Skip to main content

Is That Fish in Your Tomato? - Rebecca Nesbit *****

Like almost anything that gets the attention of the green movement, the genetic modification of food is a subject on which it's very difficult to find good, balanced coverage - so Rebecca Nesbit's book is a breath of fresh air. From the title you might think it takes the 'horror stories of GM' approach, but the concept of fish DNA in tomatoes is only mentioned in passing as an example of how misleading information is used - this is a far more nuanced and well-written book.

Throughout, Nesbit gives us the science, the potential benefits and the potential threats. She describes from practical experience the protest side (she was anti-GM as a student), but also interviews plenty of scientists involved in GM foods and now has a much more balanced view. She takes us through the early days of GM foods, when it all turned nasty, what's involved in the various processes labelled as GM and much more. In crops there are whole chapters on insect resistance and herbicide tolerance, and she looks at the possibilities for using GM to increase production, modify animals, improve nutrition and use GM for non-food crops, such as biofuels. In the final chapters, she brings the pros and cons in focus and makes an argument for seeing GM as just one tool in the bigger picture of feeding humanity sustainably.

What strongly comes through here is the intransigence of environmental organisations and the organic movement, who clearly aren't interested in benefits, simply looking for ways to stop GM in a knee-jerk reaction, even when the alternatives are far worse for us and for the environment. Equally, Nesbit makes it clear that GM isn't always the right solution and points out the difficulties, particularly for traditional farmers in developing nations who aren't always given sufficient education to use GM crops effectively.

Although there's a lot of detail here, it is handled in a good humoured and engaging way, making use of examples and details of the people involved to keep it interesting. The only time I'd say the book flags a little is in the final chapters, where the content starts to feel a little repetitious because we've had so many examples of quite similar applications, and Nesbit's careful way of always making sure we're aware of the pros and cons makes it feel like she perhaps needs to come down more firmly on the areas where GM should be used and where it shouldn't.

There was also one rather strange argument in the section about using GM to improve the nutritional content of crops: '... research into biofortified crops is often a collaboration between scientists from the developed world and those from the countries set to benefit. Are scientists from richer countries providing essential skills and funding, or should such projects be led entirely by scientists from the regions which are seeking to benefit?' This just seems a strange question when scientists in all fields are always telling us how essential free international collaboration is - to apply a kind of scientific apartheid seems an odd thing to even consider. This is perhaps an example where giving a balanced view can come a little close to fence sitting.

Overall, though, this is a book that is really important in a field where science has for the last 20 years been pushed out of the way by tabloid hysteria, over-powerful pressure groups, corporate greed and regulatory incompetence. Is that Fish in Your Tomato? refreshingly cuts through to the heart of the GM debate and is recommended reading for anyone interested in the environment and food (or, for that matter, politics).

Paperback:  

Kindle:  



Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Five Photons - James Geach ****

It is generally acknowledged that Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time is one of the most common books to be bought but not read beyond the first few pages. If you are the kind of popular science reader who found Hawking hard going, you can stop now - Five Photons is not for you. If, on the other hand, you found A Brief History of Time a piece of cake and wished you could get into more depth without resorting to heavy mathematics or a tedious textbook style, Five Photons could be just up your street.

Astrophysicist James Geach starts of fairly gently with a chapter on the nature of light that mostly sets aside quantum physics, leading up to the observation that light is our vehicle for for stripping back the history of the universe to its earliest times (or, at least, the point where the universe became transparent). From here on, the five photons of the title take us on different journeys, from the oldest surviving light of the cosmic microwave background radiation to that fr…

Mercury - William Sheehan ****

Driving to work one morning several years ago, I spotted a tiny white dot close to the rising sun. ‘That’s Venus,’ I said to myself. Almost immediately I saw another, much brighter dot a few degrees away. ‘No, that’s Venus – the first one must be, um ... Mercury.’ Even with a lifelong interest in astronomy, I always manage to forget Mercury.

With eight planets in the Solar System, one of them has to be the least interesting – and Mercury got the short straw. That’s a relative statement, though, and a diligent author could still dig up enough fascinating facts about that tiny dot by the Sun to fill a short book. William Sheehan has done a brilliant job of doing just that.

One of the reasons Mercury is so easy to forget is that it’s almost impossible to get a good view of it from Earth. Even after the invention of the telescope, which turned planets like Mars and Jupiter into explorable worlds, Mercury remained a mystery – and the subject of some pretty wild speculations. In 1686, for exa…