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Lords Of The Harvest: Biotech, Big Money, And The Future Of Food Paperback – December 17, 2002

4.3 out of 5 stars 24 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

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Just as science learned to decode DNA through reverse genetics, a little bit of reverse reading might help explain why NPR correspondent Daniel Charles set out to write the agrobiotech equivalent of fly-on-the-wall industry epics like World War 3.0, Liar's Poker, and Hit Men. Read the epilogue first--here's where he most eloquently explains the dueling American myths (of both scientific progress and the sanctity of the land as God-given gifts) that have fueled the recent battle of biotechnology against environmentalism and consumer advocacy over genetically modified crops. It's a necessarily stirring justification for a story that, however well told, may lack for a general audience some of the pathos or glamour of similar tussles within such fields as medicine or entertainment.

This is really the story of one company--American chemical giant Monsanto, which, some 20 years ago, pushed forward the technology of injecting different plants such as corn and soybeans with genes that would make them able to act as their own insecticides (insects would simply die upon eating them). From there, Monsanto went on to orchestrate a stunning takeover of much of the seed business, but its plans for what seemed like world agricultural domination were trounced when first European, then U.S. activists sparked a massive backlash against GMOs ("genetically modified organisms") pumped up with the company's patented genes--even absent substantive scientific evidence that genetically modified crops were any more harmful (or, for that matter, more modified) to people or the environment than those without designer genes.

Given the recent explosion of genetic research, it's fascinating to see the relatively primitive origins of this field in the early 1980s, and to discover the inner workings of world agribusiness, especially (as the farm-bred Charles rightly points out) in a society where most people have no idea where their food comes from, or what happens to it along the way. It's just that Charles's valiant attempt to make a bunch of nerdy, competitive scientists and soulless, profit-grubbing Monsanto execs interesting is mostly in vain. Still, you have to love the early '90s comedy of errors that was the grandiose launch and swift demise of the superengineered tomato--especially when an old-school tomato breeder tries to tell her boss, a biotech exec and agricultural illiterate, that nature's breeding process can't be accelerated to meet production goals. His curt response? "Think out of the box." (Or crate, as it were.) --Timothy Murphy --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

