so, it does a great job of explaining the societal benefits of biotech crops and it helps to humanize the people that have made this a reality.

This is a book that everyone focused on the environment should read.

Steven Savage, Ph.D.

4.0 out of 5 stars A pleasant surprise, August 30, 2008
I was given this book by a friend who is an organic "true believer" and when he handed me a book I sort of expect a re-hashing of the usual pro-organics arguments I've heard many times over the years. Instead I was pleasantly surprised.

The book is straight forward, well-reasoned, and accessible. I have a background in agriculture and molecular biology, and so at times I found the science a tad too simplistic to strongly hold my interest, but I suspect that for the average reader, it strikes a nice balance between addressing the subject fully and excessive complexity and jargon. The case they build is in my view quite compelling, and I hope this book serves to open many minds.

When I was starting out in plant science, I remember a professor telling me that when the first transgenics were being developed, he really thought the organics crowd would be the biggest supporters. "We'd just come up with a solution to their biggest problems, but instead they decided we were the enemy". Although I think that organics are, ultimately, a positive development in agriculture, they are like most "movements" a mixture of real reasons and irrational, emotional impulses. Although organic agriculture has been an important step towards a sustainable future, it has brought with it a fair amount of baggage, based on not on science or reason, but on a nostalgic idealization of traditional agriculture--even though such agriculture was often neither natural nor sustainable nor especially desirable, even then. The fear of genetic engineering seems to me to come from that deeply conservative undercurrent in an otherwise progressive movement. By making the facts behind genetic engineering and its impacts on agriculture and environment accessible to a general audience, this book can hopefully be a step towards calming that reactionary impulse.

It helps too that it is also an easy and enjoyable read. By the end I felt as though I'd kind of gotten to know the authors (in fact since we don't live all that far apart and work in vaguely the same field, it crossed my mind that I might someday bump into them). The style is casual without being superfluous, making it easy to lose yourself in the book. I started this book as I tended the grill before dinner, and finished it as I went to bed the same night.

Putting aside the genetic engineering part, even, this book is also simply one of the best scientific presentations of organic agriculture I have read, in that it is soundly grounded in the literature and does not over-reach, while remaining staunchly and reasonably pro-organic. There are few other books on the topic I can say the same for.

All in all a good read about an important topic.

Required reading for foodies,
June 16, 2008
By R. Santer (Davis, California United States) - See all my reviews
As a consumer who shops at grocery stores that specialize in organic food, I have noticed a proliferation of signs and labels stating that this or that product is GE or GMO free. These labels don't do much to inform the public and do much to increase anxiety. This book is a great antidote; informative and detailed, clear and engaging.

Readers of recent books on the politics of food, such as Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver or The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan will be interested in the authors' global perspective and local expertise, and I was especially glad to read about the potential impact of GE food in developing countries.


Tomorrow´s Table, una búsqueda de la verdad sobre la agricultura orgánica y la modificación genética

Pamela C. Ronald y Raoul W. Adamchak son los autores de un libro que pretende mostrar al público un estudio empírico y riguroso sobre las técnicas empleadas en la agricultura orgánica y en la actual modificación genética

La problemática actual sobre el uso de la ingenería genética ha sido objeto de estudio para una investigación que ofrece tanto datos científicos como los componentes éticos que están necesariamente unidos a este tipo de avances tecnológicos.

A grandes rasgos Tomorrow´s Table ofrece tres ejes fundamentales de estudio:los componentes científicos implícitos en el desarrollo de las semillas, los elementos morales intrínsecos en la problemática de las patentes y la visión que el público tiene sobre la actividad de los científicos.

Para Pamela C. Ronald, el público necesita entender el proceso que siguen los científicos en los mecanismos de modificación genética y aprender distinguir a aquellos que están altamente cualificados. Entender el proceso científico es importante no sólo para promover a la propia ciencia, también para favorecer que la sociedad ofrezca una mayor tolerancia y se adapte a los cambios que ofrece la misma.

En esta rigorosa investigación se ofrece algunos criterios útiles para que el público sea capaz de distinguir los rumores de la ciencia de calidad, sujeta a los métodos rigurosos. Entre ellos destacan examinar la fuente de información primaria, comprobar si el trabajo fue publicado en una revista científica, determinar si hay una confirmación de la información en otro estudio publicado, o averiguar que conflicto de intereses puede existir en la información ofrecida.

Un aspecto importante a estudiar en estos procesos son las semillas. Las empresas de semillas trabajan en variedades que crezcan antes, uniformes o resistentes a sequías. Muchas de estas nuevas variedades se denominan híbridos, que poseen diferentes variedades de la misma especie. Estas semillas orgánicas son caras pero muchos las compran por las calidades que ofrecen. La popularidad de los híbridos ha ido aumentando mucho en los últimos años.

Otra técnica utilizada es la llamada “polinización abierta”, este proceso permite que después de algunas generaciones se consiguan los efectos buscados, como conseguir mejor sabor, variedades más grandes o más duraderas.

La modificación genética es el mismo proceso que ocurre en la polinización abierta, la ventaja de la primera con respecto a la segunda es que permite introducir un único gen, mientras que siguiendo el proceso tradicional para introducir un gen hay que introducir muchos más a la vez.

La problemática de las patentes también es objeto de estudio para los autores del libro. Para ellos el actual sistema de patentes está frenando la innovación y dando una mala imagen a las plantas biológicas. Muchos de los inventos son exclusivamente licencia de compañías privadas, generando un oligopolio dominado por cinco firmas (Monsanto, Dupont-pioneer, Sygenta, Bayer, BASF). Esto significa que las compañías privadas tienen ahora mucho más control de quién usa esta tecnología.

Un ejemplo característico es el “Golden Rice”, aunque el trabajo ha sido orientado hacia el dominio público, más de 70 patentes tienen la potestad del desarrollo de este arroz.

No obstante gracias a la asistencia de instituciones como la Fundación Rockefeller, las empresas privadas que tienen los derechos de propiedad intelectual han estado de acuerdo en que esta tecnología podría ser usada con fines humanitarios, consiguiendo que hoy día el “Arroz dorado” esté disponible libre de cargos. Así mismo, esta fundación está trabajando para que la tecnología implícita en la modificación genética sea accesible para aquellos que más lo necesitan, ayudando a establecer instituciones como la Fundación Africana de Agricultura Tecnológica (AATF). No obstante, para los autores sin un buen gobierno y el establecimiento de políticas directas o adecuadas políticas de propiedad intelectual, no se pueden solucionar estos problemas.

El estudio desarrollado en Tomorrow´s Table pone de manifiesto la riqueza analítica que posee la investigación de los autores, ofreciendo al lector una rigurosa visión de la problemática presente en la modificación genética de alimentos. Todo ello deja patente como la puesta en común de los conocimientos de genética de Pamela C. Ronald y la experiencia de su marido como granjero orgánico ha sido el punto de partida para desarollar el estudio, utilizando la dialéctica como núcleo de la investigación