Opposites attract

At first glace, the relationship between organic food farming and genetic engineering might seem adversarial. Certainly, we’d expect proponents of the former to be hostile to the latter. But it ain’t necessarily so—or so goes the argument of Tomorrow’s Table, a new book by Davis residents Pamela C. Ronald and Raoul W. Adamchak.

On an anecdotal level, they seem to be living proof that the two can be paired: Ronald is a professor in the department of plant pathology at UC Davis whose research focuses on genetically engineering rice for disease resistance; Adamchak is an organic farmer, formerly of the celebrated Full Belly Farm and now at UC Davis’ certified organic farm; and the two are married, so clearly, some proponents of these seemingly very different approaches to food production can get along.

Ronald and Adamchak’s thesis will no doubt be controversial, but it makes good sense. They contend that genetically engineering certain plants for certain traits—resistance to pests, for instance—is one way to improve farming and food-production methods without relying on the enormous amounts of fertilizers and pesticides currently being pumped into fields. As the authors point out, the world’s population is growing fast, and supporting it through environmentally sustainable farming will require some new ideas. One of which, they say, can be the wedding of genetic engineering and organics—concepts that aren’t as black and white, or as diametrically opposed, as many assume.

The advocacy is balanced, though frequently impassioned, and chapters cover the nature of organics and GE, respectively; how GE is done, technically; whether GE food poses special risks (adducing GE food that has been consumed safely for years, such as papaya); conservation; the problem of weeds; and the problems of seed and gene ownership, proposing some innovative solutions to keep new varieties in the public domain. The book ends with a chapter, “Deconstructing Dinner,” that seems partially inspired by Michael Pollan’s approach in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, tracing the origin of a dinner eaten by Ronald and Adamchak’s family—complete with some delicious-sounding recipes, like a plum kuchen. Local readers may also take special enjoyment in picking out references to regional foods and farmers.

The book’s unusual format—the two authors switch off chapters and range stylistically from personal anecdote to hard science—makes for a lively read, even through some fairly dry and technical material. (The one seriously awkward part of the writing is the stilted nature of recalled “conversations” transcribed for the book—many are rather obviously reconstructed, and they break the flow.) Along the way, you can even find out how to isolate DNA from a strawberry at home—assuming you have a zip-lock bag, an organic berry and some ice-cold ethanol lying around.

Some of the most powerful parts of Tomorrow’s Table are also the most personal—even aside from the simple example of the authors’ marriage. In a discussion of the risk of GE foods, for instance, Ronald describes how assiduously she avoided risky foods when pregnant with her first child—and then reveals, painfully, that their son was stillborn because of an unpreventable umbilical-cord accident. It’s an associative style of argumentation, to be sure, but no less affecting for it as an example of how “all the essentials of life—food, family, and work—have associated risks,” Ronald writes, continuing, “In the end, we can only gather the most accurate information from reliable sources and make the best choices possible. I know the GE crops currently on the market are no more risky to eat than the rest of the food in our refrigerator.” Adamchak’s farming experiences are similarly rendered with immediacy and verve; the hard work of clearing weeds and battling pests comes through clearly and we see why he (and other farmers) might wish to explore technologies that improve organic farming.

Such arguments, as Ronald herself admits in other sections of the book, may not convince die-hard anti-GE types. But this book, with its fresh and intriguing premise, its unconventional style and its passion for improving farming and food production, is worth reading with an open mind.