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Mendel in the Kitchen: A Scientist's View of Genetically Modified Foods

by Nina V. Fedoroff, Nancy Marie Brown (Author)

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545355,537 (3.63)19
While European restaurants race to footnote menus, reassuring concerned gourmands that no genetically modified ingredients were used in the preparation of their food, starving populations around the world eagerly await the next harvest of scientifically improved crops. Mendel in the Kitchen provides a clear and balanced picture of this tangled, tricky (and very timely) topic. Any farmer you talk to could tell you that we've been playing with the genetic makeup of our food for millennia, carefully coaxing nature to do our bidding. The practice officially dates back to Gregor Mendel -- who was not a renowned scientist, but a 19th century Augustinian monk. Mendel spent many hours toiling in his garden, testing and cultivating more than 28,000 pea plants, selectively determining very specific characteristics of the peas that were produced, ultimately giving birth to the idea of heredity -- and the now very common practice of artificially modifying our food. But as science takes the helm, steering common field practices into the laboratory, the world is now keenly aware of how adept we have become at tinkering with nature --which in turn has produced a variety of questions. Are genetically modified foods really safe? Will the foods ultimately make us sick, perhaps in ways we can't even imagine? Isn't it genuinely dangerous to change the nature of nature itself? Nina Fedoroff, a leading geneticist and recognized expert in biotechnology, answers these questions, and more. Addressing the fear and mistrust that is rapidly spreading, Federoff and her co-author, science writer Nancy Brown, weave a narrative rich in history, technology, and science to dispel myths and misunderstandings. In the end, Fedoroff arues, plant biotechnology can help us to become better stewards of the earth while permitting us to feed ourselves and generations of children to come. Indeed, this new approach to agriculture holds the promise of being the most environmentally conservative way to increase our food supply.… (more)

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Showing 5 of 5
Nina Fedoroff is a plant geneticist, and this book accordingly is focused on science. The gist of her position is that genetic modification is a response to pressures on the agricultural system with increasing demand and decreasing resources. Although concerns are legitimate, opposition is often based on sensationalized reports of flawed studies. The plausible consequences are manageable, not catastrophic. You can take this as insider awareness of altruistic motives and professional competence, or as an establishment position biased toward mollifying the public. Whichever, this is a useful book that describes genetic modification in detail (with diagrams!), and covers a range of relevant issues.

Several chapters describe traditional and relatively modern methods of molding plants to our purposes: domestication of wild species by breeding and selection, hybridization, protoplast fusion, inducing mutations with radiation or chemicals. We accept synthetic fertilizers and grafting and all manner of garden vegetables developed by trail and error. Why not genetic modification? The procedure for creating GM plants is not a sudden leap over a boundary between nature and not; decades of scientific discoveries and technological innovations were gradually tied together. Even with the general sequence settled, each step involves years of research and experimentation. Here are the essentials:

* Identify a gene of interest, i.e. a gene that produces a protein that has the desired effect: pesticide, immunity to herbicide, nutritional enhancement.
* Isolate and cut the gene from the source DNA.
* Splice the gene into the plasmid (ring of DNA) of Agrobacterium tumefaciens; these bacteria in nature insert a piece of plasmid into plant cells, causing formation of galls that produce food for the bacteria.
* Splice a marker into the plasmid, e.g. a gene that is resistant to a particular antibiotic.
* Grow a culture of cells from the target plant.
* Add the Agrobacterium tumefasciens to the plant cells, and wait for it to insert the gene.
* Apply the antibiotic to kill plant cells without the gene, and keep plant cells with the gene.
* Apply a hormone to the plant cells so they grow into complete plants, all containing the gene but possibly in different locations on the chromosomes.
* Test the plants, choosing those with the desired trait and without other discernible changes.

