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Nov./Dec. 2010 – (Engineered) food for thought

If you are, like me, still undecided about the proper role of genetic engineering and agriculture, I suggest you read the book, Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food. I’ve been through it twice in the last month and it has earned a place-of-honor position beside the kitchen table, along with the other books that I want to revisit.
Written by wife and husband team, Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak, who also happen to be, respectively, a plant genetic scientist at the University of California, Davis and an organic farmer who now teaches organic production at the same institution, Tomorrow’s Table makes the argument that our best hope of achieving truly sustainable agriculture is by merging genetic engineering and organic farming.
What a stimulatingly heretical concept! For some people, that is like suggesting the Mafia partner with school crossing guards to help make streets safer, or that Sarah Palin is a natural to head the National Academy of Sciences into a new era of scientific discovery.
But Ronald and Adamchak are dead serious. They believe that widespread concern about the consequences of genetic engineering is a result of misunderstanding the mechanics of both genetic engineering (okay, we’ve heard this one before) and of traditional plant breeding (something new, to me, anyway). Basically, the difference is between the swift transference of a single gene with a desired characteristic (GE) and the slow inheritance of a whole bundle of traits, both desired and undesired (as is the case in traditional selective breeding).
With time running out to find ways to feed a fast-increasing world population, they say, we don’t have the luxury of developing new varieties via the old methods. A new, saline-tolerant rice can be engineered in a lab in a fraction of the time it would take to breed a variety using traditional techniques.
The authors also argue that studies critical of GE contamination are inevitably discredited when subjected to peer review, and that much of what appears to be a debate about the science of genetic engineering is actually a debate about ownership of rights. Their account of how the rights to GE plants and GE techniques, became the property of corporations, instead of being retained by the commons through an open-source kind of concept, is enough to make you despair for what could have been.
If you are a second-gunman-on-the-grassy-knoll kind of conspiracy theorist, some of what Ronald and Adamchak say will be suspect. I have doubts myself. I mean, how legitimate is a footnote in an academic journal, especially when we know the too-cozy funding relationships between industry and researchers? Also, when it comes to issues around GE, I think a lot of us opt for a seemingly intelligent skepticism when in fact we are more scared of looking like industry dupes to our peers than we are scared of the science.
What Tomorrow’s Table makes clear is that there are consequences to all kinds of farming. The authors were focused on explaining how genetic engineering works, and what agriculture-related problems it might be capable of solving. But in doing so they posit larger questions: okay, if not genetic engineering, then what? More conventional production, with pesticides and herbicides that we know are harmful (as opposed to GE crops, which some think might be harmful) to people and the environment? More organic production, which is not only fossil-fuel intensive but increasingly looks as if it is capable of producing food affordable only to the Armani and Lexus set? How are we going to feed the world’s rapidly increasing millions?
As if proposing a union of organic agriculture and genetic engineering wasn’t creative enough, what Ronald and Adamchak succeeded in doing is setting the terms for a larger and even more vital discussion.