Friday, October 16, 2009

Tomorrow's Table moves to Science Blogs

Hello readers

After a short blogging break, Tomorrow's Table will soon go live on Science Blogs.

Please visit the new site. Although it still needs a bit of work (e.g. I need to post my favorite blogs to my new blog roll- that means you Mind the Gap and Tree of Life), next week I will begin posting regularly. Thanks for your comments and support.

See you there!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Also, What If We're Attacked By Beets? What Then?

Dear Ms. Doctor Ronald--

I recently had the opportunity to read Simplicity Today, the magazine of the University of Reed alumni association, and its article on you (or someone who looks like you and has the same name as you and is apparently you). I found it to be fascinating and educational in the extreme, so extreme that I actually burned myself on it. I also found it very easy to read, once I mastered the "trick" of holding the magazine rightside-up.

Although, because of time constraints, I was only able to skim a few of the shorter paragraphs, I believe I got the gist of the article, which was, if I'm not mistaken, science. Now, I am very pro-science. I believe that science is our future, along with bean-bag chairs and radio. I feel that that every child in America, or wherever they live in the US, should be exposed to science, although only for brief periods and only while wearing a protective lead suit. I also believe that carrots are not our friends. This last point is, admittedly, of only tangential relevance to the matter at hand, but I feel that I should express all my beliefs at once.

Despite my fervently pro-science stance, much of what I nearly read in that article causes me great concern. As a small farmer (4'9") struggling to compete in the cutthroat world of agriculture, I am very concerned about genetically modified orgasms (GMOs). I believe that any artificial tampering with sexual function, other than using margarine on the upper torso, is likely to ... wait a moment. I see by further skimming that I have made a small mistake here. Evidently the correct term is "organism."

Never mind, then.

Dr. Ronald, I work very hard at farming. In my case, I raise bacteria, mostly E. coli, in my stomach, and sell them at farmers' markets. It is a niche enterprise, as the only farmers' markets that cater to this enterprise are very small--very small, indeed. (Most of my buyers are larger bacteria.) Now, it is not the thought of "monster genes" that worries me. Frankly, I wish scientists would take much less care in this area, because I am hoping someday that someone will accidentally invent a hot dog with wings that will fly right into your mouth. No, it is the notion of corporate control of GMOs (organisms) that causes me distress. I am not referring so much to companies like Monsanto or Archer Daniels Midland, because I am pretty sure that these firms will either sink through their own avarice and venality, or from being hit by asteroids, but other corporations. I am thinking specifically of Toys 'R' Us. Dr. Ronald, have you and your organic husband never stopped to think what might transpire if Toys 'R' Us gets hold of the gene?

Perhaps the thought of a genetically modified Slinky doesn't bother you. Perhaps you don't care if Mattel creates a pesticide-resistant Barbie that CANNOT BE KILLED. Perhaps you welcome the day that Hasbro markets a Lite Brite that contain genes from a Big Wheel.

Well, I don't, Dr. Ronald, and that's why I will continue to raise my stomach bacteria the old-fashioned way . . . on manure from farm animals and rich, loamy deposits of night soil. Yes, it means extra effort, and, yes, my yields may not be as impressive as those of the big, factory-style bacterial farms that double as agribusiness cattle ranches, but I believe that the old ways are the best ways. (Of course, there is always room for progress. Which is why I put a steering wheel on my horse.) If this means that I will miss out on the coming revolution in food-based toys, well, then so be it. That's a small price to pay for piece of mind, although it's rather a high price to pay for, say, shoe inserts.

Thank you.

Mateo Burtch

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Who Can We Trust?

Discussions about genetic engineering with the general public inevitably lead a to concern that scientists cannot necessarily be trusted. It seems that to successfully make decisions on how to use GE for the betterment of humankind and the environment, the public will need to understand the scientific process and learn to distinguish high-quality scientific research that has stood the test of time and can largely be relied on from simple assertions or unsubstantiated rumors.

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 scientifi c 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. For example, to suggest that genetic engineering is dangerous, proponents of the California initiatives to ban the process often cite a book called Seeds of Deception (Smith 2004), written by a former Iowa political candidate f or the Natural L aw Party with no scientific training. This book is the likely source for information on another Sonoma county flyer suggesting that “Lab animals fed GE food develop stomach lesions,” in reference to a fundamentally fl awed experiment carried out in 1999 that was never confirmed (Ewen and Pusztai 1999). To lend credence to those irreproducible results, Smith cites the experiment of a seventeen-year-old student who fed mice genetically engineered potatoes. According to the referenced Web site, “ . . . [the mice] fed GM ate more, probably because they were slightly heavier on average to begin with, but they gained less weight.” In addition, “ . . . marked behavioral diff erences” were observed though the boy admitted, “these were ‘subjective’ and not quantitative.” Smith argues that this experiment demonstrates that GE food may have negative eff ects on the “human psyche” and concludes that the boy “has put the scientists to shame.” The implication is that the public can trust this experiment carried out by a student, unhampered by scientific training but not those of the scientific community who pointed out the flaws in the original experiment. Smith ignores the fact that this experiment conducted by a teenager was not subjected to the rigorous methods that are inherent to the scientific process.

