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April 29, 2002
Volume 80, Number 17
CENEAR 80 17 pp. 40-41
ISSN 0009-2347



In the simplest terms, the debate over agricultural biotechnology--its risks, benefits, and impact on human health, the environment, agriculture, and business--can be seen as many sides of the same story. And like any story, individual perspectives, beliefs, preconceptions, and misconceptions shape how it is told.

LORDS OF THE HARVEST: BIOTECH, BIG MONEY, AND THE FUTURE OF FOOD, by Daniel Charles, Perseus Publishing, 2001, 348 pages, $27 (ISBN 0-7382-0291-6)
In "Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money, and the Future of Food," Daniel Charles admits that he is first a storyteller, and that this book is not an argument, but a search. He has worked as a science reporter for National Public Radio and New Scientist.

Intending to provide an episodic understanding of how and why plants are genetically engineered, Charles offers a very personal perspective, but it is seldom, if ever, just his own. Instead, he lets many involved in the creation of the science, the growth of the agbiotech business, the use of the technology, and the subsequent debate tell their tales. In the end, it's not the issues that stick out, but the personalities.

In this sense, the book has the guilty fun of a potboiler, taking a tour of the best and worst of human behavior and emotion, including curiosity, enthusiasm, hope, ambition, doubt, greed, kindness, guile, humility, fear, anger, idealism, benevolence, and jealousy. Some anecdotes are amusing, others alarming, and some just mind-boggling displays of all-too-human behavior.

Sadly and frustratingly, there's no happy ending--neither data, science, nor common sense can change the fact that the debate continues to be largely emotional. In an epilogue, Charles offers up some morals to the stories he tells, but it's through no fault of his that he doesn't, or can't, provide satisfactory answers to the major questions surrounding transgenic plants.

Beyond focusing on a fundamental need like food, the book should appeal to anyone interested in the interplay among technology development, business, and the public. Familiarity with the messy situation surrounding agricultural biotechnology makes the inside stories Charles tells even more interesting. But it would be a disservice to suggest that he offers anything less than a thorough and well-researched overview.

Having been raised on a small family farm in Pennsylvania, Charles also brings a practical outlook to the complicated and quirky science and business of agriculture. Undeniably, agriculture itself is a central character in this book. Charles questions innovation in light of the centuries-old relationship between people and the land: "If all of agriculture is shaped by human hands in such profound ways, where does nature end and intolerable human manipulation begin?"

The answer hinges on fundamentals of faith and belief. At its core, the book broadly encompasses a serious discussion of the cultural, political, economic, scientific, and societal implications of technology innovation. Charles divides the camps into those possessing an enthusiasm for new technology, those seeing how to exploit it for gain, and those fearing its unintended--or even intended--consequences.

The combatants in the battle over genetically engineered foods often "seem caught up in their own romantic visions," Charles writes. "On the one side are those who ascribe a purity and wholesomeness to the production of food and a threatening novelty to human intervention in nature. Their nightmares are of scientific hubris and of unnatural creations."

He continues, "On the other side are scientists and companies convinced that they hold in their hands the genetic tools that will solve agriculture's problems and unlock a glorious new age of plenty."

But emotional and ideological motivations don't translate well into political action. So opponents and proponents have fought over arcane details rather than fundamental convictions, which has allowed both sides to dismiss the other's arguments as tactical ploys. Charles also shows how the antibiotech movement shifted from mobilizing the public with environmental or safety issues to simple scare tactics.

For anyone at least familiar with agbiotech, it comes as no surprise that Monsanto, its scientists, and its managers play central roles on the pro-technology side of the debate. Singly or collectively, they display the following traits: a thirst for knowledge, a desire to do good, a hunger for profits, a lust for control, and, ultimately, a messianic vision to feed the world.

"Genetic engineering took its place of honor in the tradition of technical innovation, right beside vacuum cleaners, washing machines, paper handkerchiefs, and yellow Post-it notes."

Agbiotech emerged from relatively haphazard and heavy-handed attempts to genetically engineer plants, Charles shows. By 1992, after about 10 years of work and significant investment, Monsanto's executives began to lose patience and threatened to shut down the company's research program unless it could figure out how to make money. The resolution of this business dilemma set the company on its now-infamous course to develop, own, and prosper from agbiotech.

