By Pamela C. Ronald and Raoul W. Adamchak
During my recent studies, I started thinking about how to build sustainable agriculture that will be able to handle the increasing requirements of developing countries and increasing land costs. Then I came across this book, which promised to explain the challenges and solutions in current agriculture with focus on what clearly are today’s trends: GE foods and organic farming.
The book was a bit short, but not knowing the complexities of agriculture, I thought that the basic ideas could be covered in a little over two hundred pages if the author stayed focused during course of this book.
The book starts with clearing the fog around the term organic farming. Organic products are defined in the US and EU regulatory framework, they put focus on using organic components to aid the farmer instead of artificial components (pesticides, insecticides …). It is notable that today’s organic farming should be GMO free (by legislation), which can be a bit controversial, because of the reduced toolkit available to the organic farmer. Genetic engineering can provide resistance to certain pests and insects (aside from consumer benefits such as longer shelf life) and in effect reduce the amount of artificial pesticides, which are believed to be harmful on a variety of fronts.
One interesting case where genetic engineering was extremely helpful was when enabling rice to withstand flood for extended periods of time. Standard rice can typically withstand up to one week submerged under water. Often times, that is not unfortunately not enough. When introducing a new genetic trait from a different rice species, the period for which rice can withstand submergence has been extended to up to two weeks.
And how do we get genes from a different species into a plant? One relatively easy way is to use a bacteria called Agrobacterium. This bacteria is capable of transferring its genes through the plant’s cell walls into the nucleus.
Another interesting modern technique available to farmers are hybrid seeds. Hybrid seed is developed from parents of two distinct species. These parents come from process of self-pollination that generates “genetically pure” plant over time. Offspring of such two parents is a hybrid plant that has significantly higher yields and generally retains the good qualities of both parents. Unfortunately offspring of the hybrid plants do not retain the quality of their parents, therefore the farmer is forced to acquire new seeds from the seed vendor every year. It should be noted that hybrid seed san be quite expensive for the farmer, therefore limiting their availability in the developing world.
I chose this book based on a review from the great Bill Gates. Bill helps fund new development in the field of GE foods, so I had great confidence in his recommendation.
Unfortunately I found the book longwinded with a lot of unnecessary personal stories and recipes. These are loosely intermingled with more informative parts, which makes it hard to skip the weak parts. I do not feel particularly enriched by studying the book, which could be concentrated into fifty if all the unnecessary fluff would be omitted.
There are a lot of serious statements that are not supported by fact (but I guess a recipe for “Sticky Mango Rice” will make up for it). Although I firmly belong to the camp of GMO supporters, this book does not provide sufficient data to support the claim that GE is “well-tested” which should clearly be included in such a book.
Overall, I cannot recommend this book. I need to read another book on agriculture with focus on GE foods to get a deeper understanding of the field because this book did not deliver on the facts. This book is published by the Oxford University Press which is hard to believe due to severe scientific weakneses.
- Fig is a flower inverted into itself.
- Types of pesticide and what they kill: herbicides – weeds; insecticides – insects; fungicides – fungi; bactericides – bacteria; nematocides – nematodes.
- Bacillus thuringiensis produces a so-called BT toxin which can kill some pests as caterpillars and beetles. BT toxin-producing capability is commonly engineered into corn or cotton, which are commonly affected by the aforementioned pests.
- Marker-assisted breeding is a process using traditional breeding where the breeder identifies detectable manifestations of desired gene which helps distinguish offspring possessing the desired genes.