So how can the public distinguish rumors from high quality science, determine what an established scientific “ f act” i , and what is still unknown? Here are some useful criteria:

1. Examine the primary source of information. Is there a reference to the source of information? If not, it cannot be verified. If so, is the source reputable? In the case of the boy and the mice, I found that the reference given for the boy’s work was to another Web site, and that that web site referred to even another Web site (Ho 2002). It turned out that the only documentation of this “experiment” was a chance meeting with the boy’s mother, who was the source of the “scientific information.” “Mum Guusje is very proud of her son. . . .” Why would someone would cite a conversation with a boy’s mother as a good scientific reference? Either the authors of the book and the Web site lack a basic understanding of science and cannot assess the accuracy of the work, or they
simply do not care, or both. But they should care; for this kind of deception only confuses and frightens people. And laws are being passed based on this kind of information.

2. Ask if the work was published in a peer-reviewed journal. Peer review is the standard process for scientific publications. Peer-reviewed manuscripts have been read by several scholars in the same field (called peers), and these peers have indicated that the experiments and conclusions meets the standards of their discipline and are suitable for publication. In the absence of peer-review the significance and quality of the data cannot be assessed. With no peer-reviewed, published record of the boy’s subjective experiment, it is doubtful that normal standard scientific methods were applied.

3. Check if the journal has a good reputation for scientific research. If a peer-reviewed paper is cited, where was it published? Is the journal widely respected? One tool that is commonly used for ranking, evaluating, categorizing, and comparing journals is the frequency with which the “average article” in a journal has been cited in a particular year or period. The frequency of citation reflects acknowledgment of importance by the scientific community. High-impact and widely respected journals include Science and Nature. Therefore, a citation in Science generally suggests scholarly acceptance, whereas publication in a nonscientific or little-known journal does not.

4. Determine if there is an independent confirmation by another published study. Even if a study is peer-reviewed and published in a reputable journal, independent assessment is critical to confirm or extend the findings. Even the best journals or scientists will occasionally make mistakes and publish papers that are later retracted. Sometimes there may be outright fabrication that is overlooked by the reviewers and not detected until later (Kennedy 2006). In other cases, the scientific report may be accurate but its significance may be misrepresented by the media. A good example is that of genetically engineered corn and the monarch butterfly controversy that erupted in 1999. A Cornell entomologist, John Losey, published a short paper in the scientific journal Nature reporting that monarch butterfly larvae died after eating milkweed plants dusted with pollen from GE corn (Losey et al. 1999). The paper generated intense national and international news coverage transforming the monarch butterfly overnight into a dramatic symbol of what some consumers saw as the dangers of agricultural biotechnology. Subsequent scientific studies, including field trials, showed that the exposure of monarchs to GE corn is fairly small and that the threat to monarchs pales in comparison to risks presented by conventional pesticides (Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology 2002). Such misrepresentations or errors are usually discovered by other researchers because most reports, especially if it is exciting news such as a suggestion that genetic engineering kills monarch butterflies or makes mice sick, will be rapidly retested by other scientists. If the data are challenged, the first author then has the opportunity to write another paper refuting the challenge.

Although it is a slow process to establish a scientific “truth,” a particular scientific conclusion will eventually either gain broad acceptance or be discarded.

5. Assess if a potential conflict of interest exists. Most people would agree that a mother usually believes the best about her son, and that pesky details such as lack of scientific training may not bother her. Therefore, a mother’s recommendation represents a clear conflict of interest in such a case. Studies tainted by such undisclosed conflicts of interests are a major concern in the debate about genetic engineering. If governmental regulators were to rely solely on data supplied by parties whose primary concern is not the public good but private interest, then the public would have reason to question the integrity of the research. Similarly, if a person with a strong stance on the use of GE in agriculture is an employee of a for-profit biotechnology or organic industry, such employment should be disclosed because a conflict of interest may exist. . Transparency is a wonderful disinfectant when honesty is needed. (Full disclosure: neither Raoul nor I presently have financial relationships with for-profit food biotechnology or organic industries; nor have we for the last 10 years).

6. Assess the quality of institution or panel. Does the report emanate from a University accredited by the U.S. Department of Education or equivalent society? Such information is generally more reliable than that issued from a single individual putting information out on the web. In the United States, government research arms such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Health and professional scientific societies generally provide up-to-date, high-quality information. For example, the American Society of Plant Biologists is a nonprofit professional society devoted to the advancement of the plant sciences. It publishes two world-class journals and organizes conferences and other activities that are key to the advancement of the science. K e National Academy of Sciences (NAS) is “an honorific society of distinguished scholars engaged in scientifi c and engineering research, dedicated to the furtherance of science and technology and to their use for the general welfare.” (NAS 2006). Election to the Academy is considered one of the highest honors that can be accorded a U.S. scientist or engineer. These types of nonprofit organizations provide a public service by working outside the framework of government to ensure independent advice on matters of science, technology, and medicine.

