A splice of life: Two looks at genetically engineered
This story was published in Everyday
Magazine on Wednesday, October 17, 2001.
Special To The
Living in east-central Illinois
the past 20 years, I've been ideally positioned to witness what is perhaps
the greatest revolution in American agriculture since the invention of the
self-scouring steel plow in 1837.
John Deere's remarkable
technological innovation literally changed the face of the landscape;
today's ongoing revolution, however, is far more subtle. To me, the
landscape looks pretty much the same as it always has. This is a
revolution that's almost invisible to all but the most well-trained
The ability to splice genes encoding proteins that confer
protection against pests or that improve the quality, appearance or
storage properties of a crop hasn't radically changed the basic appearance
of the crop itself or the land it grows on. What has changed, however, is
the nature of agricultural enterprise, and along with it, the balance of
power, the flow of money, and the basic biological and ethical principles
that govern food production.
And therein lies the problem.
Understanding the changes that agriculture has undergone in the past 20
years as a result of advances in biotechnology is not an easy task.
Compounding the challenge are the spectacularly rapid
"Roundup Ready" soybeans, genetically engineered for
resistance to herbicide, were first approved for planting in 1996; that
year, they were planted on about 1 million acres. Within two years, those
soybeans occupied 25 million acres, almost one-third of all soybeans
planted in the United States.
Bt-corn and cotton, crops engineered
with a gene from a bacterium that confers resistance against caterpillar
pests, have enjoyed a similarly rapid rise in popularity.
altogether surprising, then, given the effect of the changes wrought by
the introduction of what have come to be known as GMOs - genetically
manipulated organisms - into agriculture, and the scientific subtleties
underlying those changes, that journalists would find the story an
appealing one to tell.
Two of them have produced books on the
subject. Daniel Charles, author of "Lords of the Harvest" was a
science-technology reporter for National Public Radio from 1993 to 1999;
Bill Lambrecht, author of "Dinner at the New Gene Cafe," is a Washington
correspondent for the Post-Dispatch.
Interestingly, both have some
connection to the soil. Charles grew up on a small Pennsylvania farm,
where his brother still works, and Lamprecht hails from central Illinois,
where no home is far from a cornfield.
The two books differ
dramatically in their approach to the subject. Charles has elected to
serve as impartial observer who explains objectively and dispassionately
"how genetically engineered foods came to be, and why."
story is more personal, detailing his own adventures in reporting,
traveling around the world and interacting with the principal combatants
in many of the most acrimonious debates. In a recurring sidebar, Lambrecht
acquires his own genetically engineered soybeans and watches them
Dissecting the issues
Of the two approaches, Charles
faced the greater challenge because objective voices in discussions of
GMOs have been few and far between. I don't think I have read a more
balanced, even-handed discussion of virtually every issue that bedevils
What are these issues?
philosophical: Are manipulators of genes tinkering with nature and
usurping the natural order of things?
* They're technological: How
can genes from unlikely sources, such as viruses or bacteria, be made to
function in a plant without affecting the desirable properties of that
* They're ecological: Can pest control be too effective, in
that extremely high mortality leads inexorably to the evolution of
* They're environmental: Does altering the genetic
constitution of crop plants pose a risk to the natural landscape through
unintended, nontarget effects?
* They're economical: Does a biotech
company have the right to control the seed supply, charging "technology
fees" and effectively licensing genes to farmers, and at the same time
control the supply of agricultural chemicals on which those seeds
* They're personal: Does purchasing GMO-derived food pose a
risk to health?
* They're political: Should technological
innovations be subject to democratic oversight?
these issues with thoroughness and clarity. As a result, there are no
stock characters - scientists oblivious to the environmental consequences
of their acts, biotechnology magnates driven by greed and desire for world
domination, or environmentalists whose desire is altruistically to save
The story of the disastrous failure of Flavr Savr is
particularly noteworthy in this regard. Flavr Savr, a tomato developed by
Calgene with enhanced shelf life, failed not because of adverse
environmental or health effects, but because of a fundamental lack of
appreciation of the mundane complexities of growing and marketing
tomatoes. (The chapter is called "The Tomato That Ate
Focus on personalities
Although Lambrecht's book
may be more approachable, it also is less intellectually satisfying. In
focusing on the personalities and dramatic conflicts involved in the
debates, he gives short shrift to the science and in doing so, perhaps
inadvertently perpetuates many scientific misconceptions about GMOs that
influence the nature of ongoing debates.
Two debates illustrate
this superficiality. In 1998, a Hungarian scientist working in a Scottish
research institute reported on television that an experiment he had
conducted demonstrated that genetically engineered potatoes had adverse
effects on the health of laboratory rats. For months afterward, a furious
In Lambrecht's one-page account, this debate
involved suppression of data by the science establishment, with the Royal
Society apparently baselessly criticizing the work, and eventual
"vindication" via publication in Lancet.
Charles' more detailed
account lays out the concerns more explicitly (and fairly) - legitimate
scientific concerns were raised over experimental design and
interpretation, the appropriateness of public disclosure of data prior to
peer review, and consistency with previously published accounts. Such
details may seem tedious, but sound scientific judgments generally don't
(and shouldn't) make for dramatic reading.
It's not clear how firm
a grasp Lambrecht has on the science. Some of the statements in the text
are opaque to the point of being nonsensical, as when he writes, "The
first gene, a so-called promoter, generates a toxin that obstructs the
gene's capacity to germinate. ..." Promoters are genetic switches, not
genes; promoters do not encode toxins; and genes don't
Which book you choose to read probably will be based on
your personal proclivities. Those with a political bent will enjoy
Lambrecht's dramatic accounts of conflicts and clashes (his own experience
at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle provides interesting
insights into the physical risks that reporters often face in tracking
down a story). Those with an interest in science, agriculture and policy
probably will prefer Charles' more objective account (and his excellent
notes on sources).
I would recommend reading both. In attempting to
understand the biggest change in almost two centuries that affects
everything we eat, collectively reading some 700 pages doesn't seem an
"Dinner at the New Gene
Cafe: How Genetic Engineering is Changing What We Eat, How We Live, and
the Global Politics of Food"
By Bill Lambrecht
St. Martin's Press, 383 pages, $24.95
Left Bank Books, 399 North Euclid Avenue
When: 7 p.m.
How much: Free
"Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money,
and the Future of Food"
By Daniel Charles
Perseus, 348 pages, $27
BOOK REVIEWS\May Berenbaum is
professor and head of the Department of Entomology at the University of
Illinois. Among her research interests are nontarget effects of GMOs on
Published in the
Everyday Magazine section of the
St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Wednesday, October 17,
(C)2001, St. Louis