Tomorrow's Table argues that a judicious blend of two important strands of agriculture – genetic engineering and organic farming – is key to helping feed the world's growing population in an ecologically balanced manner. Pamela Ronald, a geneticist, and her husband, Raoul Adamchak, an organic farmer, take the reader inside their lives for roughly a year, allowing us to look over their shoulders so that we can see what geneticists and organic farmers actually do. Readers see the problems that farmers face, trying to provide larger yields without resorting to expensive or environmentally hazardous chemicals, a problem that will loom larger and larger as the century progresses. They learn how organic farmers and geneticists address these problems. Tomorrow's Table is for consumers, farmers, and policy decision makers who want to make food choices and policy that will support ecologically responsible farming practices, and for anyone who wants accurate information about organic farming, genetic engineering, and their potential impacts on human health and the environment.
The first edition was published in hardcover in 2008 and in paperback in 2009. This second edition reflects the many and varied changes the fields of farming and genetic engineering have seen since 2009. It includes a new preface and three new chapters – one on politics and food-related protests such as the Marin county anti-vaccine movement and the subsequent outbreak of whooping cough, one on farming and food security, and one containing various recipes. Existing chapters on the tools of genetic engineering, organic vs. conventional foods, the tools of organic agriculture, and food labelling and legislature have all been updated.
Review of the first edition:|
"Interspersed with nuggets of science, home made recipes (really) and anecdotes."
Foreword to the First Edition by Sir Gordon Conway
Foreword to the Second Edition by Michael Specter
Preface to the First Edition
Preface to the Second Edition
About the Authors
Part I: Introduction
1. Green Revolution 2.0
Part II: The Farm
2. Why Organic Agriculture?
3. The Tools of Organic Agriculture
Part III: The Laboratory
4. The Tools of Genetic Engineering
Part IV: Consumers
5. Legislating Lunch
6. Whom Can We Trust?
7. Are Genetically Engineered Foods Safe to Eat?
8. The Mistrust of Science
Part V: The Environment
9. Conserving Wildlands
10. Weeds, Gene Flow, and the Environment
Part VI: Ownership
11. Who Owns the Seed?
12. The Seed Industry: Accelerating or Impeding Innovation?
Part VII: The World
13. Feeding the World Ethically
14. Choosing Innovation
Part VIII: Dinner
15. Deconstructing Dinner: Genetically Engineered, Organically Grown
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.
For those of you who have read my review of Lynas’s Seeds of Science 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. The size of this yield gap and what that means for conversion of natural habitat to farmland if all agriculture were to go organic remains contested. 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. 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.
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 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.
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).
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 subset of Westerners 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.
With that rant done, 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 will confuse many); 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) 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.
Pamela C. Ronald is a Professor in the Department of Plant Pathology at the University of California, Davis. Her laboratory has genetically engineered rice for resistance to diseases and flooding. Her work has been published in Science, Nature, and other scientific periodicals and has also been featured in newspapers including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Le Monde. She is an elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Raoul Adamchak has grown organic crops for twenty years, part of the time as a partner in Full Belly Farm, a private 150-acre organic vegetable farm. He has inspected over one hundred organic farms as an inspector for California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) and served as a member and President of CCOF's Board of Directors. He now works at the U.C., Davis as the Market Garden Coordinator at the certified organic farm on campus.