7. Examine the reputation of the author. Do the author(s) have training in science?
If so, have they had formal training leading to an advanced degree such as a Master’s degree or doctorate, and have they published widely in reputable journals? If not, then are they working with a reputable scientist(s) to evaluate the data? In the case of the boy and the mice, a university affiliation is hinted at, but it seems that the “experiment” was carried out at home and reviewed primarily by his mother.

You, the consumer, are now ready to delve into issues surrounding genetic engineering.
Applying these tips about the scientific process, you can now more easily assess the accuracy of media reports. Checking scientific sources can be time consuming, but it is worth the effort because such sources will get you closer to accurate facts about GE than rumor or unconfirmed reports.

Ewen, S.W.B., and A. Pusztai. 1999. Effect of diets containing genetically modified potatoes expressing Galanthus nivalis lectin on rat small intestine. The Lancet 354:1353–1354.
Holt, Jim. 2005. The Way We Live Now: “Madness A bout a Method.” New York Times
Magazine, December 11. (accessed March 29, 2006).
Ho, Mae-Wan (ed.). 2002. Mice Prefer Non GM. Institute of Science in Society: Science
Society Sustainability. ISIS 13/14 (February). w Prefe rNonGM.php?
(accessed March 31, 2006).
Kennedy, Donald (ed.). 2006. Retraction of Hwang et al., Science 308:5279.
Re traction of Hwang et al., Science 303:1669. Editorial Re traction. Science
(Letters) 301:335.
Losey, JE, LS Rayor, ME Carter. 1999.Transgenic pollen harms monarch larvae. Nature 399:214.
NAS (National Research Council and Institute of Medicine of the National Academies).
2006. Washington D.C.: < e National Academy Press.
PageServer?pagename=ABOUT_main_page (accessed May 2, 2006).
Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology. 2002. “Three Years Later: Genetically
Engineered Corn and Monarch Butterfl y Controversy.” University of Richmond, < e PEW
Charitable Trusts. monarch.pdf (accessed May 8,
Serageldin, Ismail. 2002. The rice genome: world poverty and hunger—the challenge for science.
Science 296(5565, April 5): 54-58.
Smith, Jeffery M. 2004. Seeds of Deception. Exposing Industry and Government Lies About the Safety of the Genetically Engineered Foods You Are Eating. Portland: Chelsea Green Ltd.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Obamas' First Harvest

Salon ran a story last week on Obamas' First harvest

The story indicates that Michell drew a little flak from groups that "prefer conventional agriculture to the organic garden at the White house"

I was curious as to who these anti-new age heretics are. So I checked out the link

It turns out that the letter is from the Mid America CropLife Association. I couldnt find anything in the letter against organic. Instead it was a reasonable argument that agriculture can benefit from science-based practices. True, the letter did not acknowledge that in many places in the country, fertilizers and pesticides are causing significant environmental problems, but I did like that they pointed out that conventional and local are not mutually exclusive.

I suggest Michelle move away from the word "Organic" and use "ecologically-based farming" instead. That way she can feel free to use the most appropriate tools to achieve goals of sustainable agriculture and avoid pitting one group against another.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Five experts debate the roots of GM opposition, the role of big agribusiness, and whether we’ve achieved real scientific consensus

Seed magazine has posted a discussion about the roots of opposition to GE crops.

On April 22, 1998 the European Union contravened decades of stalwart opposition to genetically engineered crops when it greenlighted the cultivation of “Mon 810,” a pest-resistant maize manufactured by Monsanto.

But despite Mon810’s official sanction under EU law, several countries—including France, Austria, Greece, Hungary and Luxembourg—have imposed national bans on the GE crop. The most recent addition to this list is Germany, which banned the corn in April, just before this year’s seeds would have been sown.

Ilse Aigner, Germany’s federal agricultural minister, acknowledged that various federal environmental institutes had failed to come to an agreement about Mon810’s environmental risks, but said she was encouraged by the example of Luxembourg, which imposed a moratorium in late March.2

At the European level, scientific assessments have found the risks Mon810 poses to the environment to be exceedingly small. Which is no surprise, perhaps, since study after study after study has concluded that the hazards—both to human and ecosystem health—are no greater with GE crops than with conventionally grown ones.

And yet throughout Europe, pubic opinion appears to be turning increasingly against GE crops. Speaking on condition of anonymity, one source told EUbusiness that if the people were asked about Mon810, “there would be a rejection.” “The spirit has changed,” the source added. “The legislation in a way is operating like an automatic pilot and we have to put some direction in it.”

Most Europeans don’t consider themselves to be anti-science or particularly technophobic. In fact, Europe’s full embrace of the scientific consensus on another environmental issue, global warming, has enabled the continent to take the clear lead on climate change, with the most ambitious emissions targets, the first carbon trading market, and the greenest urban infrastructure plans on the planet.

