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Lords Of The Harvest: Biotech, Big Money, And The Future Of Food Paperback – December 17, 2002
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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.
Top customer reviews
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.
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. Specifically, Charles relates the numerous and sometimes humorous mistakes made by executives at Monsanto and Calgene (the inventor of the ill-fated "Flavr Savr" tomato) in their quests to dominate their respective markets. Charles successfully uses these case studies to add color and context to the larger story that he is telling (for example, the author's profile of Monsanto CEO Robert Shapiro and his messianic-like appeal to the company's scientists to help save the world with biotechnology). Charles does an excellent job describing the corporate cultures and the motivations of key individuals, rendering his descriptions of the business wheeling-and-dealing that went on behind the scenes that much more interesting. However, I think that Charles is correct in concluding that it was the arrogance of Monsanto's top executives, more than any other single factor, that ultimately led to the company's demise and the public backlash against biotechnology.
Unfortunately, the environmentalists don't get treated much better. Although Charles appears to have abundantly interviewed scientists and businesspeople to gather original material for the book, it doesn't seem that he had much success contacting environmentalists; the profiles of well-known biotech opponents such as Jeremy Rifkin and Benny Sharlin appear to have been drawn from secondary sources. Consequently we don't enjoy the same level of insight regarding their motivations compared with the scientists. So although Charles does a respectable job of reporting why the environmentalists opposed biotech products and the actions that they took, the author's sympathies do not appear to lie with the environmentalists. Instead, Charles deftly swats aside several of the well-known studies that purport to show risks associated with genetically modified crops (such as Dr. Pusztai's rat and John Losey's Monarch butterfly studies). In fact, a certain level of hostility arises when the author makes the charge that environmentalists nevertheless publicized such "murky and ill-defined" (p. 208) studies purporting risk merely as a way to further their own agendas. But it does not seem to occur to Charles that many environmentalists might have organized the challenge to genetically modified food out of genuine concern for the welfare of consumers.
I also take slight issue with Charles on two other issues. First is his silence concerning regulation of the biotech industry. His techno-utopian bias leads him to claim that biotech is not substantially different compared with traditional plant and animal breeding practices, with the implication that the public should not be overly concerned about regulation of the industry. But the scientists' tools to recombine DNA in novel ways are so powerful and the effects are so little understood that it is not unreasonable to suggest that a greater level of corporate accountability should be required to ensure that the public interest is protected.
Second, Charles should have addressed the recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) controversy more adequately, given that this was a major Monsanto initiative (the heart of the book was about Monsanto and its scientists). His relative silence on this issue is defeaning: could it be that the environmentalists' charges about the risks of rBGH have at least some merit?
Still, I believe that Charles has done a good job of navigating some very tricky ideological terrain. "Lords of the Harvest" is probably as balanced a book on the subject of biotechnology as any other you'll likely find, and I highly recommend it.