Recommended Reading on Genetically Engineered Foods

Late June in 2009 (wow, almost four years ago), I went to a talk at the Long Now Foundation. It was Pamela Ronald, plant geneticist, and her husband Raoul Adamchak, organic farm instructor, talking about their vision for the future of food. I won’t say I was against genetic engineering before that talk, but I was vaguely of the opinion that GE was bad, categorically, bought mostly organic food, etc.

I’d been living San Francisco (or the area) for a while. I shopped at my local co-op (I miss Rainbow) or Whole Foods. I bought foods in bulk by preference. I often chose organic food (I can afford it). I went to the farmer’s market weekly. I won’t say I was a “well-informed consumer” but I did believe I was making choices that were at least a bit better for people and the environment. I vaguely thought GMOs were dangerous. And anyway, they were only used for corn/soy agriculture feeding animals (and creating lagoons of polluting animal manure) — or for processed food I didn’t buy much of. Processed foods are bad for you, right? But the talk description was intriguing. What could organic farming and genetic engineering have to do with each other?!

But I went. I learned a lot. That both of them were there, coming from different perspectives, made it easier to believe what I was hearing. An organic farming teacher from UC-Davis surely would not let lies go by. Nor did they try to pretend there were no problems with modern agriculture. The idea was: how do we use the best of all the tools we have? So I went home and read their book. Then I read another book and then read some more. Soon I became fascinated with how complicated agriculture is — even that corn/soy monoculture I was (and many others are) so dismissive of. I became enthusiastic about how food changes the world. Not food in the sense of buying organic (though I still buy a lot of it) or going to “local, sustainable, etc.” restaurants (though I still do a fair bit!). Agriculture changes the world by making it easier and safer for us to feed more people, while valuing the rest of our environment. The process is messy, it’s not always equitable and we will never be perfect.

But we are getting better. With a bit of reading (and an open mind and informed by some smart science communicators) I realized that even parts of agriculture I was uncomfortable with had something important to say about the future of food. These are some of the books that gave me a better perspective on agriculture and food. You don’t have to read all of them (and if you only read one, read Tomorrow’s Table) but depending only on inflammatory and shallow web stories (the current food scare!) doesn’t support a good conversation about food and agriculture.

Tomorrow’s Table

Tomorrow’s Table opened my mind to what can be done with modern biotechnology that is more sustainable than what we have now (and this includes the unfortunately dichotomous “organic” and “conventional”). Why shouldn’t we use science to make plants better able to survive floods so farmers don’t lose their crops? Why shouldn’t we use science to let a plant defend itself rather than using external pesticides (which organic systems use as well)? Yield is important for sustainability and protecting the natural environment: the less land we have to use to feed everyone, the more land can be left for other purposes (including wild spaces). Tomorrow’s Table is the best single volume I know of that introduces the breadth of agriculture and biotechnology (“GMOs”) without being too technical. On the way it covers many of the controversies and fears, but I think in a way that isn’t dismissive of why people believe them (I believed some of them once!) There are some awkward stylistic issues — neither of the authors are polished non-fiction writers — but their knowledge and enthusiasm for the subject are clear. You don’t teach organic agriculture or search for genes to make rice flood tolerant because you want to become rich and famous. You do it because you believe you can make the world better.

The Doubly Green Revolution

There are millions if not a billion of people that would likely not exist without the first Green Revolution. The first Green Revolution brought us plants with wildly increased yields with fewer people having to work on farms due to mechanization. But it also brought increased pesticide use, indiscriminate fertilizer use and an emphasis on limited cereal crops to the detriment of diversity. It undeniably improved many lives but it wasn’t perfect. Gordon Conway’s The Doubly Green Revolution tells the story of the first Green Revolution and asks what we can do better. It’s a bit dated (published in 1997) but it is a broad sweep. It’s not only about genetic engineering, though he mentions it (at the time very few GE crops were in the hands of farmers). After reading this book I had a better idea of the broad sweep of agricultural history and a greater respect for the “conventional” agriculture I feared so much. It’s not perfect but there’s a reason it exists the way it does. The book is also unabashedly (and I think not unreasonably) optimistic (the author is still optimistic). We solve problems by understanding the world and figuring out a better way to implement our values. I want everyone to live a fulfilling life — well-fed — and able to decide how to live their own life. Agricultural science can help make that happen.

Mendel in the Kitchen

After a while I became more interested in more “nitty gritty” about agricultural biotechnology. Higher level descriptions, appropriate more for a long magazine feature, of how biotechnology works wasn’t really enough. I wanted a bit more. Fortunately I found Nina Federoff’s Mendel in the Kitchen. It’s not a scientist’s book: it’s still written for a non-expert. But it does go into enough detail that sometimes I had to go read some other sources to really get to the meat — and it had enough references for me to find more sources. The best part is it walks thru a history of breeding plants to explain genetics. This was the first book that made me realize that a lot of words I had for food had a lot more history behind them. What is kale really?

The Partisans Speak

The next couple books are unabashedly what you might call “pro-GMO”. When I first read them, I was ready to be convinced by every word. Soon I realized they were a bit too pro. But that doesn’t make them bad books: that just means you have to read more skeptically. There is good stuff in both. Better still, though, they help you understand why some (on the “pro-GMO” side) find it so hard to accept GMO labeling1. To many working and advocating in this field, the decades of misunderstanding and restrictions don’t seem reasonable and sometimes even seem harmful. It’s very easy to become very partisan and unwilling to give an inch if you feel embattled. Anyway, on to the books.

Pandora’s Picnic Basket by Alan McHughen covers the “myths and truths” about GMOs. It’s been a while since I read it so I’m sure I would find more things to quibble with now than I did when I first read it, but overall it is a good resource. Many of the usual scare stories about GMOs are either not true or are far more interesting (and less scary) than the short version and he gives descriptions of them all. The book also contains clear and concise descriptions of the regulatory process and some of the terms used in it. Ever wonder what “substantial equivalence” really means? He explains it well (with examples). Ever wonder how complicated it is to get a GMO crop to market in an international food market? There’s that too. Stylistically, it’s arranged in relatively easy to read chunks. You can read a small section at a time and get something out of it.

Starved for Science by Robert Paarlberg is the most political book I’ll recommend. The author is morally outraged at what he sees as a very paternalistic attitude that European and North American groups have towards people in Africa. In short, the fears of the well-fed (in Europe and here) keep scientific advances from farmers in Africa. This is not quite true but the idea is compelling (the details, however, matter). But Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution, and Jimmy Carter were willing to write a forward for it, so you might be willing to give it a try. The moral determination behind the viewpoint of the author is similar to the one behind projects like HarvestPlus. We can improve the lives of all through agriculture, but it will require using all the tools available.

Improving the Conversation about Agriculture

So there’s a few book recommendations. If you are skeptical about agriculture or biotechnology, read one (especially Tomorrow’s Table). I don’t expect reading a book will change your mind overnight. I hope that reading a book from someone who is passionate about what agricultural science can do for the world will shift our conversation a bit. Can we talk about improving agriculture without dividing into pro/anti camps? Can we accept that agriculture (and especially the commercial part) is not perfect, but that all parts have some value or at least something to say? We need to talk about what might work rather than condemning the “other side”.


I have a post planned soon on my current ideas about GMO labeling — with a surprise announcement!