Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been in the headlines for several decades, most often as a controversial topic. On one hand, they have been presented as the ultimate solution to famine in developing countries, as well as the means to improve agriculture and to diminish the use of pesticides and herbicides. On the other hand, they have been presented as unnatural, resulting from humans' attempt to intervene in nature – with descriptions of the resulting products as “Frankenstein” foods – and, therefore, as the potential cause of several health and environmental problems. To the uninformed reader, it often seems as if the science behind GMOs is settled, and that only environmental activists argue against GMOs. However, if one looks into the details, one will find that it is a bit more complicated than that.
But where can one find these details, and where can one obtain a non-polarized view of the topic? In Sheldon Krimsky's latest book, GMOs Decoded, is the answer. Krimsky is the Lenore Stern Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences and an adjunct professor of public health and community medicine in the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University. He is also the author, coauthor, or editor of several well-received books on important socioscientific issues, and therefore very well placed to write about this controversial and hotly debated topic.
In the Introduction, the author sets the scene and presents the questions that the book aims to answer. These questions are addressed throughout the book, and the author returns to them in Chapter 14, “Conclusions”: (1) How does traditional plant breeding compare with molecular breeding? (2) What is known about the health assessment of GM foods? (3) What are the arguments about regulatory oversight of GM crops compared to traditionally bred crops? (4) What evidence exists about whether GM crops produce greater yields than traditionally bred crops? (5) What is known about the environmental impact of GM crops compared to traditionally bred crops? (6) Are GM crops with improved properties, such as nutritional quality, favored by consumers? (7) What are the critical issues regarding the labeling of GM crops? (pp. xix–xx). The author also asks, in the final chapter, whether GMO and non-GMO agriculture can coexist.
Chapters 1 and 2 present traditional plant breeding and molecular breeding, respectively. Numerous relevant concepts and methods, highlighted in italics, are defined and explained in these chapters. For instance, in Chapter 1 a distinction is made between selection and breeding, while the author also explains how mutagenesis and cell cultures have helped advance traditional breeding (pp. 2–4). Molecular breeding is defined in Chapter 2, and the respective stages of this process are described. In Chapter 3, the differences between traditional and molecular breeding are discussed, and the disagreements about whether these are qualitatively different processes are also presented. Chapter 4 takes us back in history and presents two of the early products of agricultural biotechnology, the Flavr Savr tomato and the GM bacterium Frostban – which, according to the author, “are emblematic of developments to come” and also “taught scientists about the slow adjustment that society makes to new food technology and agricultural processes” (p. 37). Golden Rice is also discussed, in Chapter 12.
The subsequent chapters provide a detailed discussion of the available evidence about herbicide-resistant transgenic crops (Chapter 5), disease-resistant transgenic crops (Chapter 6), and insect-resistant transgenic crops (Chapter 7), whereas Chapter 8 explains why U.S. and European authorities differ in how they approach risk assessment related to GM crops. In Chapter 9, the author provides a detailed consideration of five contested viewpoints about the health effects of GM crops, and in Chapter 10 he discusses the issue of the labeling of GMOs. Chapter 11 is a very critical analysis of the 2016 National Academies study of GM crops, which the author finds did not cite many relevant studies. Finally, in Chapter 13, he considers the whole issue from the perspective of science studies, noting – correctly – that this issue cannot be resolved on the basis of scientific evidence only.
Although Krimsky describes himself as a skeptic in the subtitle of the book, I found his treatment of the topic to be very balanced. Throughout the book, he explains the science, discusses the scientific evidence with detailed documentation, and presents the various views. If teachers are interested in discussing this topic in their classes, this book will provide them with all the necessary information about the science, the politics, and the social issues related to GMOs, which, according to the author, “remain one of the most persistent and resilient technological controversies in modern history” (p. 153). This concise and informative book will be very useful to teachers and to any interested citizen.
AMANDA L. GLAZE is an Assistant Professor of Middle Grades & Secondary Science Education at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, Georgia. In addition to science teacher education, she has taught courses in biological sciences for grades 7–12 and undergraduate students over the last 13 years. Her interests include evolutionary biology, science and religion, and the intersections of science and society – specifically where scientific understandings are deemed controversial by the public. Glaze holds degrees in science education from the University of Alabama and Jacksonville State University. Her address is Department of Teaching & Learning, Georgia Southern University, P.O. Box 8134, Statesboro, GA 30458; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.