October 2019 Book Review “Tomorrow’s Table”

What’s in this post: Review of the 2018 book, Tomorrow’s Table, by Pamela C. Ronald, PhD, and Raoul Adamchak


The book explains the basics and some of the issues of genetic engineering and organic farming. The authors assert that these practices are not mutually exclusive and can be complementary to each other.

“This book was subtle and inclusive, and that made it radical.” -Michael Specter, The New Yorker, Staff Writer

The book is written by a wife and husband team, an organic farmer and plant geneticist, both of whom work at the University of California, Davis. The book alternates between chapters authored by each. The reviews on Goodreads criticize it both for being too conversational and for being overly technical. It can be both, but overall it makes for an approachable tone for a wide range of audiences, which was their intention.

My broad takeaway is that we’re asking the wrong questions and that the answers are too nuanced to fit on a label. Instead of arguing from our trenches, we should be finding points of common ground and moving forward, together. And, most importantly, the farmers have to be central to that conversation.

What I liked

  • Presents both the science and compelling arguments for genetic engineering and organic farming.
    • Also delves into the different “levels” (my word, not theirs) of genetic engineering. This can be as subtle as using gene sequencing to hone in on plant characteristics and then using what’s considered “traditional” breeding to obtain those desirable, naturally occurring characteristics appear in the same species, like drought tolerance. Another “level” (again, my word) is introducing a bacterium, e.g., Bt corn.
  • A chapter devoted to the mistrust of science, which includes a table I found particularly compelling, which compares various scientific organizations, like AAAS, their findings on climate change, and their findings on GMOs.
  • Inclusion of the details of seed ownership, patents, etc., and information about the largest seed companies.
  • The table comparing chemicals applied to organic and conventional crops.

What I didn’t like

  • I’d have liked more stats about acres under production for some example crops, broken down by conventional, conventional-GM, organic, and organic-GM, with the number of years in production, yield, chemical application rates, and costs to the farmers.
  • The references in the back were hard to find, and would have benefited with a cross-reference to the page numbers in the reference section.

Worth your time?

Yes, if you’re interested in learning more about how genetic engineering and organic farming can be complimentary and not antagonistic. You’ll come away with a better understanding of the issues of modern farming and the science of genetic engineering. They do a good job of addressing concerns about GMO crops while not being blind to the realities of the financial cost and control of seed production. (I’d have liked to have delved into that latter topic more, but that falls outside the purview of these authors and would’ve made for an intimidatingly long book!)

You might give this book a pass if you’re scientifically well-versed in genetic science or just don’t have time to devote to reading it. If you fall into this latter category, you might be interested in Dr. Ronald’s TED talk.

Find it at your local bookstore or your local library:

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

Pamela C. Ronald, PhD and Raoul Adamchak

Oxford University Press, Second Edition 2018

P.S. I found this book thanks to our local bookshop, Scuppernong Books, who keeps a well-curated selection on every topic I’m interested in, and even some I didn’t know I were of interested to me.

Book review? That’s new!?! I read a fair amount, usually 30 to 50 books a year, if I’m lucky (and if they aren’t 500 pages of economic theory and history). At least every fifth book is about food or nature, and in my continued endeavor to share what I’ve learned with y’all, I thought reviewing these books might be of interest or – even better – help to y’all. Let me know what you think, and if you have any book recommendations or requests.

If you comment, be sure it is productive, non-inflammatory and science-based.