Prologue

 

I grew up in the middle of the American agrarian ideal, on a small family farm in Pennsylvania just like those that serve as the centerpiece of so many nostalgic childrenís books. My brother and his family live there now, and it hasnít changed much. Beside the house, thereís a big garden and a small orchard of apple and pear trees, plus some blueberry bushes. The tall wooden barn is hung on a frame of enormous rough-hewn beams, carefully pieced together in the old style with notches and pegs by long-dead craftsmen. About 50 Holstein cows wait patiently to be milked, half a dozen barely domesticated cats find shelter in the straw, and a dog paces distractedly. In back of the barn, a grassy pasture slopes gently toward a creek where my older sister and I built dams out of rocks. To the north, thereís more pasture and a hill perfect for sledding. To the east lie alternating strips of corn, soybeans, and alfalfa. Itís a tidy eighty acres, tiny by todayís standards, but for two hundred years itís been enough for a succession of families to make a living.

Across Donerville Road to the east is the farm where my father grew up. From that farmhouse, you can look to the north and east and see the farms where my grandfather, great grandfather, and great-great grandfather were born.

Iím attached to my memories of that place, more attached now than I was as a boy who preferred reading books to baling hay. Yet anytime Iím seized by the temptation to wax poetic about the purity of rural life, it does me good to shake my fatherís hand. That hand is rough, hard, and slightly disfigured. Twine from hay bales has cut into it. Steel pipes, broken by freezing water in the middle of winter nights, have chafed it raw. A cable from the barnís gutter scraper once caught that hand, tore through skin and and muscle, and ground manure into raw flesh. My father could not extricate his hand from the machinery. A neighbor finally heard his cries for help. My parents drove to the hospital; I stayed home to milk the cows. The wound healed remarkably well, but my father was never again able to bend his right index finger.

 

Last spring, as my brother David was planting corn, he ran out of seed. He drove up the road to a neighbor, the local Pioneer dealer. It was already late in planting season, so he needed a kind of corn that would mature quickly. There wasnít much to choose from. "How about trying some of this ëBtí corn?" asked the dealer. "Now it does cost a little more." (The extra cost amounted to ten dollars for an acreís worth of seed.)

"You think itís worth the money?" asked David. The dealer figured it probably was. And as simple as that, my brother carried home the latest in agricultural technology.

One gene - out of perhaps fifty thousand genes in each microscopic cell of a corn plant - made this corn seed different. Twenty years ago, scientists had discovered that this is the gene that makes certain bacteria poisonous to many caterpillars, including caterpillars that feed on the stalks of corn. (The bacterium is called Bacillus thuringiensis, hence, "Bt corn.") Almost ten years later, in the laboratories of a company called Monsanto, scientists redesigned that gene, creating a new version that worked better when it was inserted in plants. A year or two after that, the gene was blasted into a clump of corn cells growing in a petri dish, and new corn plants containing this gene grew from that clump of cells.

The plants that grew in my brotherís fields last year descended from one of those seedlings. When the seed sprouted, the new gene went into action. Throughout the plant, from roots to tassel, the plantís cells manufactured the new protein. If a European corn borer were unlucky enough to attempt to feed on one of these plants, it would die.

But animals or humans who ate the corn wouldnít notice. Suppose one of these plants were put through a chemical wringer, and all of its Bt toxin extracted. The result would be only a tiny speck of powder - like all pure protein, white and tasteless - weighing perhaps a hundredth of an ounce. Scientists have fed this powder to colonies of mice. Each day, the mice ate about a tenth of an ounce of it for every pound of their body weight. To consume an equivalent dose, a person weighing 150 pounds would have to eat about fifteen hundred whole raw corn plants. The mice suffered no apparent ill effects, either visibly while they were alive or when they were dissected and studied afterwards. This is what the people conducting these tests expected to see. When this Bt toxin enters the digestive system, it breaks down into small fragments, short strings of amino acids indistinguishable from any other digested protein that enters the body. Based on this knowledge, government regulators are convinced that this Bt toxin is harmless to humans.

Most corn grown in North American ends up in animal feed. A portion of the harvest, however, processed into cornstarch or corn meal, does become an ingredient in food on supermarket shelves. Soybeans, meanwhile, the other major crop thatís been genetically engineered, provide oil, meal, and emulsifiers that end up in a host of processed foods from chocolate to soups.

As it happened, there werenít many hungry caterpillars in my brotherís corn fields last year. None of the plants appeared to suffer much damage, whether they boasted the new Bt gene or not. The new, more expensive corn seed probably wasnít worth the extra money, but David isnít fretting too much over an extra ninety dollars for three bags of seed.

