A splice of life: Two looks at genetically engineered food
This story was published in Everyday Magazine on Wednesday, October 17, 2001.

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 observer.

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 changes.

"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.

It's not 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."

Lambrecht's 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 grow.

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 agricultural biotechnology.

What are these issues?

* They're 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 plant?

* They're ecological: Can pest control be too effective, in that extremely high mortality leads inexorably to the evolution of resistance?

* 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 depend?

* They're personal: Does purchasing GMO-derived food pose a risk to health?

* They're political: Should technological innovations be subject to democratic oversight?

Charles tackles 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 world.

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 Calgene.")

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 debate ensued.

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 germinate.

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 unreasonable assignment.


"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

Published by St. Martin's Press, 383 pages, $24.95

Bill Lambrecht

Where: Left Bank Books, 399 North Euclid Avenue

When: 7 p.m. Monday

How much: Free

Info: 314-367-6731


"Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money, and the Future of Food"

By Daniel Charles

Published by 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 butterflies.

Published in the Everyday Magazine section of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Wednesday, October 17, 2001.
Copyright (C)2001, St. Louis Post-Dispatch