Review of “Tomorrow’s Table” in PLoS Biology

Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak are the husband-and-wife authors of a new book, “Tomorrow’s Table:  Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food”.  The book is reviewed by Tony Trewavas in PLoS Biology, and sounds like an interesting read.  The review is also good.  Some excerpts from Trewavas’ review:

“The subject matter deals with organic farming methods, GE methods, questions of environmental conservation, risk, trust, and ownership of seeds and genes. The last chapter, and the only one written jointly, concludes that some marriage of organic and GE technology will represent the agriculture of the future.

I must admit to holding the same view some 15 years ago, but not now. I assumed that the use of GE technology would be rather like the green revolution. Universities and research institutes would make new crop plants available and free to those that needed them. What has intervened of course for GE is the input of commercialism, which has muddied the waters. Organic farming is not immune to commercial pressures either, and there are strong suspicions that the organic industry’s antagonism to GE is a marketing ploy. Mutated crops, induced by radiation, for example, have been used for many years by conventional and organic farmers alike, and it is now known that radiation mutation causes much greater genomic change than GE technology [2].”

The bolding in the preceding is mine; the phrase makes a point that I have been convinced of for years.

“The continuing conversation did not resolve the issues between them. It convinced me, however (if I needed convincing), that while everyone is entitled to their opinions, when dealing with detailed technical matters of science or medicine or any subject that requires enormous qualifications and experience, the notion that all opinions have equal validity is simply downright wrong. If you want real information on the safety of heart surgery procedures, do you follow the advice of a qualified heart surgeon or the local butcher? If you want advice on flying a jumbo jet, do you ask the local bus driver or a pilot with 10,000 hours of experience flying jumbo jets? And if you want advice on how to captain a supertanker, do you ask a person whose experience is limited to rowing a dinghy? Mistakes by surgeons are not uncommon, 70% of air crashes result from pilot error, and occasionally supertankers hit the rocks. But relying on rank amateurs instead of professionals would guarantee instant catastrophe. Many branches of science are very complex. However, being a scientist isn’t enough, of course, as being a scientist doesn’t qualify you to advise on any subject except your specialty. To provide advice that can lead to sensible policy requires not only a thorough understanding of the workings and literature of the particular scientific area but many decades of experience in that field.”

The parallels with the ev/ID-cre debate, where all manner of uninformed antievolutionists believe their erroneous opinions are entitled to equal “treatment”, are striking in this passage.

“Although Ronald and Adamchak mention no-till agriculture only briefly, this is surely the agriculture of the future. No-till farms produce only one third of the greenhouse gas emissions of an organic farm [5]. No-till eliminates soil erosion and improves environment, wildlife, and soil. Most importantly, it maintains a conventional yield. Currently 10% of United States farms are totally no-till, and another 60% are partially no-till; this achievement is due almost solely to the availability of GE herbicide-tolerant crops.

No-till is not an amalgam of organic and GE technology but something that was derived from observations of nature in a very different way. Faulkner, the perceptive founder of no-till in 1943 [6], derived his revolutionary ideas from asking himself a very simple question: Why don’t the prairies suffer from the present (1940s) problems of US agriculture? Faulkner’s answer: the prairies are not subjected to that most damaging of all soil treatments: the plough. Leaving crop residues on the surface is the nearest any form of agriculture comes to mimicking the annual and natural cycle of the meadow. Herbicides are human “allelopathy” of weeds, and humans are part of nature too. If you want an agriculture that is nearest nature, then this is surely it.”

This last excerpt is a plug for a practice (no-till farming) that has been pioneered and championed by researchers at the University of Kentucky (among other places); indeed, there is an annual No-Till award and seminar (The S. H. Phillips No-Tillage Seminar) given in my department every fall.

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2 Responses to Review of “Tomorrow’s Table” in PLoS Biology

  1. RBH says:

    Pamela and Raoul also have a blog called Tomorrow’s Table.

    I have to say that no-till farming has shot the spring arrowhead hunting all to hell around here, though. 🙂

  2. Arthur Hunt says:

    Thanks for the link to the Tomorrow’s Table blog.

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