Europe’s scientific disconnect is more broadly true of eco-minded citizens worldwide: They laud the likes of James Hansen and Rajendra Pachauri but shrink in horror at the scientist who offers up a Bt corn plant (even though numerous studies indicate that Bt crops—by dramatically curbing pesticide use—conserve biodiversity on farms and reduce chemical-related sickness among farmers).

So why the disconnect? Why do many environmentalists trust science when it comes to climate change but not when it comes to genetic engineering? Is the fear really about the technology itself or is it a mistrust of big agribusiness?

See the responses here.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Oprah and science

So much for the idea that Oprah would embrace science-based decision making. A few months ago, on my nature networks blog I suggested that we start a movement to lobby Oprah to place a non-fiction science book on her list every few months. The idea was to create a forum in the mass media to discuss real science in front of millions.

I thought she would go for the idea. After all, she supported Obama and likes to read. Sadly it seems that may be all she has in common with scientists.

In their weekly recap, ScienceBlogs now reports that:

Oprah Winfrey and notorious anti-vaccination supporter Jenny McCarthy sealed a contractual deal that will enable McCarthy to spread her belief across several platforms that vaccines cause autism. These claims are vehemently opposed in the scientific community, as they remain virtually unsupported after years of rigorous scientific investigation and, if heeded as true, have lethal consequences in the form of diseases like measles, mumps and rubella. With support from Oprah, McCarthy is slated to host a syndicated talk show and maintain a blog. According to ScienceBlogger PZ Myers, this is “proof that there is no god.”

It may be time for PZ to start his own talk TV show

Friday, May 1, 2009

A Winner of the 2009 National Geographic Kids Hands-On Explorer Contest

Our friend Elliot (age 13) has recently been announced as one of 15 winners across the country of the 2009 National Geographic Kids Hands-On Explorer Contest. To win, he submitted a photograph and essay about one of his own recent explorations. He, of course chose an image from his vast collection of snake photos. This one was of a yellow-belly racer that he saw and photographed in Stebbins Cold Canyon UC Reserve. He wrote a 300-word essay about the canyon and about the day he photographed the snake.

And even more exciting is that the prize is a 12-day trip to Peru at the end of May to visit Machu Picchu and the Peruvian Amazon Rainforest for the winners and their chaperones! He also gets a new cool Nikon camera to take with him on the trip.

Hands on Explorer Challenge Essay

Splash! After the three-mile hike through a dry rocky creek bed, the feeling of cool water is welcome as I plunge into the deep clear pool. The high walls of the canyon tower around me and before me is a mossy waterfall. Iridescent hummingbirds drink from the trickling falls and swoop overhead.

This is Cold Creek Canyon. Ever since I was a small child I have come here with family and friends, yet with every visit, I discover something new. Once it was a bobcat track along the creek, another time a pileated woodpecker in a massive oak tree. But my favorite things have always been the canyon’s reptiles and amphibians.

My love of herpetology began when I was 13 months old and I surprised my parents by pulling a garter snake from a grassy lake. Ever since I have been fascinated by these creatures and I look for them wherever I go. I spend hours researching, photographing, writing field notes, and keeping a life list of the over 165 species and subspecies of reptiles I have seen in the wild.

On this day in the canyon, my mother and I have an extraordinary experience. While sitting by the creek, we notice a yellow-belly racer come out of a hole. A nearby sound makes us look up and we see two racers together in a tree and three more below. I realize that the smaller snakes are males following one large female’s pheromones and that the snakes in the tree are mating.

I photograph the entire event. The photo here is of the first snake we saw. It is my favorite shot in the series because of the snake’s alertness as it searches the air with its tongue for scents. Whenever I see it, I remember this amazing day.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

End the University as We Know It

Here is an interesting and radical proposal to think about:

End the University as We Know It

I am not wild about the idea of abolishing tenure (after all there is no evidence that human nature has changed so much that we dont need to be concerned about politicians firing professors who dig up information they do not like) but I do like the idea of increasing collaborations between departments to create interdisciplinary teams that focus on societally important issues like water and, importantly, disease.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Scientific Consensus on Climate Change and GE Crops

A story today by Andrew Revkin in the New York Times reveals that for more than a decade the Global Climate Coalition, a group representing industries with profits tied to fossil fuels, led an aggressive lobbying and public relations campaign against the idea that emissions of heat-trapping gases could lead to global warming.

"Some environmentalists have compared the tactic to that once used by tobacco companies, which for decades insisted that the science linking cigarette smoking to lung cancer was uncertain. By questioning the science on global warming, these environmentalists say, groups like the Global Climate Coalition were able to sow enough doubt to blunt public concern about a consequential issue and delay government action.

George Monbiot, a British environmental activist and writer, said that by promoting doubt, industry had taken advantage of news media norms requiring neutral coverage of issues, just as the tobacco industry once had.

'They didn’t have to win the argument to succeed,” Mr. Monbiot said, “only to cause as much confusion as possible.' "

Why does this sound so familiar?

