Tony Trewavas has an interesting review (Redefining “Natural” in Agriculture) in PLoS Biology of my friend and colleague Pam Ronald’s new book “Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food.”
I was planning on eventually writing my own review of her book but not sure when I will get to it. I personally like the book a great deal, and enjoy how it switches back and forth between the authors (Pam and her husband Raoul Adamchak) and how it interweaves personal stories with discussion of the science and practice of organic farming and plant genetic engineering.
Trewaras has some things in the review I agree with a great deal like
“The text deals with many of the questions raised by the public about GE crops in a sensible and balanced manner, quoting various sources of reliable information on the concerns about risks to health and environment that often recur. It also mentions Richard Jefferson, who is Chairman of CAMBIA, a non-profit organisation that attempts to make the tools of biotechnology widely and freely available (http://www.cambia.org/). As a scientist, I cannot help but applaud!”
I personally love what CAMBIA is doing and found the discussion of CAMBIA in the book to be interesting. I have gotten to know Richard Jefferson over the last few years and think he is a true pioneer in revolutionizing biotechnology and freeing it from the shackles of over protectionism.
Trewavas also has a very interesting thread about the value of different opinions. Since this was printed in PLoS Biology and is under a CC license I can reprint it here (with acknowledgment of the source – Citation: Trewavas T (2008) Redefining “Natural” in Agriculture. PLoS Biol 6(8): e199 doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0060199) and it is worth doing so:
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.
It is unfortunate that for the past 40 years, agriculture in particular has been damaged by opinionated groups of the public that have forcefully used fear and anxiety and carefully selected information to try and coerce policy makers to adopt their own mistaken and unqualified views. Fear and emotion do not make for good policy. I applaud Ronald’s conclusion that “if citizens vote, it should be for a specific matter on which they are well informed, not because of general concerns about a new technology.”
The corollary is that on most technical matters, the public can never be well enough informed. If scientific knowledge does not form the basis of policy on technology, basing such policy on ignorance can be guaranteed to generate disaster. It was Slovik in his classic Perception of Risk  who demonstrated that non-experts overestimate the frequency of death from rare causes while underestimating the frequency of common causes of death, and who established clearly how additional knowledge changed expert understanding. The use of the local ordinance by activist groups to stop GE farming is only too reminiscent of the damage done by Lysenkoism to Soviet farming in the 40s, which took decades to recover from, once it was abandoned.
Basically, he is indirectly agreeing with Ronald/Adamchak that some negative opinions of GE are simply not valid. Here I think I disagree with all of them. I think much of the objection to GE modification of plants is an esthetic objection and thus presenting scientific arguments for why it is OK to do is a bit off tangent. It is kind of like when someone says “that house is ugly.” Do you respond by saying “Well, actually, the shape and color patterns have been shown to appeal to human sensory systems” Not too helpful. I feel that the same is happening with GE plants — if people’s instinctively do not like them, telling them about the science is not necessarily going to help. Nothing wrong with educating about the science, but I think it is a red herring to say that some of the anti-GE folks do not understand the science and therefore their objections must be wrong. I feel similar vibes in the evolution education discussion going on around the world. I think many people latch on to ID and Creationism because it appeals to them in a esthetic sense. And one needs to be really gentle/careful about bringing science into the discussion (except of course, when one is teaching a science class — then you teach the science).
So sure – I have some quibbles about parts of the book. As does Trewavas (he has to raise some objections – any book review that does not have them seems like fan mail and not a review).
PS – For more on the book see Pam’s blog here.