Something to Chew On by Mike Gibney

Something to Chew On CoverDo blogs sell books? They’ve sold at least one. I picked up Something to Chew On by Mike Gibney after read­ing his web­log Gibney on Food.

It’s not a plant sci­ence book. It’s a book about food sup­ply and nutri­tion, but there is a lot that is rel­ev­ant to plant sci­ence in it. In the case of agri­cul­tural sci­ence the food industry and the con­sumer are ulti­mately the end users of plant sci­ence. After the intro­duct­ory chapter the next two chapters, on the tox­icity of plants and the organic industry and then on GMOs are dir­ectly rel­ev­ant. He also returns to GMOs with the ongo­ing prob­lems around the polit­ics of Golden Rice and the fail­ure to get help to where it’s needed in devel­op­ing countries.

There is a lot to the book. Elsewhere he dis­cusses very first world prob­lems like per­son­al­ised nutri­tion and the obesity epi­demic. He also high­lights over­looked prob­lems like the effects of an age­ing pop­u­la­tion and the chal­lenges of global warm­ing on food sup­ply. He’s scep­tical, in the sane sense of the word, about what sci­ence can and can­not deliver. He’s also very prob­lem focussed and that’s likely to ali­en­ate some readers.

For example when talks about obesity he talks about the access­ib­il­ity of chips (fries for Americans) and the potato sup­ply. Looking at the sup­ply he talks about the many pubs and res­taur­ants in Dublin where you can get chips, and McDonalds. Which are tar­geted as pur­vey­ors of unhealthy junk food? Even for people who eat at McDonalds most, Gibney shows, will get the major­ity of their unhealthy diet else­where. This means the prob­lem isn’t simply solved by boy­cot­ting McDonalds, but tack­ling a sys­tem and atti­tudes that encom­passes many people, includ­ing fam­ily farms pro­du­cing potatoes.

Elsewhere he com­pares the Food Industry to the Tobacco Industry. The Tobacco Industry is the prob­lem say people who cam­paign against its product. Can we say the same about the Food Industry? Should we become loc­avores, and reg­u­lar vis­it­ors to farm­ers’ mar­kets? To tackle this he exam­ines exactly how much land is needed to sup­port London. The answer is that the city would become so large it would oblit­er­ate most of south-east England. If we are to live in mod­ern cit­ies he con­cludes that the Food Industry must be part of the solu­tion. If that’s the case then answers to food sup­ply prob­lems are going to be more soph­ist­ic­ated than “big is bad”.

True to the title, much of the book is thought-provoking. It won’t be news to plant sci­ent­ists work­ing with GMOs, but I was sur­prised to learn last year that plants pro­duced by chem­ical muta­gen­esis or radi­ation can be sold as organic, and only bio­lo­gic­ally ori­gin­ated GMOs can­not. The mul­tiple stand­ards come up again and again in the book.

For the most part the text is read­able, but in tack­ling double-standards some frus­tra­tion shows through. It’s clear Gibney cares deeply about his topic and when tak­ing about Golden Rice he is clearly vexed that some­thing that could help is being blocked on dog­matic grounds. Even so, when faced with someone who believes the poor should suf­fer for his prin­ciples, or when tack­ling mis­in­form­a­tion spread about nutri­tion, Gibney doesn’t unleash a tor­rent of right­eous ire against his opponents.

If a good book is one that inspires you to read another,* then this is a good book. In it Gibney talks about advocacy and per­sua­sion and refers to The Perception of Risk by Paul Slovic. Gibney argues that one reason why so much sci­entific advocacy isn’t per­suas­ive is that facts are not enough. Little atten­tion has been given to how we put those facts together to assess risk. It’s some­thing I’ve been vaguely aware of, but I think it’s some­thing I need to look at more deeply.

Having fin­ished the book, I’m not sure to what extent I’m wiser, but has made me more aware of whole new areas of which I’m ignorant.

You can try to find a copy of Something to Chew On at your local lib­rary.

* I mean that in the sense of “This is a good book I’d like to learn more” not in the sense of “My good­ness this is dull, where did I leave that Dan Brown novel?”

Alun Salt. ORCID 0000-0002-1261-4283

When he's not the web developer for AoB Blog, Alun Salt researches something that could be mistaken for the archaeology of science. His current research is about whether there's such a thing as scientific heritage and if there is how would you recognise it?

2 Responses

  1. Good write-up, though I have yet to read the book. One, minor, niggle. The obesity epi­demic is not a “very first world prob­lem”. Obesity rates and the attend­ant ill­nesses are increas­ing fast­est in devel­op­ing countries.

  2. Alun Salt says:

    In that case the mis­take is almost cer­tainly some­thing that I’ve added rather than some­thing in the book. Thanks for the correction.

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