First published in 2000 under the title A Consumer’s Guide to GM Food: From Green Genes to Red Herrings, this book was devised by scientist Alan McHughen to act as a fundamental guide to agricultural biotechnology, how it works, and what the science has achieved. It was retitled to Pandora’s Picnic Basket when released in the US in order to have a more attractive and intriguing, though potentially controversial, name that would stand out. While other classic books on biotechnology would be written not long after this, such as Nina Fedoroff’s 2004 work Mendel in the Kitchen, McHughen’s book serves as one of the earliest, most in-depth takes on biotechnology from every angle, including addressing many of the criticisms of the field and the conspiracies claimed about it.

The book begins with an Introduction section discussing the current state of the biotech debate at the time, along with what foodstuffs had already been approved for usage by what countries. McHughen took care to point out the purpose of the work, which was only to lay out all the facts so that the level of the debate overall could be raised to one where all sides are aware of the scientific evidence and how biotechnology works. Since it is only through an informed population involved in an informed debate that any real headway can be accomplished, especially when it comes to scientific topics.

Chapters 1-3: Covering the Basics

The first chapter focuses on a layout of basic information that will be covered in later chapters. The definition of the term genetically modified organism (GMO) is looked at and the author points out the fluidity and inherent vagueness of the term. Several questions related to consumer concerns are proposed to be addressed later and the legal conundrums between having to consider whole GM crops, a paste or liquid form of the crop, and oils produced from the crops seeds are brought up. The end of the chapter takes a moment to debunk the “fish genes in a tomato” claim and lists several other myths that will be debunked later on.

The second chapter acts as a primer on molecular genetics for any layperson reading. This includes explaining taxonomic naming, what terms such as proof and safe mean in a scientific context, and how DNA is formed from nucleotide bases. Further depth is provided by demonstrating protein production from DNA (and what enzymes are), the difference between bacterial and human cells, how promoters, terminators, and introns work in DNA sequences, how dominant and recessive genes are expressed, and finally how DNA sequences are obtained and isolated from bacteria, plants, and animals. This chapter is especially well-constructed and organized, laying out the information in a manner that should allow any person to get at least a rudimentary understanding of genetics as a whole.

The third chapter discusses the basic of biotechnology, including some of the early history of molecular gene transfer. The steps for obtaining DNA and inserting it into other organisms is explored, along with why some species of plants are easier or harder to accomplish such a transfer. Plants in the tobacco and potato families are among the easiest to get a gene transfer to stick. The usage of restriction endonuclease enzymes to chop up DNA in order to create an insertion point for the desired gene is next. Lastly, the methods available to facilitate the transfer are looked at, such as the largely outdated “gene gun” method that uses gold nanoparticles coated in a plasmid of the desired gene, along with the more common Agrobacterium uptake and infection options.

The rest of the chapter is on marker genes and how they differ from each other depending on what kind of marker is wanted. There are scorable markers like the GUS gene that causes beta-glucuronidase production that is easily detectable after transfer. On the other hand are selectable markers like the nptII gene that create antibiotic resistance and are selected for by surviving being placed in that antibiotic. This allows the formation of cell culture colonies that select themselves for survival, rather than having to be segregated manually with scorable markers.

Chapters 4-5: Breeding and Toxicity

The fourth chapter points out the claimed differences between so-called traditional breeding methods and the methods used in biotechnology and how they overlap in effect so much that trying to create a manufactured barrier between them is illogical. The breeding methods spotlighted include artificial selection, cross-breeding, emasculation, intergenus cross-breeding, embryo rescue, haploid breeding, mutation breeding (or mutagenesis), somaclonal variation, and cell selection. Cisgenesis and transgenesis is also highlighted.

The ways in which to register new cultivars and obtain commercial release permission in various countries and systems is considered. How grain is delivered after harvesting and stored helps to showcase McHughen’s point that it is impossible to actually segregate claimed GM grain and non-GM grain, as the mixing of grain at every stage including harvesting ensures that all grain, regardless of how it is grown, will have multiple varieties in it.

The fifth chapter centers around food safety and the simple fact that practically every foodstuff has some sort of contamination in it, whether chemical, bacterial, or something else. Like insect body parts. And this is, of course, ignoring the types of organisms already used to make the products, such as the bacteria needed to make bread and cheese. There are, in addition, toxins already found in the plants harvested, such as cyanogenic glycosides in apples, apricots, and more, lectins in soybeans and potatoes, and alkaloids in a variety of vegetables and fruits. Solanine in potatoes is one of the well known ones.

McHughen then goes on to discuss dosage and dietary exposure, measurements that are done to ensure that levels of harmful toxins and organisms in food is below the amount needed to actually have a negative effect on the consumer. Consuming low levels of toxins can be perfectly safe and healthy so long as the levels are within parameters like tolerance and allowance. There is also a moment taken to debunk both the GMO DNA being harmful myth and the idea that biotech products have unique and novel proteins being produced.

