From the Epilogue


... Storytellers are not onlookers in this battle; we are, if anything, its grand strategists.  The dispute over genetic engineering involves facts, to be sure.  But its parties disagree far more passionately over the story.  They quarrel over the nature of the characters, over the plot, and over the editing.  They also feud over the unknowable:  the ending.

Among the anecdotes and tales that occupy our minds, a few are embedded so deeply that they shape the way we perceive the world. Those stories - sometimes we call them myths - create cavities within our brains, shaped to accept any similar narratives. Facts and experiences stick with us - they "strike a chord", to use a common phrase - if they slip into into these preformed contours. And as it happens, the tale of genetically engineered plants fits some of the most cherished spaces that our minds possess..

It is, for instance, a tale of progress, of discovery and creativity, solving problems and expanding the boundaries of human possibility. It follows outlines carved out by the Wright Brothers, and Alexander Graham Bell, and Jonas Salk with his vaccine for polio. Itís Gregor Mendel, planting peas in the garden of his monastery more than a century ago, and discovering the patterns of human inheritance. These stories form part of the professional ideology of scientists, each of whom dreams of finding his or her role in this grand tale. And it is a powerful myth the shapes many peopleís understanding of genetically engineered food. (When I interviewed people recently at Cereon, Monsantoís genomics subsidiary, I met them in a small room with a revealing name: The Copernicus Room.)

One particular version of this story holds sway over business executives and investors looking for the Next Big Thing. Itís the saga of technology that destroys old businesses and builds new ones, creating enormous wealth along the way. At the moment, itís the story of personal computers or the Internet. In an earlier era, it was the telegraph, the automobile, or plastics. Sano Shimoda, the first financial analyst to recognize the potential of agricultural biotechnology, put his hopes into words. "Itís like - and this may sound crazy - if you got plunked down fifty years ago in the orchards of Sunnyvale and Palo Alto." Those communities now are at the heart of Silicon Valley, in the midst of what may be the greatest surge of empire-building, in a financial sense, that the world has yet witnessed.

Then there are the stories that emerge from political ideology. They turn events of the world into endless loops, as history repeats itself, and each plot unfolds again and again. There is, for example, the agrarian populist story: Corporate giants and city slickers exploit honest, vulnerable, farmers. Or the leftist one: Profit-mad companies lay claim to the earthís genetic heritage, subvert the governmentís half-hearted attempts at regulation, and rush into the marketplace with new products before anyone can fully comprehend the consequences. Mirroring this tale is the free-market conservative version: Opponents of capitalism resort to fear-mongering in an effort to undermine private enterprise in agriculture.

A countervailing myth flows like an undertow beneath the triumphal story of progress, undermining it. Itís the story of unpredictable, threatening technology unleashed upon an unsuspecting world through human folly: Pandora opening her box; Rachel Carsonís account of DDT in Silent Spring; nuclear power and Chernobyl. In the words of a passionate opponent of biotechnology in New Zealand: "Today, the smug status of genetic engineering eerily recalls that period in the early 1960s when nuclear reactors were ëcommercializedí on the basis of enthusiastsí claims of understanding and control. .... Alongside airy dismissals of the dangers, the promised benefits are wildly exaggerated..."

Several layers deeper, almost buried in our collective unconscious, lie other stories, ancient ones from the Mediterranean cradle of civilization, warning against the temptation to overstep humanityís rightful bounds. In the Garden of Eden, the serpent tempts Eve: You can eat the fruit of this tree. You will be like God. Just a few pages further on, God contemplates humanityís attempts to build a tower that will reach to heaven, and confounds its hubris in a confusion of languages. Centuries later, Mary Shelley repeats the warning in her story of Dr. Frankenstein and his fateful, doomed monster. Echoes of these tales resound in the anti-biotechnology proclamation of Charles, Prince of Wales, from the summer of 1998: "... this kind of genetic modification takes mankind into realms that belong to God, and to God alone."

Itís pointless to argue over which one of these versions of the agricultural biotechnology story is true. They all hold some truth. They all are, in the same measure, false, because they arenít really about agricultural biotechnology at all. And to the extent that they dominate our discussions, they inevitably lead to unresolvable conflicts. They are, literally, preconceptions. They allow us to recognize important things about the world, but they also blind us to reality, when that reality doesnít fit such preset patterns.

Iíve tried, in this book, to liberate agricultural biotechnology from the seductive clutches of myth, to give it its own story, its own space in our mental world, carved exactly to fit. Iíve tried to turn it from an epic  into simply a story - the kind of tale one tells about a slightly crazy uncle, with all his quirks and contradictions. The contours of this story arenít always smooth and clean. But it also isnít merely a random collection of information. If one follows it closely, there are themes and patterns, and a few useful lessons.