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12 September 2014

New book on genetic engineering and future food

The debate on genetic modification (GM) continues. The arguments are often cogent, but understanding of what the techniques really involve does not always match up. Through a new book, without foisting views on the readers, Mistra Biotech seeks to boost our knowledge of the scientific discoveries behind the food we lay on our plates.

The book, entitled Shaping Our Food: An Overview of Crop and Livestock Breeding, explains the foundations of genetic modification (GM, also known as ‘genetic engineering’). How GM and other breeding and improvement methods work and the nature of its ethical challenges and legal scope are clarified. The book also gives an overview of various genetically engineered products (or ‘genetically modified organisms’, GMOs), their economic implications and the ethical issues they involve.

From the start, the book was planned mainly as an internal document in the Mistra Biotech research programme. A compilation of facts about GM and methods of crop improvement and both plant and animal breeding was needed, since many researchers specialising in fields other than genetic engineering are associated with the programme.

‘We realised fairly soon that it would involve extensive work. That’s why we decided to go all the way and produce a book that could be useful to more people,’ says Anna Lehrman, the Mistra Biotech programme’s communication officer.

The objective was an easily accessible, fact-based presentation that refrained from taking sides on the controversial GM issue. Shaping our Food: An Overview of Crop and Livestock Breeding is therefore a book for anyone with an interest in the subject. All you need to make sense of the contents is knowledge of basic secondary-school biology.

‘Perhaps a few chapters are a bit more demanding than that, but if you read the book from the beginning there shouldn’t be any problems.’

The fact that the subject does not exactly lend itself to simple popularisation has become increasingly clear to Anna Lehrman and her colleagues over time.

‘Personally, I think the most difficult thing is writing in a way that’s easy to grasp about areas where I myself have expert knowledge. Then there’s more of a risk that I’ll chuck in terms and concepts that are unintelligible to the layman.’

Since the book came out in early summer, she has started referring to it when debates on GM flare up on the web or in social media.

‘The discussions are often rather confused, since many of the debaters are short on background knowledge. So quite a lot of errors are buzzing round on the web, and if I can get a few people to read the book it may, I hope, help us to achieve more nuanced exchanges of views. As we’re not marketing any particular opinions in the book everyone, regardless of what you personally think of GM, should be able to get some joy out of the contents.’

The need is great: preconceptions about livestock and crop breeding and improvement, generally — and particularly GM — abound, in Lehrman’s view. Although the book has only recently been published, several schools have already shown interest in using it in their teaching. To simplify matters for everyone, Mistra Biotech has opted to issue the book electronically in English, as well as both in a print version and as a downloadable ebook in Swedish.

Text: Per Westergård, Vetenskapsjournalisterna

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