My brother knows more about the biology of plants than your average farmer. He has a university diploma in horticulture hidden away somewhere in the house and spent several years as a county agricultural agent, advising fruit and vegetable farmers. But heís a bit mystified by genetically engineered corn and soybeans. When he heard I was writing this book, he wanted to know: "So how do they put those genes into plants?"

Anyone who reads on will learn the answer. Thereís also another, to me even more compelling question at the heart of this book: Why do they put those genes into plants?

 

I watched the rise of agricultural biotechnology not primarily as a farmerís son, but as a journalist covering science and technology. The high-tech community has its own view of the world and of history, nurtured by stories of its great triumphs. Engineers and scientists really believe that they have the power to change the world. Individual companies and particular technologies may stumble and fall, but this community is sustained by a powerful faith in the ultimate triumph of technological progress.

From the 1980s onward, this faith burned brightly at biotech companies and in particular at Monsanto, a St. Louis-based company with a long history in the chemical industry. At those times when they were most caught up in enthusiasm for their technology, Monsantoís executives promised a revolution in agriculture. They sometimes spoke as if plants soon would become putty in the hands of science. There would be more productive corn, more nutritious rice, and tastier tomatoes. These plants, they suggested, would produce more food on less land, not just in North America but all over the world. Biotechnology would relieve world hunger and allow poor farmers in Asia and Africa to stop destroying precious forests and grasslands.

I came to believe that this was not simply the product of an overheated public relations machine. Many people at Monsanto want this to be true, and they believe that it still could be true. They dream, as all of us do, of doing something significant, of making a difference in the world. They hoped to do enormous good in the world while also doing very well. Some of the more ambitious ones dreamed of ascending to that Pantheon of technological pioneers who change the world.

Yet the revolution they hoped for could only be sustained through profits, and profits required control of products - genes - which are singularly difficult to control. So even before most of Monsantoís dreams of improved plants were close to reality, the company set out to dominate the businesses that provide genes to farmers - the seed industry. This attempt provoked similar moves on the part of Monsantoís corporate rivals.

When my brother buys seed corn these days, the bags still carry familiar company labels: DeKalb, Pioneer, or a small local company called Doeblerís Pennsylvania Hybrids. But DeKalb now is owned by Monsanto. Pioneer is owned by DuPont. Doeblerís breeds its varieties from parent varieties that come from a company in Iowa called Holdenís Foundation Seeds. Monsanto, in turn, owns Holdenís Foundation Seeds. Seed companies have become extensions of corporate laboratories in St. Louis or Wilmington.

There was something deeply mystifying about the rush of big biotech and chemical companies into the seed business, about Monsantoís headfirst dive in particular. These companies love control, efficiency, and predictability. Theyíve grown rich from the carefully tuned operations of climate-controlled factories that pump out products, rain or shine, according to fixed schedules. Agriculture is a holdover from an earlier era; it is dirty, messy, and unpredictable. Farmers are notoriously cranky and difficult to manage. Plants growing in open fields are subject to drought, disease, and windstorms that simply blow them over. Prices are set in far-off commodity markets; the farmer has no control over such things. It is not, in the lingo of Wall Street, a high-margin business. There is not a lot of extra cash sloshing around small farming towns in Indiana or Illinois.

Yet Monsanto spent at least a billion dollars on research before it had a single genetically engineered plant to sell, then billions more to control a handful of seed companies. At this writing in spring 2001, the companyís annual revenues from genetically engineered plants add up to a few hundred million dollars - but Monsanto spends more than that just on research aimed at creating new genetically engineered crops. The payoff seems embarrassingly meager. If this is a business, something about it doesnít add up.

 

"Robert Post, a historian at the University of Maryland, and former president of the Society for the History of Technology, isnít one bit mystified.

"People believe that technologies are driven, more often than they really are, by completely rational considerations, and particularly by the idea of maximizing profits," he says. "But I am firmly of the view that technologies are driven by irrational considerations."

Take plans for defense against missiles, know as "Star Wars," says Post, or NASA's planned International Space Station, or a good proportion of the nation's computer purchases.  There is no convincing rational reason for any of them.  But there seems to be a powerful force behind them all.  Call it the romance of new things or the irresistible attraction of unexplored terrain, a place where - who knows? - dreams may come true.

"A big aspect of it is something you see all the time in the history of technology, what we call 'technological enthusiasm'; simply getting caught up in the fun of it all," says Post.  His grin suggests that this is by no means the most base of human motives.

 

Four thousand miles away, in a small restaurant in North London, Zoe Elford has a name for the stalks of Bt corn in my brotherís fields: "Living pollution". Taking a gene from bacteria and putting it in corn is, first of all, just "really odd, really unnatural", she says. Second, itís taking liberties with nature. No one knows what the results might be.