The debate on GE crops has gone a similar route, although this time the concerted campaign to mislead the public on the scientific consensus about a critical environmental issue of our time has come from a coalition from the progressive left rather than the right using nearly identical tactics. As is clear from numerous scientific reports from leading scientific agencies such as the National Academy of Sciences, the broad scientific consensus is that the GE crops on the market are safe to eat and have clear environmental benefits.

Is there a philosophical conversation to be had on whether or not we want bacterial genes in our crops? Certainly.

Do we need to integrate ecologically-based farming practices into your production food system? Absolutely

Can we say that ALL GE crops in the future will be safe to eat? No.

But if we are going to move to a more sustainable agriculture, feed the growing population and protect our environment, then we've got to start by being honest about the science.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Earth Guy and the Science Guy

The New York Times Sunday magazine "Green Mind" special featured interviews with two exceptional individuals who are leaders of the modern green movement.

Steven Chu is a Nobel-prize winning physicist. Stewart Brand founded one of the most beloved "catalogs" of all time, "The Whole Earth Catalog".

Clearly, these accomplishments reflect their creativity, perseverance and love of the natural world. But what I find most inspirational about these two men is that they have been consistently proactive, not reactive, throughout their careers. They are not against things, they are for a green future.

Both Chu and Brand advocate practical solutions to particularly difficult-to-solve problems. "The most important thing is making sure that your home is properly insulated, that your leaky doors and windows are fixed" says Chu. They clearly enjoy implementing new ideas and technology that have environmental benefits. They do not ask if a technology is good or bad, cool or not but whether it is appropriate for the task at hand. "The romantic nature-is-perfect approach is just horse exhaust", says Brand, choosing his words carefully.

These are thoughtful men that we are fortunate to have as leaders of a community-based, science-based movement. They are not reluctant to engage with established institutions (for example, the government of the United States of America) to move the world's people forward. It is through their efforts and those like them that we finally will reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, make our cities more efficient and establish a more ecological way of farming.

(Full disclosure: I am associated with the Joint Bioenergy Institute, a DOE-funded Bioenergy Research Center that Secretary Chu supported when he was director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. I also have had the pleasure of meeting Stewart and reading a few advance chapters of his new book "Whole Earth Discipline", which I highly recommend.)

Friday, April 10, 2009

Spring in California, those that inspire us and a blogging excuse

I try not to travel in the spring. Instead of the stale air of the airplane, I try to get out to the mountains, the beach, the garden or to the nearby foothills.

Last weekend my daughter and I (who is 8 years old today), went for a walk. I thought she was strong enough to do the 5 mile Cold Canyon hike so off we happily went. As we started up the VERY steep hill, her trust began to dissipate. Then the inevitable "I want to go home".

I definitely did not want to go home. More than that, I did not want her to want to go home.

"Look, a soap plant, the people that were here before us used to dig up this plant and make small brooms".

She forgot the steepness and we started digging with some twigs. But these plants are not easy to dig up and the soil was not soft. Still, just to dig in the dirt in the quiet. A peaceful and shared task. Finally we gave up digging. Audrey was ready to hike again.

But soon, again, she questioned the purpose of the climb.

"To get to the top of course", I explained.

She seemed unconvinced so we sat down again and I told her the story of George Mallory who took part in the first three British expeditions to Mount Everest in the early 1920s. I told her how badly he wanted to be at the top and that he loved his beautiful wife so much that he carried her picture in his wallet with him always. I told her how tall the mountain is and how hard it is to breath up that high. I explained that Mt Everest is 27x taller than the edges of Cold Canyon. And then I told her that he died. For a long time noone knew if he ever made it to the top.

She almost cried and looked at me wanting a better ending than that. Fortunately I had one because I recently heard an interview on NPR with the author of a new book about Mallory. I told her that when his body was finally discovered in 1999, his wallet did not have a picture of his wife. "He must have left it on the peak", I said. "He promised his wife he would do that if he ever made it there".

Smiling, we continued on.

Near the top she found a rock and we looked over the central valley to the snow capped mountains beyond. "Tell me another story". So I did.

"John Muir sat some place in the inner coastal range, just like this. He was an adventurer and loved California. When he saw the mountains beyond the flower-filled valley he decided to go there"

I told her how he walked across the entire valley and into the mountains and how he lived there with the people who lived here before us and the bears and the birds.

We then continued on. With the mountaineers on our minds and the company of the wildflowers- sticky monkdy flower, Mariposa lily, paintbrush, and others- the hike no longer seemed so hard.

Besides we knew there was a swimming hole near the end.

It was a beautiful day in California. Too beautiful to spend blogging.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Michell Obama digs up the White House lawn

The Obamas have started planting their garden with 55 varieties of vegetables — from a wish list of the kitchen staff — grown from organic seedlings started at the Executive Mansion’s greenhouses.

"The Obamas will feed their love of Mexican food with cilantro, tomatillos and hot peppers. Lettuces will include red romaine, green oak leaf, butterhead, red leaf and galactic. There will be spinach, chard, collards and black kale. For desserts, there will be a patch of berries. And herbs will include some more unusual varieties, like anise hyssop and Thai basil". A White House carpenter, Charlie Brandts, who is a beekeeper, will tend two hives for honey.