Chapters 6-7: Conspiracies and Risk

The sixth chapter is all about the varied issues and claims made in the biotech debate, including in regards to food production, environmental effects, and more. The involvement of large companies is addressed and ideas related to government mistrust, “tampering with nature”, and consumer harm are focused on. The myth related to L-tryptophan and the 1989 Showa Denko case is debunked by a simple look at how the effects were due to the mechanical filtration system and had nothing to do with the biotech process. The Arpad Pusztai potato case is looked at and shown how multiple scientists and scientific organizations pointed out the errors in Pusztai’s study that actually spoke more to the dangers of generic potatoes than anything to do with genetic modification.

The butterfly and GM maize study is quickly debunked by the very points made by the study authors, where their study did not look at the effects of Bt toxin by itself either, which is far more relevant than the maize. Lastly, the Brazil nut story is investigated and found to be lacking, as no such product with such a gene was ever commercially released, since the allergen problem was discovered during research production and the new cultivar scrapped. Thus, claims of Brazil nut allergies affecting people eating soy have no basis in reality, since there is no product containing such a gene for them to be allergic to in the first place. The chapter finishes up by explaining why pesticide-resistant crops were the first kind of biotech products to be released and clarifies how such crops are not creating superweeds in any fashion that prior crops hadn’t as it was.

The seventh chapter acts as a short interlude to discuss how risk and chance is addressed in science. Risk assessment is explained, along with pointing out the astronomical numbers involved with the chance of negative occurrences and mutations when it comes to GM crops and crop breeding in general. The methods of DNA fingerprinting are used as an example, as that often involves dealing with large odds and probabilities of accuracy when dealing with DNA found at crime scenes and the likelihood of it being someone other than the suspect that it matches.

Chapters 8-9: Regulations and Real Issues

The eighth chapters looks at how regulation and approval is conducted for new GM crops. First, the researchers creating the crop must conduct various chemical analyses and soil growth tests, making sure to have proper experimental control groups to compare the results with. Pusztai is again used as an example of a study that did not use proper controls and did not set up adequate comparison tests. The definition of GMO also varies by country, so different regulations and requirements exist depending on where the cultivar is trying to be licensed for sale. In Canada, all novel organisms  are considered genetically modified, regardless of what breeding method was used, meaning that the regulations here would include claimed “organic” as GMO as well. There are also separate registration systems depending on whether the cultivar is to be sold as oil, as fabric, as animal feed, or for human consumption. For some crops, multiple of these may be desired, which will require independent submissions and reviews for each path.

The United States, meanwhile, has independent reviews by the FDA and the USDA before approval. Similarly, but also very differently at the same time, the United Kingdom has regulatory review by the DFTR for environmental growing and usage and the MAFF for human consumption approval. Australia and New Zealand feature a joint committee for review and approval that largely focuses on effects to the countries’ economies and food availability. Overall, McHughen found the UK and European approval system in general to be the most rigorous in paperwork, but also the most frivolous, with much of the required testing and questions based on things irrelevant to the health, safety, and science of the product.

The ninth chapter discusses the real concerns that exist about biotechnology and GM products and what scientists have done to deal with them. Potential allergenicity from transferred genes is one such example, which is why allergen testing is routinely done for every new GM product and compared to the allergen database. The concerns about multinational companies owning GM products is largely dismissed by McHughen, as there are dozens of GM organisms that have been and are being developed by independent scientists and organizations. Furthermore, the very reason for so many patents being owned by large companies is due to the actions of anti-biotechnology activists, who have made the field so over-regulated that only those with large monetary backing can spend the ten years and $100 million in order to develop a new biotech cultivar.

Escape into the environment is next concentrated on and McHughen points out that such escape via pollen or other method is inevitable, as it has been for all crops and all new traits developed via any breeding method. There is no way to control all pollen and grow organisms in a foolproof manner while also growing them in the open environment itself. The likelihood of escape will always be one hundred percent given enough time. Spillage of grain and seeds from crops during harvest happens all the time and is another inevitable method by which seeds with get into the wild.

Chapters 10-11: How to Combat Misinformation

The tenth chapter widens its scope to all of the groups involved in biotechnology. There is some talk about the companies involved, such as Monsanto, and the regulatory agencies, academic scientists, and others that routinely join the debate. The misinformation spread by “natural foods” groups about a claimed connection between GM crops and Mad Cow Disease back during its outbreak in the UK is looked over and how the media lacks proper scientific rigor or scrutiny of its coverage to make sure it isn’t elevating anti-science claims as if they are factual or even relevant to the discussion. Overall, McHughen laments the lack of any true leadership within the scientific community that is able to properly express the science to the public in an understandable manner. Luckily, since the book’s publication, several scientists and organizations have indeed stepped forward to help explain science more accurately, including general communicators like Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson and academics like Kevin Folta, the previously mentioned Nina Fedoroff, and McHughen himself.

