James and the Giant Corn Genetics: Studying the Source Code of Nature

April 16, 2008

Tomorrow’s Table

Filed under: Book Reviews,research stories — Tags: , , — James @ 2:35 pm

Believe it or not plant geneticists and the organic movement do share share common ground. It is the realization that conventional agriculture (meaning high input, in the forms of pesticides, energy intensive synthetic fertilizer, and drawing more water out of aquifers every year than is replaces by rainfall) is not going to be sustainable over the long term. I just finished reading a book that makes the case to proponents of organic agriculture that genetic modification of crop species can be a beneficial and powerful tool for developing a more sustainable, lower input system of agriculture that can still feed the six and a half billion people alive on the earth today, and the billions more than will be born in the coming decades. The book is called Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food, and it’s written by a husband and wife who personally straddle the divide between the two movements. She’s a professor working with rice at UC-Davis, and he manages and teaches organic farming.

The first part of the book is really an introduction to the ideas behind organic farming and genetic modification. I think I’ve got a pretty good background and I’ll admit I skimmed quickly over chapters like “the tools of genetic engineering.” The real substance of the book is in the second half where the authors address some of the frustratingly common arguments used by those who vehemently oppose genetically engineering crops (for example: safety, pollen drift, intellectual property) and go on to talk about the benefits GM crops can and do bring to the environment, consumers, and growers.

While the authors do a good job of making the point that GM crops really are compatible with the principles of the organic movement, I obviously already agreed with the value of GM crops. What won me over about this book was the way Pamela Ronald describes the delicate dance of a plant biologist drawn into a discussion of genetic engineering with friends or family who are firmly convinced of the danger or immortality of the technology.

If you’re interested in the subject, a good short read that summarized a lot of the points in Tomorrow’s Table is an op-ed piece Pamela Ronald wrote for the Boston Globe called The New Organic. (I read the article before Tomorrow’s Table came out, and went straight from reading the article to pre-ordering the book on amazon.) Pamela Ronald also has recent started her own blog.

In closing I’d like to quote another plant scientist blogger who I’ve discovered (while searching for the link to the Boston Globe article): “I want people to know that I’m here. I am a scientist, I am reasonable, and I am a good person. . .I believe that the two types of scientists and farmers (sustainable agriculture and genetic engineers) need to communicate and work together. . .The partnership can only happen if every scientist and every person on each side of the issue works to share and understand each other.” – Anastasia at www.geneticmaize.com

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