If we all dug up our lawns, planted 55 kinds of vegetables and tended it very carefully, the world would be a better place. That said, who has time? Certainly not the Obamas. The White House grounds crew and the kitchen staff will do most of the work.

Still, I love the symbolism of it, and though it will be costly (vegetables harvested from showcase gardens such as the Obamas' are much more expensive than produce from an organic commercial farm), it will provide a great education tool for the fifth graders that will help tend the farm and for White House visitors.

I hope one of her assistants plants some corn and teaches them about insects and disease. She can show them how to feel the tip of a mature ear to see if it is filled out. As we described in "Tomorrow's Table", they may discover some ears with hollow spots created where a corn earworm has been feeding.

The insect deposits its eggs on the corn silk that trails out of each ear of corn. When the larvae hatch, they crawl down the silk into the tip of the ear and begin to feed on the kernels. The kids can open up a couple of ears and see the big, fat, healthy earworms, writhing with irritation at being disturbed from such a luscious feast. They can laugh when they learn that the black stuff in the tips of the ears is called “frass,” a euphemistic word for insect poop.

Will she teach them ways to control for this pest? The corn earworm is not a picky eater and will eat almost any crop that we rotate in such as tomatoes, beans, or lettuce, and the adult moth is a good flyer. Even conventional breeding has failed to solve this problem because scientists have not yet been able to find a corn gene that gives protection from earworm. So organic controls dont work very well for the corn earworm making it difficult to control this pest on organic farms. Most organic farmers and consumers accept this problem in exchange for the benefits of not spraying insecticides.

There is one approach that works though. Bacillus thuringiensis is a bacteria that produces a toxin (called Bt toxin) that kills a narrow range of moths and butterflies. French farmers first started using Bacillus thuringiensis in the 1920s but it wasn’t available commercially in France until 1950s, and then in the United States in the 1950s. Today Bacillus thuringiensis is cultured in industrial production facilities and sold either as liquid or a powder with some additives to make it flow and mix better. After it is combined with water and sprayed in the field, caterpillars eat the bacteria in the form of spores and toxin. The toxin destroys the gut walls of the caterpillars and spores and other gut bacteria invade its body. This approach is an example of ‘biological control,’ using live organisms to combat pests and disease. Organic farmers have been using Bt as a "natural" insecticide to control insect pests for 50 years. It doesnt work to control earworms on sweet corn, however, because the worm is burrowed deep within the ear, where the Bt spray cannot reach.

This is why geneticists engineered corn with the Bt gene. GE sweet corn is resistant to the earworm. I hope the First Lady plants some GE sweet corn next to the conventional variety so that this summer the Obamas and the kids could see firsthand how it resists pests and that it tastes the same. There will be less frass to giggle about but more sweet corn.

Sweet Corn Infected with Corn Earworm. On the left are three ears of late-season organically grown sweet corn. On the right are three ears of GE sweet corn containing Bt (Courtesy of Fred Gould, North Carolina State University).

Monday, March 16, 2009

What does GMO really mean?

For years, journalists, television producers and newspaper reporters that write about genetically engineered crops, have used the term “GMO” (genetically modified organism) to describe these new crop varieties. The marketing industry has taken to writing “GMO-free” on their products, as a way to increase sales to consumers fearful of the genetic engineering process.

The problem is that the term GMO is misused and misunderstood.

Take, for example, a recent story on Voice of America about a newly developed rice variety that is tolerant of flooding. The producer made a valiant effort to explain the genetic basis of this new variety:

“The new strain is genetically improved, but not genetically modified, so is not subject to tight controls on genetically modified foods.”

Does anyone know what is he talking about? I do, so please let me explain.

Breeders have a 8000 year history of genetic modification (also called genetic improvement or conventional breeding)- that is, they have modified the genome of crop species in a number of ways. Such conventional breeding methods include hybridization (transfer of pollen from one plant variety to another to generate new seed with genes from both parents), mutagenesis (in which chemicals or irradiation are used to induce random mutations in DNA) and embryo rescue (where plant or animal embryos produced from interspecies gene transfer are placed in a tissue culture environment to complete development). Today, everything we eat has been genetically modified in some way.

Genetic engineering, in contrast, uses a direct method to introduce new genes into a crop. Because the transfer is not limited by the relatedness of the parental varieties, any gene, even a gene from another species can be introduced into a crop plant. A committee established by the National Academy of Sciences was asked to look carefully at the GE process. Their report concluded that the process of genetic engineering is not inherently hazardous. However, as with every other technology used for genetic modification, GE carries the potential for introducing unintended compositional changes. It depends on what gene is introduced or modified. For example, a new celery variety developed through conventional breeding that carried improved resistance to pests caused some farm workers to develop a rash on their hands when harvesting. In contrast, after 1 billion acres of GE crops grown over 10 years, there has not been a single instance of harm to human health or the environment.