The driver for Monsanto was its Roundup herbicide--still the cornerstone of its business--and a desire to find genes that impart herbicide tolerance. The company "envisioned Roundup-resistant crops as blockbuster products, adding hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions, to the company's profits," Charles writes. "It moved aggressively and urgently to turn those genes into streams of revenue."

Interwoven with Monsanto's tale are stories of other researchers, companies, farmers, and activists over a period of nearly 20 years. Among these stories are the creation of the gene gun used to insert DNA into cells, the intrigue surrounding insect-killing genes, the decision of Greenpeace to take on biotech, growth of antibiotech sentiments in Europe, monarch butterfly research, the rivalry between Monsanto and seed producer Pioneer Hi-Bred (now owned by DuPont), and, in one of the most entertaining chapters, the "tomato that ate Calgene."

One of the more interesting, and not widely told, stories is of the experiment by German sociologist Wolfgang van den Daele to bring together opposing parties. Although relatively peaceful and rational discussion happened, several times for a few days at a time between 1991 and 1993, ultimately his process failed to create a consensus. However, Charles writes, a consequence of these discussions was that the disagreements changed from an argument over risk into one over the need for more democratic control over technological innovation.

Beyond developing a new technology, Monsanto also introduced alien ideas, rattled assumptions, and challenged the established ways of agriculture, Charles points out. Monsanto's changes included new ways of marketing products, a vehemence in intellectual property protection, and altered relationships with seed producers and farmers. Charles often draws an analogy to Microsoft's attempts to monopolize the creation, marketing, and licensing of software.

Despite the shock that genetic engineering brought to the agricultural system, farmers quickly accepted new transgenic crops and new rules for using them, although sometimes begrudgingly. For farmers, the crops offered simple solutions to common problems.

"There often wasn't a compelling case for these crops, despite Monsanto's claims," Charles writes. Still, American farmers were susceptible to the new technology's charms. "Genetic engineering took its place of honor in the tradition of technical innovation, right beside vacuum cleaners, washing machines, paper handkerchiefs, and yellow Post-it notes."



Over the years, Monsanto gained a reputation as "a hard-driving, uncompromising company bent on changing the rules of the game--and the face of farming," Charles concludes. This evolved, under the ego-driven leadership of former chief executive officer Robert B. Shapiro, into an all-consuming passion, and business strategy, to feed the world.

"The grander Monsanto's vision became, the more ominous the company appeared," Charles comments. The company developed "an arrogance and disregard for the outside world," he adds, and this "corporate personality" made it "headstrong and dismissive of its critics."

Thus, Monsanto's subsequent troubles came in part from miscalculating the fervor of its critics and their influence over the acceptance of genetically engineered food. Monsanto was so convinced of the value of its technology that, Shapiro later admitted, it had "forgotten to listen."

Nevertheless, Monsanto also faced more fundamental business problems. To sustain its vision, the company invested billions of dollars in technology and acquisitions. Although its products have had reasonable success and expanded the market for Roundup, opposing forces have slowed global market growth.

The company's hubris and overextension led to its paying the ultimate price--its independence--for its foray into agbiotech. After publicly failing to merge with American Home Products and an awkward flirtation with DuPont, Monsanto was acquired in April 2000 by Pharmacia, which clearly wanted its drug business. Still, Monsanto is to emerge again when Pharmacia spins off its 85% stake later this year.

In the end, Charles sums up all the possible takes on the agbiotech story--that of scientific discovery and advancement, of business building and new wealth, of agrarian ideals running headlong into industrialization, of free-market conservatism, of unpredictable or unintended consequences of technology, and of profit-mad companies laying claim to genetic heritages.

"It's pointless to argue over which one of these versions of the agricultural biotechnology story is true," Charles asserts. "They all hold some truth. They all are, in the same measure, false in that they aren't really about agricultural biotechnology at all."

Ann Thayer, head of C&EN's Houston Bureau, writes frequently about the business of and related issues in agricultural biotechnology.


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