A former technology correspondent for National Public Radio and Washington correspondent for New Scientist, Charles is also an excellent storyteller. Here he covers the history of genetic engineering in plant crops from the early 1980s to the present. Among the episodes covered are the surprise appearance of Starlink genes in taco shells, the Flavr Savr tomato, and the infamous Terminator gene that would produce crops with sterile seeds. What makes this book particularly interesting are the author's tales of the key individuals and groups involved in the biotechnology controversy: researchers, corporations (especially Monsanto and Pioneer Hi-Bred), farmers, the media, environmental and consumer activists, and the consumers themselves. This carefully researched and balanced account is intended to help the reader understand the how and the why of genetic engineering rather than make an argument for or against it. Charles saves his own ideas and opinions for the epilog. Two other thorough, recent primers on the subject are Bill Lambrecht's Dinner at the New Gene Cafe (LJ 8/01), which evenhandedly presents the pros and cons of the debate, and Alan McHughen's Pandora's Picnic Basket (LJ 8/00), which focuses more on biotechnology. Recommended for public and academic libraries. William H. Wiese, Iowa State Univ. Lib., Ames
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; Softcover Ed edition (December 18, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 073820773X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0738207735
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.9 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #335,826 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Daniel Charles' "Lords of the Harvest" succeeds in bringing perspective to the biotech industry and the contentious issue of genetically modified food. The author does this by personalizing the protaganists at the heart of the story: the scientists who were driven mainly by the quest for knowledge and discovery; the businesspeople who sought dollar returns from their laboratory investments; and the environmentalists who felt that genetic engineering was simply the latest ugly manifestation of an out-of-control agribusiness industry. The result is a highly entertaining and readable book that should interest a wide audience.
The scientists who invented and nurtured the industry tend to get much better treatment from Charles than either the businesspeople or the environmentalists. As a former science reporter for NPR, Charles seems most comfortable painting psychological portraits of the researchers at Monsanto and elsewhere. Charles lovingly details the innovative and pioneering work that these scientists undertook and the intriguing problems they solved. Charles shows how these early projects gave shape to the modern biotech industry, and his writing in these sections is vivid and interesting. And in the chapter "Infinite Horizons", Charles enthuses about the potential of biotechnology to help solve the world's problems. Throughout, Charles' enthusiasm for science and biotechnology is unmistakable.
On the other hand, the businesspeople of biotech get beat up pretty badly in the book. You get the feeling that Charles seems slightly upset that big business can't figure out how to bring the benefits of painstaking scientific discovery to the people.
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Format: Hardcover
If you want to understand the world of biotech foods, this book has it all - science you can understand, amusing accounts of corporate hubris; and the voices of passionate people on both sides of the issue. This is a well-written, balanced account of an important topic. I'm an English lit major who married an NIH scientist. In the past five years I've read a number of books on biotech topics - partly to understand what my husband does, and partly to get a better grip on what I think are some of the most pressing issues of our time. This is one of the best. It is spectacularly unbiased. One reviewer I read called it the most balanced and even-handed book he's read on the topic. It is also a pleasure to read. The scientists seem like real people (gosh, maybe they are), as do the business executives, and the protesters opposed to "Frankenfoods."
I tend to be on the liberal end of the spectrum myself, and believe there's much to be concerned about in agribusiness. But I think the good solid arguments are often lost in the clamor of people who haven't taken the time to understand an issue. Whether you already have an opinion, or, more importantly, if you've heard a lot of rhetoric and are looking to understand how and why biotech foods have come to be, this is a good place to start.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I attend the same church as Dan. But I think this is an unbiased review, and would urge you to read (buy!) the book.
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By Malendia on February 16, 2002
Format: Hardcover
I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants a fair and reality-based account of the world of plant genetic engineering--that also happens to be an entertaining and well written page-turner. I have been studying, working, and ever wondering at the world of plant molecular biology and genetic discovery since the 1980's. Though I've remained a fairly secure civil servant, I could see from the people that passed through our labs and the general panic and depression in the field that somewhere... something other than the interest of healthy crops and feeding people was driving research and key decisions at high levels. Mr Charles gives a truly excellent educational and entertaining account of what was going on at the lab bench as well as the accounting department--from the consumers in Europe to activists in America. I appluade Mr. Charles for his accurate and unbiased account of exactly how Monsanto impacted the field--changing the research environment and general morale so negatively and irrevocably. His accounts of the complexities of the resistance movement and the swings of opinion and policy worldwide are clear and based in reality. I'm glad someone was willing to get the real story out there in a fair, honest and very well-informed manner. Thanks Mr. Charles!
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
In the epilogue of Lords of the Harvest, Daniel Charles talks about the power of stories to illuminate, and also to obscure. He talks about the mythologies that drive agribusiness and other competing mythologies that drive it's opponents. He can stand at a distance from both kinds of stories, and reflect on how well they are illuminating and obscuring.
On the other hand, Daniel Charles is himself a great storyteller.
I appreciated the way Daniel Charles helped me to think about both these kinds of stories, and what they have to do with food and science, religious faith and moral values in the 21st century. Mostly, Charles stays very close to the "everyday stories of ordinary people," end of the spectrum. How he managed to get so close to the lives of these people is something I wonder about! People on both sides of this issue obviously trust him a great deal, or he would never have been able to write this book.
The "grand myths" he talks about in the epilogue, this was a very nice way to wrap it all up. Part of the difficulty of these issues is that there is no overarching spiritual/ ethical framework that can encompass this conversation. Just competing ideologies, and very little common ground. (Where common ground does exist, Charles is good at finding it.)
It irritates me when scientists who write about agribusiness and genetic engineering castigate others who don't have their scientific credentials for being "sentimental" or ignorant. They do this in a way that intimidates ordinary people who do not have Ph.Ds, as if you have to have a particular diploma to discuss these issues. We need to fight this kind of arrogance and parochialism. Science may be an elite field, but food belongs to everyone.
Daniel Charles makes the discussion accessible to everyday people who want to know what is happening to our food, and who are trying to understand why it is happening.
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