Concerns fall into three general categories: food safety, ecological impact, corporate power. What if the promoter gene attached to virus resistant GM plants activates other genes? What if the antibiotic marker transfers antibiotic resistance to gut bacteria and disease bacteria? What if GM plants cause allergic reactions? What if GM plants that produce various strains of Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) toxins kill not only the target insects but beneficial insects also? What if GM plants that are immune to herbicides promote use of herbicides that poison people? What if insects evolve to resist the pesticides produced by GM plants? What if GM plants contaminate the gene pool? What if mega-corporations seize control of the food supply with patented organisms? Regarding food safety, the approach to reassurance is molecular, describing how proteins operate and interact with the chemistry of potentially affected organisms; what is toxic to an insect may have no effect whatsoever on a person. Regarding ecological impact, the stance is that no problem is unique to GM plants; EPA and USDA and FDA regulations should be revised to focus on effects, rather than scrutinizing GM plants and ignoring plants with similar attributes created by other methods. (There is one jarring passage in which a monarch butterfly “spins a cocoon”, suggesting the author is a bit out of her element.) Regarding corporate power, this seems not to be of much interest; a few incidents are mentioned, as if with a shrug that corporations will be corporations.

In the author’s opinion, the fundamental issue is sustainability. The human population cannot revert to traditional practices and fit on the planet; the challenge for the future is how to produce more food, on the same area of land, with less ecological impact. This requires a collaboration of biotech and organic expertise and sensibility, not polarization. The science of genetic modification is immature, but the way forward is to improve it, not to squelch it. Recommended for its informative science and its moral argument; for criticism, look elsewhere.
1 vote qebo | Jan 18, 2015 |
The book is heavy on the history of science, particularly genetics, and gives some biochemistry details that are informative, but being written from a GMO developer's point of view, it adheres to the party line about safety. Fedoroff brushes off the real consequences of the serious modifications to our food chain. She tries to paint it as a continuum of the breeding efforts of the past thousands of years, when it most emphatically is of a different order. When every cell of a plant contains the protein that makes insect guts burst, it means that the plant will continue to devestate the insect world, even on the compost heap.
  2wonderY | Mar 13, 2014 |
Many people view genetically modified food with suspicion. 'I would never eat that stuff,' you might say. But if you live in the United States and have eaten apples, wheat, corn, potatoes, soy products, sweet potatoes, or papaya, you might just have eaten genetically modified food (GM food) without knowing it.

My mom and I had a discussion about GM food after I forwarded her this mailing I got from an organic food site. Did I realize, she asked, that strictly speaking, any hybrid food is genetically modified? That would include almost every apple grown in this country. Enjoy a Golden Delicious or a Macintosh? Try planting the seeds. What results will be nothing like the apple it came from. That's because most apple trees are created by grafting several varieties together. This has been going on for 200 years, and in that time, people have eaten a lot of apples.

But most people, when they think of GM food, think of the so-called Frankenfoods - the tomato with a fish gene in it, designed to help it withstand the cold. And yet, few of us outside the genetic research community really know or understand the process by which such a tomato is created. This book by Nina Fedoroff takes the reader step by step through the process of creating such a seed. She also answers the challenges of the opponents of such food with hard science, explaining why many of their complaints simply do not make sense.

Fedoroff, a leading geneticist and molecular biologist, makes a strong argument for the future of agriculture. I, like many consumers, thought that local, organic produce is the ideal kind of food. I still think that buying local whenever possible is a great way to help the environment and get the freshest, best tasting produce at the same time. But as Fedoroff points out, if every farmer switched to strictly organic farming methods, we would need another 2 or 3 planets just to feed the current population, to say nothing of projected population growth. And that would be cultivating every single arable acre of land, including those currently reserved for wildlife, the entire rainforest, and many other wildlife habitats. Organic farming simply can't come close to providing enough food for our planet.

So is GM food the answer? I have to admit that I'm coming around to her way of thinking. Scientist have developed some of these crops especially to solve nutritional problems. The book opens with Swiss scientist Ingo Potrykus coming up with a rice that contains a gene from a flower which contains the code for making beta carotene. The rice, Golden Rice, would be a simple way for even the poorest people to avoid the results of Vitamin A Deficiency, including blindness.

Potrykus wasn't hoping for fame, exactly, or fortune. He just wanted to help. Instead, he was vilified. Protesters went crazy. The term 'Frankenfood' was first used to describe this rice. Potrykus was at a loss. This was still rice. And today, 35 years after he started his research, not a single field anywhere in the world is growing Golden Rice. And Vitamin A Deficiency continues to cause blindness in third world countries.