The eleventh chapter covers more conspiracy claims about biotechnology, including the claim that the usage of antibiotic resistance marker genes will create a supervirus, the existence of “Terminator” technology, claims that biotech crops containing Bt toxin insecticide will kill all insects, and the claim that unintended consequences from any usage of biotechnology techniques will harm or kill consumers. McHughen takes the time to discuss the nptII marker gene more specifically and how multiple scientific tests over years have found no evidence of the gene being transferred into gut bacteria or the people that consume the crops. He also points out that hundreds of safety tests have shown no indication of an “unintended” effect ever happening and that, if something was to mutate, it would be of far higher likelihood to occur in crops made via non-biotech techniques, such as radioactive mutagenesis.

Chapters 12-14: Labeling, Patents, and the Facts About Organic Farming

The twelfth chapters discusses GMO labeling and McHughen takes pains to go through every possible type of label and how it would end up being inaccurate, misinformative, and ultimately hurt the consumer’s knowledge of the topic rather than informing them on it. This is due to the fact that the term “GMO” has no actual, concrete definition, as it is often used to lump together dozens of different breeding methods that themselves are also found in nature and are not meaningfully different than the breeding methods claimed to be “non-GMO”. The confusion with such a label is added to by the existence of things like oils and other crop products that are processed to have no DNA from the crop in them, thus making them chemically identical to all the other crops used to make that product. All in all, there is no way to scientifically create a “GMO” label that will properly inform consumers.

The thirteenth chapter changes topics to shine a light on organic farming and organic crops and how multiple studies have found them to be no safer, sustainable, or environmentally friendly than other kinds of farming. In many cases, organic farming has been found to be less so, especially due to the requirement of not using synthetic pesticides. This has resulted in the usage of older, so-called “organic” pesticides with higher toxicity, a more general area of effect, and less soil sustainability. The chapter moves on to look at health food fads and claims of certain foods being better to consume than others. McHughen points out that many of the health foods being sold either have little to no active ingredient in them or are known to have negative side effects from consumption. Overall, he finds no reason for people to trust in the validity of claims made by health food wholesalers.

The fourteenth chapter moves to considering the history of intellectual property in crop breeding and how patents, technology use agreements, and plant breeders’ rights came to be used, in addition to the requirements for something to qualify for a patent. In plant breeds, patents are harder to obtain than with general technological inventions, as they have to be shown to have a novel trait separate from any other crop of that type in the world. If someone was to show the existence of a crop having had a certain trait prior to the awarding of the patent, then the patent would be nullified. Patents thus allow researchers to benefit from the high expense of money and time to create a new crop breed, while setting a time limit (almost always 20 years) whereby the public at large will then be able to utilize the breed freely.

Chapter 15: The Future

The fifteenth and last written chapter sums up where the author believes the biotechnology field to be heading and what new crops traits will likely arise in the near future. In this, he is vindicated by future events, as there are indeed available crops either out now or soon to be released that exhibit traits involving enhanced nutrition, more color traits, reduced ripening, toxin reduction and removal, and more. The biotechnology debate has yet to be a settled topic as he had hoped to come to pass within a decade of the book’s release, but it is far closer to being as such than it likely was at the time.

The book closes out with a final chapter that is a list of scientific resources online for various topics and countries around the world if readers want to learn more on the topics previously discussed. This is followed by a glossary for the various biotechnology jargon terms used and then an index.

Brass Tacks

As a person long captivated by biology topics since a young age, i’ve read more than just a handful of books on biotechnology and, hands down, McHughen’s book stands the test of time as the most comprehensive i’ve ever encountered. This is saying something considering that it was published before a large number of the scientific advancements in the field were ever done, such as recent CRISPR technology. Pandora’s Picnic Basket manages, however, to cover the sphere of agricultural biotechnology from such a basic level that it allows any person, regardless of their lack of knowledge on biology or genetics, to come to a more complete understanding of genetically modified foods and the debate surrounding them.

The only criticism I could muster about this book is one that couldn’t have been fixed by the author in the first place. I wish it had been published later so that it could also address the new technologies that have come out and wind those into its overall discussion. I would love to hear McHughen’s take on what this all means and have him also note how accurate his prediction of the future was. Maybe a new version will be released at some point that will fulfill my desire. But, for now, all I can do is give this book my highest regards and consideration. It is the foundation of biotechnology publications in my eyes and I recommend that everyone give it a read.

Written by: Sterling Ericsson
Word Count: 3,107
Type: Book Review

Photo CC: Appena raccolti nell’orto by nociveglia https://www.flickr.com/photos/40385177@N07/6018347885
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About Sterling Ericsson