A Good Read: “GM Crops and the Global Divide,” by Jennifer Thomson

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A review of Jennifer Thomson’s book “GM Crops and the Global Divide” (CSIRO Publishing, 2020) by  Kathleen L. Hefferon and Henry I. Miller 

Jennifer Thomson’s excellent new book, “GM Crops and the Global Divide” (CSIRO Publishing, 2020), is a highly informed, lucid, and gracious narrative. Able to maintain equanimity in the face of one of the most polemical debates of our time, Thomson, Emeritus Professor of Microbiology at the University of Cape Town, provides a succinct yet detailed overview of the history of genetically modified crops, guiding the reader through the history of molecular genetic engineering, from its beginnings in the 1970s, and concluding with the birth of genome editing. A veteran in the field, she discusses the science and economics of GM crops from the viewpoint of many of the usual-suspect countries, including the United States, Brazil, India, and China, as well as an assortment of African nations. Thomson also manages to cover fairly and clearly many controversial topics such as Seralini’s infamous fraudulent rat study, the continuing glyphosate saga, conundrums regarding food labelling, the myth of GM-caused farmer suicides in India, and misinformation in general, in a way that is informative but not inflammatory.

What distinguishes “GM Crops and the Global Divide” from other books on the topic is Thomson’s South African perspective, which is both refreshing and unique. Thomson has been a direct participant in the history of African biotechnology from its inception. In her chapter, ‘Countries that got it right, and why,’ she explains how genetically engineered crops came so easily to South Africa: From as early as 1978, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) created the South African Committee for Genetic Experimentation (SAGENE) which followed guidelines that were earlier promulgated by the United States’ National Institutes of Health. As such, the Council required that universities implement adequate laboratory safety standards before research funding would be awarded to academic faculty, and offered training programs to provide academics with the expertise necessary. Eventually, these efforts paid off: By 1990, an assortment of biotech companies began to apply for approval to conduct field trials and the subsequent field testing of a variety of GM crops, ranging from maize and cotton to eucalyptus and apple. SAGENE drew up procedures, and by the time the South African government had obliged with the development of a GMO Act in 1999, the task of regulating biotech crops was already routine. It was straightforward, then, for South Africa to mobilize a strategy that could bring innovations such as GM crops forward to commercialization.

We need to interject here some relevant commentary about what, in this context, constitutes “getting it right.” Everything is relative, and the…



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