I am not a scientist, so I would have a hard time putting Fedoroff's words into my own. And even other scientists still don't all agree with genetic modification. But she tackles their arguments, one a time, quoting other geneticists and plant breeders. I could go on and on, but there's not enough room.

Will I buy GM food in the future? Yes. I do admit I still feel a little uneasy about irradiated produce, such as strawberries, but in reality, such strawberries are safer than the produce in the recent E. Coli scare.

My only complaint about the book is that the illustrations and diagrams provided were a little too technical for me to understand. And I could have really used a glossary. Still, I didn't have too much trouble following along, even if I occasionally had to reread a paragraph once in a while.

In short, I have to thank my mom. If we hadn't had that discussion, I would not have noticed this book at the library. Now that I am a more informed consumer, I feel like I can make some better choices for my family. Highly recommended book for any American consumer. ( )
  cmbohn | Jun 10, 2009 |
I grew up in the worst of the worst days of ag biotech – as appalled as the next blossoming vegetarian, environmentalist by the vicious slaughter of monarch butterflies who had feasted on poisonous pollen and visions of dancing tomatoes with fish heads. But as I got older I did a lot of research on the topic of genetically modified foods. And the more I read (of reputable literature – not the plethora of information online), the more I became comfortable with the science behind it.

But I’m not a scientist and until reading ‘Mendel in the Kitchen’ I couldn’t have told you anything terribly specific about the science involved in genetic modification. Just that I found comfort in the logic of the scientific method and the possibilities that lay there within.

The lead author of ‘Mendel in the Kitchen’, Nina Fedoroff, is a scientist in the area of molecular biology (as well as the Science and Technology Advisor to Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice) and skillfully explains the science behind genetic modification and its context of use. She starts with the fundamentals of biology, makes effective use of diagrams and uses lots of examples to illustrate the progress of the research through time.

The most important contribution of this book is that it provides context and perspective to the history of food production. For so many of us, the dawning days of GM was the first time we thought about the food we ate – where it came from, how it was grown, how it got to our plate. GM sounded so sterile, so scientific, so unnatural, so scary… What we couldn’t understand (in our naiveté about the reality of modern agriculture) is how methodical and scientific food production had become irrespective of GM.

The reality is that much of the food we eat may seem shockingly “unnatural” by many city dwellers’ standards. And I’m not talking Twinkies and Ho-Hos here. I’m talking papaya and oranges and bananas and apples.

And so Fedoroff continues by breaking down the issues around GM from a scientific perspective, differentiating the substantive ones from those that are not. As with any research, many observations can be made about GM but laymen like me rely on experts to tell us which are the most significant. The greatest injustice in our modern world of ubiquitous information is the abuse – intentional or otherwise – of this trust. Self-proclaimed experts easily lead us to false conclusions or worse yet, to the conclusion that nothing is to be trusted.

Fedoroff earned my trust by methodically working through the issues, tracing the path of logic back through the scientific research and publications. She then goes on to explain the policy ramifications that have resulted and explores the future possibility of GM … and all related methods of food science innovation.

‘Mendel in the Kitchen’ is representative of one of my favorite genres, one I tag ‘readable science’. We may not all be PhDs but – when it comes to issues with such broad social and environmental impact as the food with which we sustain ourselves - scientists need to be able to talk about their work in a way the rest of us can understand.

The book is well written and a great counter-balance to the bulk of information available. ( )
  alspray | Aug 27, 2008 |
For some time I've wanted to read a book about agriculture and related issues, and this actually didn't do a bad job in that regard.
The nominal subject is genetic engineering, and there was a little too much discussion of that for my tastes (because I can't stomach more than a little social stupidity at once). But the essential subject was plant breeding, history of agriculture, strange aspects of plant genetics and so on, and all these were covered really well. ( )
  name99 | Nov 16, 2006 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Nina V. Fedoroffprimary authorall editionscalculated
Brown, Nancy MarieAuthormain authorall editionsconfirmed
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