Tomorrow's Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food

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Oxford University Press, Apr 18, 2008 - Science - 232 pages
2 Reviews
By the year 2050, Earth's population will double. If we continue with current farming practices, vast amounts of wilderness will be lost, millions of birds and billions of insects will die, and the public will lose billions of dollars as a consequence of environmental degradation. Clearly, there must be a better way to meet the need for increased food production. Written as part memoir, part instruction, and part contemplation, Tomorrow's Table argues that a judicious blend of two important strands of agriculture--genetic engineering and organic farming--is key to helping feed the world's growing population in an ecologically balanced manner. Pamela Ronald, a geneticist, and her husband, Raoul Adamchak, an organic farmer, take the reader inside their lives for roughly a year, allowing us to look over their shoulders so that we can see what geneticists and organic farmers actually do. The reader sees the problems that farmers face, trying to provide larger yields without resorting to expensive or environmentally hazardous chemicals, a problem that will loom larger and larger as the century progresses. They learn how organic farmers and geneticists address these problems. This book is for consumers, farmers, and policy decision makers who want to make food choices and policy that will support ecologically responsible farming practices. It is also for anyone who wants accurate information about organic farming, genetic engineering, and their potential impacts on human health and the environment.

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I've somewhat mixed feelings about the book. Regarding genetic engineering and organic farming, there is definitely some quality information to be had. Ronald and Adamchak both provided interesting nibbles of information and experience into their professions. Ronald's discussion of GMO food was the most interesting part of the book for me, addressing the basic science, practical benefits and common misconceptions ably and convincingly. Based on this discussion I am far more comfortable regarding the safety and utility of GMO crops. However, Adamchak's sections on organic farming were less informative, and certainly less convincing; many of the sources used were fairly old (a 2008 book relying on citations from 1996 seems a little questionable) and overall it rested mostly on his experience rather than scientific literature. Perhaps understandable given the divergent nature of their fields. But still, the contrast between well-documented, scientific research on GMO and the whistful musings about the benefits of organic farming was striking. One is convincing evidence, the other is opinions wrapped in naturalistic fallacy.
A minor complaint was the brevity of the work. Framed as a public introduction into two controversial areas, the book still read as light and short, with considerable untapped potential in both areas. The larger issue for me however, was the stylistic choice to allow personal narrative to consistently intrude into the chapters. In addition to reducing the amount of text devoted to substance and research, I found irritating the appearance of their opinions on matters for which they are not experts (most notably the lyrical praise heaped upon the decision to give birth at home - a choice which sounds lovely but is in reality a dangerous one for parents and children).
To put this into food terms, it was a well-made appetizer that was not to my taste and left me hungry for a main course with a little less pepper.


The Farm
The Lab
The Environment

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About the author (2008)

Pamela C. Ronald is a Professor in the Department of Plant Pathology at the University of California, Davis. Her laboratory has genetically engineered rice for resistance to diseases and flooding. Her work has been published in Science, Nature, and other scientific periodicals and has also been featured in newspapers including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Le Monde. She is an elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Raoul Adamchak has grown organic crops for twenty years, part of the time as a partner in Full Belly Farm, a private 150-acre organic vegetable farm. He has inspected over one hundred organic farms as an inspector for California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) and served as a member and President of CCOF's Board of Directors. He now works at the U.C., Davis as the Market Garden Coordinator at the certified organic farm on campus.

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