The method that we used to develop flood tolerant rice is called precision breeding, which is a sort of hybrid between genetic engineering and conventional genetic modification. Precision breeding (also called marker assisted selection) uses DNA technology to detect the inheritance of a desired gene to a seedling resulting from a genetic cross between two parent varieties. The result is the precise introduction of one to several novel genes from closely related species. For example, our flood tolerant rice was developed from a cross of a low-yielding rice variety that carried
a rare gene for tolerance with modern, locally adapted modern varieties. The resulting seedlings were screened using precision breeding to develop new varieties with the taste and yield favored by consumers with the flood tolerant trait. The rice is now being grown by farmers in Bangladesh and India, where 4 million tons of rice are lost each year to flooding, enough to feed 30 million people.

Many anti-GE activists reject GE but do accept precision breeding (even though both processes can introduce novel genes that have not previously been tested in modern varieties). Thus, varieties developed through precision breeding are subject only to standard seed certification and not to the strict regulatory approval process required for GE crops.

We need to look at the broader goals of sustainability and food security before ruling out a particular process of crop modification. Each new variety needs to be evaluated on a case-by case basis.

To restart the dialog, lets use the term “GE crops” rather than “GMO” so the consumer will have a better idea of what the debate is all about.

First published on google news.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Open Laboratory 2008

The Open Laboratory 2008, an anthology of the best scienceblogs of 2008, is now for sale.

This year's editor Jennifer Rohn put together a collection of fifty-two selected blog posts showcasing the quality and diversity of science writing on blogs in 2008. You can see the background story on how the book came about here.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Guest Blogger Raoul Adamchak on corporate transparency

Science based information is critical to Sustainable Agriculture.

Agricultural scientists (26) from corn producing states have sent a letter to the EPA criticizing GE seed companies for limiting access to seeds for scientific research. (Pollack, Andrew, NYT, 2/20/09)
All of the scientists have been active participants of the Regional Research Projects NCCC-46 "Development, Optimization, and Delivery of Management Strategies for Corn Rootworms and Other Below-ground Insect Pests of Maize" and/or related projects with corn insect pests. The comment appears as follows:

"Technology/stewardship agreements required for the purchase of genetically modified seed explicitly prohibit research. These agreements inhibit public scientists from pursuing their mandated role on behalf of the public good, unless the research is approved by industry. As a result of restricted access, no truly independent research can be legally conducted on many critical questions regarding the technology, its performance, its management implications, IRM, and its interactions with insect biology. Consequently, data flowing to an EPA Scientific Advisory Panel from the public sector is unduly limited."

It appears that the leaders at these seed companies have not yet embraced the idea that the acceptance of GE crops is dependent upon peer-reviewed, scientific research that evaluates effectiveness, safety, or impact on non-target species. Without access and transparency and evaluation by independent scientists, it becomes impossible to determine the suitability of GE crops for agriculture. Hopefully, in the light of these comments to the EPA, the companies will develop methods to facilitate access by university researchers who are a necessary part of our system of scientific checks and balances.

In this specific case, the evaluation of effectiveness of BT corn for rootworm control is critical in helping farmers determine if the extra cost of the GE seed is justified by increased yield due to presence of the BT toxin gene. One reason that BT corn has been adapted at a lower rate (@35%) than herbicide tolerant soybeans (@90%), is that in some regions of the U.S. the pests (European Corn Borer or corn root worm) do not attack corn in sufficiently high numbers to reach the economic threshold that justifies the expense of BT corn. Research done by land grant university scientists has been essential in determining the economic thresholds for these pests. This work helps reduce farmer expenses and increases economic return, an important goal of a sustainable ag system.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The power of genetics

Here I have posted a time-lapse video (4 months) of a rice field at the International Rice Research Institute. This video, shot by Gene Hettle, shows survival of the submergence tolerance rice, developed by our team, after a 17 day flood.

The Sub1 rice yielded about 3 fold more in these field trials. In farmers fields in bangladesh, yields are even higher- up to 5 fold. For more information, please see the recent CNN story.


I received quite a few heartwarming emails in response to the CNN story. Here are a couple (names removed to protect privacy):

Dear Prof. Ronald,

I just read the article on "Fighting hunger with flood-tolerant rice" in CNN. I am immensely touched with what you and your students have been working on, and the breakthrough in your research. I am a native of India (born in Calcutta) and I know very well the implication of this research to millions of farmers in SouthEast Asia and more than billion people, whose staple food is rice. Both Bangladesh and India is devasted with monsoon floods, pretty much every other year, many of the farmers only survival is their rice (which not only sustain as their food but also as a cash crop). I am praying that you continue to work in this area; as food scarcity is a global security problem and survival of a civilization. There are too many hungry children in the world, it is for them.

Thank you and wish you more success.

Hello Pam,

I read about your discovery of flood sustaining rice and I must admit, this is the most happiest news I read in my recent memory. There are lots of people dying of starvation every day, and I have read and seen farmers whose families are ruined because of floods. I am very happy today that there are still some scientists in this world, who did not forget the fundamental needs of humans and who actually works for the benefit of mankind, in the true sense of its meaning, and remind the rest of the world what's being humane. I am not denying progress we make in inventing xbox systems, unmanned bomber aircraft, and missions to mars, but unfortunately, we are forgetting that, we first need to fill stomachs of millions of people and give them shelter. The calamities of flooding they are facing is because of greenhouse effects that we make.

