Books

Tomorrow’s Table by Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak

Tomorrow's Table cover

Quite a few people have recommended this book to me, but I hadn’t made time to read it. My loss, this is an excellent book. I was told it was a good explanation about the uses of Genetic Engineering in farming. It does tackle that, but it also has a much broader vision, also talking about the role of organic farming in the future.

The authors Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak are a husband and wife team. Pamela Ronald talks about genetic engineering, while Raoul Adamchak talks about the teaching he does on UC Santa Cruz’s organic farm. The third feature of the book is the recipes interspersed with the text. The recipes highlight one of the best features of the book, it’s very personal, which makes it very relatable. There is a danger with this in that you risk replacing facts with anecdata: genetic engineering is ok, because it worked for me. Fortunately they authors move from the specific, this is what we do on the farm, to the general, and this is what the science says about how it works.

The book opens with Pamela Ronald’s work with rice. She had been trying to make a breed of rice that can survive flooding. I’ve seen paddy fields and I thought all rice could survive flooding, but you can take it too far. It matters because rice is the staple food in a lot of the world. The climate is becoming more unpredictable and while drought might be a problem in some places, in others there’s a very real danger of catastrophic flooding. Rice can survive some flooding but not weeks.

Pamela Ronald found a gene in another form of rice that could help it survive longer and then used genetic engineering to transfer the gene to a rice people ate. It’s not the popular image of genetic engineering, but it is one that could make a lot of difference.

Switching between the genetic engineering and organic chapters, Ronald and Adamchak tackle a lot of the fears about genetic engineering that people have. They also show how many of the sensible fears are not problems with genetic engineering but also apply to organic food too.

For example patents on plants make a lot of people uneasy, but they talk about why they happen, including why they also apply to organic food. Your organic rice is probably the offspring of a mutant plant exposed to nuclear radiation until it became a hulk. Once the mutants with the desired traits are found they are bred to a monoculture and then hybridised to make organic seed. This process is long and expensive and to protect their investment seed companies patent their seed. That means that many organic farms cannot legally save their seed, though Ronald and … also explain why many farms wouldn’t want to.

Other organic methods include immersing plants in a chemical soup to mutate them like the Joker from Batman. Again, this produces mutant seed, but it meets organic criteria.

Is it safe? Well that depends on how well the new seed is tested. For genetically engineered crops, there is a lot of testing. There isn’t the same regulation for other forms of genetic modification.

Another sensible fear people have is the risk of genetic engineering escaping the crop fields into the wild. This has happened in the case if canola / oil seed rape. In reality there is a danger of any genes going rogue, so why no fear for other varieties of domestic crop? The answer is obvious in hindsight, but like a lot of obvious things, it might only be obvious once it’s been pointed out.

When I garden I have a problem with weeds in the garden. What I never have is a problem with peas escaping. The only food plant that really spreads is bramble, and if I’m lucky strawberry. There is a reason for that. The plants I grow are bred to be freaks. They have large tasty fruits, leaves or tubers that their wild relatives don’t. It’s a big cost to the plant and if it’s survival of the fittest then these plants are terminally flabby.

What prevents them from being overrun is weeding. Even mutant and GE crops have the same problem. The engineered gene in canola did spread, but the mixing of genes meant it also took a lot of the flab genes with it. The plants carrying the gene were not fit enough for the wild and bred out of existence.

In retrospect it explains why it’s only the weeds in the garden that are ever a pest and not the plants I want to grow.

What I find particularly good about the book is that it’s not simply advocating organic or GE methods as THE solution to all agricultural problems. They also propose an case where the two might work together.

The example they have are walnuts. They look at a farmer who grows English Walnuts, grafted on to Californian Walnut trunks. He doesn’t grow as many as he’d like because of nematodes, small worms that attack the walnut trees. You can kill the nematodes, but only be sterilising the soil, so instead he accepts the smaller yield. But what if the trunks were a GE walnut, that could defend against the nematodes? The nuts would still be non-GE and the trees could be grown with organic principles. That gives higher yields without destroying any ecosystem in the soil – are the nuts organic?

While the book balances both GE and organic methods, it’s not entirely cuddly. The authors do point out that there is an element of commercial interest in anti-GE campaigns from the organic industry, effectively stoking fears as part of a wider marketing campaign. Elsewhere in the book in wild double standards for food safety are a source of irritation.

On the whole though the authors keep a clear vision of what matters, feeding people in the future, rather than cheering for one system or another. It’s definitely a book I should have read earlier. You can read other reviews at Goodreads.

1 comment

  1. I may well have to put this on my birthday list, it sounds fantastic!

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