Tomorrow’s Table, Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food, by Pamela C. Ronald and Raoul W. Adamchack (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008, ISBN 978-0-19-530175-5) 199 pp. Cloth $29.95
The authors of Tomorrow’s Table, Pamela C. Ronald and Raoul W. Adamchack, are a plant geneticist and the manager of an experimental organic farm at the University of California at Davis. They are married to each other, and, probably not coincidentally, their book is a plan for the “marriage” of organic farming and modern science.
Their points of view are constructively and interestingly expressed as conversations with their students and other colleagues. Emphasis lies, on the one hand, on the benefits of organic farming methods in avoiding toxic chemicals and soil erosion and, on the other hand, on the benefits of plant breeding in developing new crop varieties to improve efficiency in land and water use. The authors repeatedly emphasize that genetic engineering (GE) has not resulted in any of the disasters predicted by its opponents. This is obviously true of the selective breeding of traits already present in some parent plants as has been occurring throughout the history of settled agriculture. Deoxyribonucleic acid is the chemical stuff of inheritance. Modern DNA analysis permits more rapid selection for desired traits by selection for “marker genes” associated with the new trait. These markers can be promptly identified before the desired traits are expressed in the mature plants, greatly speeding up the improvements, but the final product is exactly the same as with traditional plant breeding. There are no possible impending disasters from this particular form of GE.
Transgenes are genes from unrelated sources imposed on a (plant’s) genome by GE. Examples include “Roundup-ready” soybeans and Bt corn (corn engineered to produce a toxin for insects from Bacilus thuringesis). The authors correctly state that so far transgenes have not resulted in unintended consequences. A stand of Roundup-ready soybeans can be made weed-free without harm. Glyphosate, the generic name for Roundup, kills all “normal” plants by interfering with the formation of chloroplasts, an essential plant organ. A protein that intervenes and permits normal production of chloroplasts in the presence of glyphosate is produced by some bacteria. The gene for producing this protein has been isolated and introduced into the soybean genome. Glyphosate is nontoxic to animals and does not persist in soil or water. When used on GE soybeans, it replaces vast quantities of metolachlor, a very toxic and widely used herbicide. Bt corn is somewhat similar but more complicated. The bottom line: GE crops are already improving our environment by reducing toxic chemical use and indirectly by improving yields and reducing the land area required for agriculture, a boon to wildlife.
In one chapter, Ronald explains why superweeds have not resulted and are unlikely to result from GE crops. Transgenes have not turned up in weeds, even closely related ones. Such weeds may have been pollinated with GE pollen, occasionally germinating seeds that have not survived. The reason: domesticated plants have been pampered by man for centuries in countless ways, such as prepared seed beds and cultivating to reduce competition. Thus, the presence of one or even a few novel enhancements cannot overcome the disadvantage of prolonged gradual attrition of ancient genes needed in the competitive wild environment. A subtle example: domestic plants are bred for a high germination rate of seeds, but if all seeds germinate promptly, it could be a disaster in the wild because no one will be there to replant after a drought. I am sure that the authors are aware of the danger of permitting the growing of GE crops that produce chemicals of use to the pharmaceutical industry—-such crops should be produced only in greenhouses with controlled ventilation and all other provisions necessary to prevent any pollen escaping to similar crops being produced for food. Such hybrids could not be expected to die from competition. Unfortunately, “agriceuticals” were not pertinent to any of the discussions in the book.
The book discusses at length problems with intellectual property interfering with dissemination of GE crops in the underdeveloped world (similar to drugs for treatment of AIDS). Apparently, University of California at Davis is pioneering a concept of using some of the funds arising from patents of academic research to disseminate the benefits of genetic diversity in the underdeveloped world, where the useful genes originated. Grants to agricultural scientists will be especially useful in adapting discoveries to local growing conditions. The bureaucratic, financial, and ideological obstacles to regulating GE crops and organic agriculture are also discussed.
The idea of a marriage of genetic engineering with organic farming is heartwarming (as a non–card-carrying organic gardener, the book renews my license to be eclectic). Society needs the amalgamation of diverse technologies and ideologies for the benefit of all humankind. Tomorrow’s Table, Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food is an important book and should be widely read.