Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Redefining Tomorrow's Table

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.


  1. Thanks for taking time to review the review (and for your nice comments about the book).

    You say:

    "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 agree that if someone has good science-based information about a particular GE crop and still feels an "instinctive" dislike, then amount of science information will change their mind.

    But have you ever met anyone like that?

    Take GE cotton for example. If, despite knowing that the planting of GE cotton has greatly reduced insecticide use (for details, see item #1 on my post today), a person still prefers to wear a shirt made from non-GE cotton then that is a clear choice. I have not yet met that person though.

    Most people WANT to reduce insecticide use but do not have enough information about plant breeding or farming or the consequences of pesticide overuse to make an informed decision.

    Thus the book is an attempt at education (in a gentle way) about these subjects.

    I hope more people will read it, get the information, and then decide.


    PS Apparently the Davis Food Coop published a review of the book in their newsletter today

  2. Pam

    Amazing;y, I have met people like this. I know multiple people and have interacted with some others, who seem to grasp the science fine, and they object to GE on the grounds that it is, in essence, the overuse of technology. I disagree with them. But there is little to argue about in this discussion and I am fine with their position. These people are similar to people I know who wish to do adventure sports without the use of much modern technology. Such retro-adventurers sometimes even go so far as to make their own gear.

    I have also met people who object to GE plants and animals on a more scientific basis in that they feel that the degree of genetic change done by GE is much greater than that done by traditional breeding. And they feel that this much genetic change is too much. Or they feel that the evolutionary distance across which genes are moved is too far. Even pointing out that this might occur in Nature does not help since what they are objecting to is humans choosing to do this, not the possibility that it might occur. Again, they get the science. They just have a different response.