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Many Sides of a Complicated Problem
on October 6, 2003
One of the hardest contemporary stories to cover is genetically modified food. It is tangled with pure science, technology, industrialization, profiteering, and world politics. In the past ten years, there have been loud boasts and loud denunciations about GM crops. Those who invent and stand to profit from new herbicide-resistant, insect-resistant, salt-resistant, nutrient-added species have promised that farmers, starving third-world children, and the environment will all be benefited. On the other side are those equally insistent that "Frankenfood" promises nothing but superweeds, distorted genomes for traditional crops, allergies, decimation of fauna, and benefit to no one but giant corporations. Peter Pringle has entered this zone of contention almost like a war correspondent, and his bulletins from the front form _Food, Inc.: Mendel to Monsanto - The Promises and Perils of the Biotech Harvest_ (Simon & Schuster). Pringle has tried not to take sides, but to report on the curiosities, colorful characters, and paradoxes of the new technology. Because of this, the volume will probably be unsatisfactory to anyone with strong feelings on one side or the other, but it is a good overall look at the controversy. Pringle insists that people are going to have to make informed decisions on these issues, and his book is a good step in that direction.
Pringle starts with the story of Ingo Potrykus, one of the researchers who invented "golden rice." Potrykus coaxed genes from daffodils (of all things) into rice so that the grains contained beta carotene, which can be converted in the body to vitamin A. Getting the vitamin to third-worlders who didn't have it was supposed to put a humanitarian face on the worrisome technology. It didn't happen because a mega-company had to be paid off, and the biotech industry was accused of various other infractions. While Pringle certainly covers the overreactions of anti-biotech forces, he has the most criticism for Monsanto and its fellow corporations. He gives many examples of how GM food has been cavalierly treated and regulated.
There is potential that GM crops might help us, but we are stumbling. Environmental activists shout whenever there is any product from GM agriculture, and the corporations have a skuzzy record of bullying Mexican bean importers and Canadian rapeseed growers for punitive royalties, as well as lying about the possible dangers of the crops. The dangers are considerable; what is going to happen, for instance, when genes to produce medicines are inserted into our grain and we get tetanus vaccine in our corn flakes? The industry has done so bad of job of safety issues that rightly or wrongly, the European Union will not import GM plants, and starving Zimbabwe has refused relief from GM corn. There is surprisingly little evidence that GM crops actually help in any way; even the financial benefits of Bt crops have been no better than marginal. The problems are not going to go away; having tinkered with the basics of plant identities, humans are unlikely to stop. _Food, Inc._ is a thoughtful and unalarmist look at the problems. GM plants have promise and hazard, and neither their promoters or detractors, nor governmental regulators, are providing sufficient service to those of us at the bottom of the food chain.