I am an engineer working in Canada for last 9 years, and since I moved to this country from India when I was 23, I could never understand why some people are starving to death in some parts of the world, and at same time, people in other parts of the world are just ignoring it when they can help. But, today, I am extremely happy, to read this news. You shall remain my inspiration. God bless you and your family with peace and long life.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Big Island Transgenics

By the year 2050, the Earth's population will increase to 9.2 billion from the current 6.7 billion. If we continue with current farming practices, vast amounts of wilderness will be lost, millions of birds and billions of insects will die, and the environmental cost will be immeasurable. Clearly, the world needs a better way to meet the demand for increased food production.

To meet the growing need to feed the world’s population in an environmentally friendly way will require combining the technologies of genetic engineering and organic farming.

To successfully marry these two technologies we will need to overcome long held animosity between scientists, supporters of organic farming and conventional farmers. We will also need to address the antagonism some feel toward the idea of genetic engineering.

The recent debate on the Big Island over genetically engineered crops pitted organic coffee farmers against researchers and the biotech industry, with some organic farmers voicing concern that genetically engineered crops threaten their livelihood and agricultural philosophy.

However, it appears their concerns about food safety are driven more by technological anxiety than by science. Today, the majority of all processed foods in the United States have at least one ingredient from genetically engineered crops and all scientific panels that have studied this matter have concluded that the GE crops currently grown in the United States are safe to eat.

The National Academy of Sciences and the United Kingdom Genetically Modified Science Review Panel have both concluded that the process of adding genes to our food by genetic engineering is just as safe as conventional plant breeding.

Organic farming techniques have proven results in reducing the use of insecticides, and doing so benefits humans and the environment. The question is whether the technology of organic agriculture is robust enough to meet the growing demand for food around the world.

One way to enhance yields is to develop new varieties of crops that can survive harsh conditions such as drought, cold, heat, salt, and flooding. Many of the world’s poorest people farm in areas that are far from ideal. They face tremendous obstacles with soil quality, access to water, pests, and periodic flooding. Organic farming techniques can offer some solutions, but they still have their limits.

It is estimated that pests and disease can reduce agricultural productivity worldwide by 40 percent. If we reduce this loss it would be equivalent to creating more land and more water. However, current pesticide use is a health and environmental hazard.

One logical approach would have to be combining the techniques of organic farming and genetic engineering. Genetic engineering can be used to develop plants with enhanced resistance to pests and disease; organic farming can manage the overall spectrum of pests more effectively.

Genetically engineered crops have already been proven against pests. For example, in central and southern India, where small-scale farmers typically suffer large losses because of pests, average yields of genetically engineered crops exceeded those of conventional crops by 80 percent.

In Hawaii, the 1998 introduction of an engineered papaya plant that could resist the papaya ringspot virus has long been credited with saving the industry. The availability of GE papaya brought struggling growers back into the papaya business and by 2003, production in the region had rebounded. There was no other technology then, including organic farming techniques, to protect the papaya from this devastating disease, nor is there today.

Genetic engineering also helps achieve other goals of the organic farming movement. By reducing the use of pesticides and by reducing pest and disease, it can make farming more affordable and thus keep family farmers in business. It can also assure local food security, an issue of growing concern here in Hawaii.

Worldwide demand by farmers for improved hybrid corn has also made Hawaii’s expanding seed industry the number one agricultural commodity in the state. According to an economic analysis commissioned by the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation, the Hawaii seed industry contributes approximately $144 million of economic activity to Hawaii’s economy. This translates to $7 million in annual taxes to the state, $53 million in annual labor income, and more than 2,000 jobs.

There seems to be a communication gap between organic and conventional farmers, as well as between consumers and scientists. It is time to close that gap. Dialogue is needed if we are to advance along the road to an ecologically balanced, biologically based system of farming.

Science and good farming alone will not be sufficient to provide food security to the healthy, or to the poor and malnourished, or to solve all our current environmental problems. However, without science and good farming we cannot even begin to dream about maintaining such a secure future.

Rather than indulge in speculation and mistrust, let us focus our attention on the facts and to where it matters: the need to support farming methods that are good for the environment and for our children

Monday, January 19, 2009

To Label or not to Label

If GE crops are considered safe by most scientists, why not simply label the produce from these crops and let people decide for themselves? Most people like to know what they are eating and make their own choices.

I am 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" (Occupational Safety and Health Administration 1998). 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.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Tomorrow's Table: One of Seed Magazine’s Best of 2008

The editors of Seed selected Tomorrow's Table as one of the year's outstanding book releases.

Other picks include Michael Pollan's "In defense of food", Carl Zimmer's Microcosm and Paul and Anne Erlich's "The Dominant Animal".

This is the first award Raoul and I have ever received for our writing. We are thrilled.

Thanks Seed!

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