Something to Chew On by Mike Gibney

Something to Chew On CoverDo blogs sell books? They’ve sold at least one. I picked up Something to Chew On by Mike Gibney after reading his weblog Gibney on Food.

It’s not a plant science book. It’s a book about food supply and nutrition, but there is a lot that is relevant to plant science in it. In the case of agricultural science the food industry and the consumer are ultimately the end users of plant science. After the introductory chapter the next two chapters, on the toxicity of plants and the organic industry and then on GMOs are directly relevant. He also returns to GMOs with the ongoing problems around the politics of Golden Rice and the failure to get help to where it’s needed in developing countries.

There is a lot to the book. Elsewhere he discusses very first world problems like personalised nutrition and the obesity epidemic. He also highlights overlooked problems like the effects of an ageing population and the challenges of global warming on food supply. He’s sceptical, in the sane sense of the word, about what science can and cannot deliver. He’s also very problem focussed and that’s likely to alienate some readers.

For example when talks about obesity he talks about the accessibility of chips (fries for Americans) and the potato supply. Looking at the supply he talks about the many pubs and restaurants in Dublin where you can get chips, and McDonalds. Which are targeted as purveyors of unhealthy junk food? Even for people who eat at McDonalds most, Gibney shows, will get the majority of their unhealthy diet elsewhere. This means the problem isn’t simply solved by boycotting McDonalds, but tackling a system and attitudes that encompasses many people, including family farms producing potatoes.

Elsewhere he compares the Food Industry to the Tobacco Industry. The Tobacco Industry is the problem say people who campaign against its product. Can we say the same about the Food Industry? Should we become locavores, and regular visitors to farmers’ markets? To tackle this he examines exactly how much land is needed to support London. The answer is that the city would become so large it would obliterate most of south-east England. If we are to live in modern cities he concludes that the Food Industry must be part of the solution. If that’s the case then answers to food supply problems are going to be more sophisticated than “big is bad”.

True to the title, much of the book is thought-provoking. It won’t be news to plant scientists working with GMOs, but I was surprised to learn last year that plants produced by chemical mutagenesis or radiation can be sold as organic, and only biologically originated GMOs cannot. The multiple standards come up again and again in the book.

For the most part the text is readable, but in tackling double-standards some frustration shows through. It’s clear Gibney cares deeply about his topic and when taking about Golden Rice he is clearly vexed that something that could help is being blocked on dogmatic grounds. Even so, when faced with someone who believes the poor should suffer for his principles, or when tackling misinformation spread about nutrition, Gibney doesn’t unleash a torrent of righteous ire against his opponents.

If a good book is one that inspires you to read another,* then this is a good book. In it Gibney talks about advocacy and persuasion and refers to The Perception of Risk by Paul Slovic. Gibney argues that one reason why so much scientific advocacy isn’t persuasive is that facts are not enough. Little attention has been given to how we put those facts together to assess risk. It’s something I’ve been vaguely aware of, but I think it’s something I need to look at more deeply.

Having finished the book, I’m not sure to what extent I’m wiser, but has made me more aware of whole new areas of which I’m ignorant.

You can try to find a copy of Something to Chew On at your local library.

* I mean that in the sense of “This is a good book I’d like to learn more” not in the sense of “My goodness this is dull, where did I leave that Dan Brown novel?”


  1. Good write-up, though I have yet to read the book. One, minor, niggle. The obesity epidemic is not a “very first world problem”. Obesity rates and the attendant illnesses are increasing fastest in developing countries.

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