Book review – Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food (Second Edition)

Aaah, GMOs. Was there ever a topic comparable to genetically modified organisms that riled people on either side of the debate this much? Written by an organic farmer and plant geneticist, Tomorrow’s Table is a marvellous work that walks the middle road, asking: Why should we not combine the best that organic farming and genetic engineering have to offer? Along the way, it exposes the often illogical, contradictory and, frankly, infuriating attitudes and opinions of the anti-GMO movement, politely smothering them with facts, while also teaching the technology cheerleaders a lesson or two. I love this book.

Tomorrow's Table

Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food (second edition)“, written by Pamela C. Ronald and Raoul W. Adamchak, published by Oxford University Press in May 2018 (paperback, 352 pages)

For those of you who have read my review of Lynas’s Seeds of Science: Why We Got It So Wrong on GMOs and my interview with him, you will know where I stand. Though there are valid questions to be asked where genetic modification is concerned, the current misinformation campaign is pig-headedly wrong and backwards. Conventional, intensive agriculture has well-documented drawbacks (nutrient runoff that causes algae blooms, soil erosion, and pesticide application), but I am not convinced that organic agriculture in its current form is the answer and am sceptical of some of its claims. At the same time, what do I really know about organic agriculture? So, this book was an education.

Raoul Adamchak, an organic farmer, introduces the history and basics of organic agriculture. He does a good job highlighting the positives, such as reduced soil erosion, richer soils by using nitrogen-fixing crops, and more wildlife on farms. At the same time, he is honest enough to mention the drawbacks. Theoretically, organic farms can have comparable yields to conventional farms, but in reality, yields are often lower. Organic farmers accept this as the price to pay for being kinder to the environment and, anyway, they sell organic produce at a premium to willing consumers. Whether or not converting the world’s agricultural system to organic means more conversion of natural habitat to farmland remains a hotly contested topic. I am inclined to think it does, but see this piece in World Watch Magazine for a balanced overview. Oh, and for those ignoramuses who still believe organic agriculture doesn’t use pesticides: can we please dispense with that myth? Yes, organic farming has a portfolio of strategies to try and deal with pests, often with moderate success, but pesticides are very much a part of this. The only difference is that they are biological rather than synthetic pesticides. As Adamchak explains, the former category is not particularly harmless though, and many are more toxic than synthetic pesticides.

“[…] for those ignoramuses who still believe organic agriculture doesn’t use pesticides: can we please dispense with that myth?”

Most chapters in this book are written by plant geneticist Pamela Ronald. There is more science to explain, but, I think, it also reflects how far the debate has tilted in favour of the organic movement. She introduces the basic tools of genetic engineering, highlighting how the outcome (hereditary changes in plants) is no different from what we have been doing for millennia through various plant breeding methods. Except that genetic engineering is far more precise than methods employed by organic farmers, such as inducing random mutations by exposure to radiation or carcinogenic substances.

Several chapters deal with how genetic engineering is perceived and opposed in the developed world, including restrictive legislation (this chapter includes a rather frustrating conversation with her sister-in-law that shows that even well-informed, educated people can lose themselves in a quagmire of inconsistencies and logical fallacies), the safety of genetically engineered food for consumption (not that old chestnut again – it is), the continued mistrust of science, and the concern of GMOs escaping into the wild (unlikely – as Ronald points out: “crops make lousy weeds”, independent of genetic engineering).

“Personally, I cannot fathom that the organic crowd does not embrace the advantages of genetic engineering […] what part of “less pesticide needed” do you not understand?!”

Other chapters deal with the bigger issues of environmental damage and how to feed the developing world, and how genetic engineering could make a huge difference if only we allowed it. How would you feel about crops that can resist diseases and insect pests, preventing failed harvests and starvation third-world countries – with little to no pesticides needed? Or crops that can withstand harsh environmental conditions such as drought or flooding (always handy in a changing climate)? Or more nutritious crops that could, for example, prevent blindness and death of children due to vitamin A deficiency?

As the many examples in this book show, none of the above is hypothetical. Personally, I cannot fathom that the organic crowd does not embrace the advantages of genetic engineering (this seems to apply to consumers more so than farmers). What part of “less pesticide needed” do you not understand?! Instead, the active opposition of a deluded, well-off subset of Westerners living in a New Age fairytale bubble of harmony-with-nature that insist on a simplistic, caveman-esque dichotomy of “nature good, technology bad” has resulted in restrictive regulation and legislation that bars these crops from being deployed (see also Starved for Science). Especially the continuing farce around Golden Rice (fortified in vitamin A) and the suffering it causes is an outrage.

“What makes this book stand out is how the authors manage to keep their cool and provide factual information while steering clear of being judgemental.”

With that rant off my chest, there is excellent coverage of many other topics in this book; such as the non-sense of current GMO-labelling practices; the matter of seeds, patents and intellectual property; or the confusion around pesticides such as glyphosate (safe by all accounts, but continued smear campaigns, most recently in for example Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science, will confuse many – see a good takedown of that book here); but enough already. What makes this book stand out is how the authors manage to keep their cool and provide factual information while steering clear of being judgemental. (You can tell that I struggle with this more than they do.) They embed this in a narrative style with personal anecdotes and recipes that might not be to everyone’s liking but does make the book more accessible. I would have liked to hear more from Adamchak, as he wrote only four out of fifteen chapters. This is a bit ironic, as the authors highlight themselves how little people actually talk and listen to farmers, or know what happens on farms, leading to misconceptions regarding both organic and conventional agriculture.

Tomorrow’s Table presents a powerful plea to combine the best that both organic agriculture and biotechnology have to offer. It is a breath of fresh air to hear an organic farmer argue that genetic engineering complements the central tenet of organic farming, i.e. promoting the health of soil, plants, animals, consumers, farmers, and the environment. And it is easy to see why this book went into a second edition – new developments such as the gene-editing technology CRISPR (see my review of A Crack in Creation: The New Power to Control Evolution) justify this update. In a debate that has become so polarised, having both the voice of a plant geneticist and an organic farmer is a killer combination, and this book comes highly recommended, no matter what side you think you stand on.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

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