Elford is an earnest, mild-mannered, yet determined young woman in her twenties with long brown hair. She works for a nonprofit group that works with poor communities around the world, trying to end injustice. The thought strikes me that in an earlier age, she might have entered a cloister.

Her views on genetically altered crops are, by now, well practiced. Sheís spent years picketing grocery stores talking to shoppers about genetically engineered food. In 1998, she was arrested, along with several of her friends, as they uprooted genetically altered plants in one of Monsantoís trial plots in Oxfordshire. The case has since wandered in and out of several courtrooms. "I felt the urge to stop the stuff growing, because when you release genetically altered plants up and down this country, those are sites of living pollution, and that pollution will replicate itself. Once itís out there, you canít get it back, so itís a kind of now or never sort of situation. Itís an immediate threat."

That threat, the possibility of unknown consequences, is the theme of Mary Shelleyís tale about the fateful curiosity and ambition of Victor Frankenstein, a scientist who could not withstand the lure of knowledge. Heedless of the consequences, Frankenstein created new life, and that creature returned to haunt and destroy him.

Shelleyís tale turns a mirror on modern societyís love affair with the new, capturing it and reversing the image. Where so many are captivated with the possibilities of technology - "caught up in the fun of it all" - others are caught up in anxiety about where these ventures might lead. Shelleyís tale is fiction. But Chernobyl really happened, and DDT, once hailed as a savior from malaria and insect pests, did poison fish and birds, even as insects developed resistance to it and it became ineffective in its original purpose.

Fear of technologyís unforeseen consequences courses through debates and conversations about genetically engineered plants, especially in countries with strong environmental movements. In England, consumer protests and fears have forced most grocery stores to ban genetically modified ingredients from their shelves. Itís an enormous triumph for committed campaigners like Zoe Elford.

"Does this place serve food from genetically modified crops?" I ask her. Itís a vegetarian establishment where Elford goes regularly for lunch across from the Archway tube station.

"I donít think so," she says, looking slightly surprised at the idea.

"Did you ever ask?"

"No. I have less of a problem eating it," she confesses. "I just think, yeah, it may harm me, but so what? Iím worried more about the big picture really."

What bothers Elford most is not so much the technology itself as the forces she sees behind it, the "grotesque juggernaut" of companies like Monsanto. "We are rapidly losing the natural world to multinational corporations and governments complicit in their myopic, manic scheme," she wrote in 1998, explaining her decision to rip out some of Monsantoís plants. She called on her fellow citizens to "act for democracy, for diversity, and to restore a land lush with fields free of genetic pollution and free of genetic contamination."

 

From the vantage point of the farm, some of this rhetoric is as mystifying as the dreams of the biotech industry. Agricultural fields such as my brotherís are not "lush" and "free of genetic contamination", and they havenít been for centuries. Wherever crops are grown, competing vegetation is suppressed. Agriculture, in fact, is the single human activity that has most profoundly erased "nature" from the planet, with no help whatsoever from genetic engineering. The worldís grasslands have been plowed under and forests cut down, sacrificed for the purposes of food production for humans. The worldís major food crops, more often than not, grow in fields thousands of miles removed from their native habitats. Soybeans came from China, corn from Central America, and wheat probably originated somewhere in southwestern Asia. Perhaps such plants represent the original "genetic contamination" of Europe and North America. Whatís more, none of these plants are anything like their wild ancestors. Theyíve been manhandled, genetically speaking, to the point where they often could not even survive in their current form without human aid. So if all of agriculture is shaped by human hands in such profound ways, where does nature end, and intolerable human manipulation begin?

 

When I first started working on this book, I thought my most difficult challenge would be to get people interested. Iíd written about the science and business of genetically engineered crops for ten years, and for most of that time, few people seemed to care about them. Then "Frankenfoods" exploded onto the front pages, and the partisan debate that engulfed them became a blessing and a curse. People started to care about this topic, which I liked. But I sometimes felt as though Iíd wandered by accident into no-manís land between two hostile barricades. Each side wanted to pull me to safety behind their particular fortress of ideology, information, and logic. I tried to resist them. It was confusing out there in the middle, but the view was better.

This book is not an argument. Itís the product of a personal search for understanding. The result of that search is not a set of conclusions, but a story of how genetically engineered foods came to be, and why.

There is plenty here for the cynic: ambition, rivalries, battles over profits, and calculated exploitation of public anxieties. Yet again and again, surprisingly, itís a chronicle of idealism and conflicting ideas about the shape of a better world.

The combatants in this street battle over genetically engineered foods, in fact, often seem caught up in their own romantic visions. 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 akin to Frankensteinís monster. On the other side are scientists and companies, convinced that they hold in their hands the genetic tools that will solve agricultureís problems and unlock a glorious new age of plenty.

Again and again in this story, such dreams are rudely contradicted by reality, yet they never fall dead to the ground. Like ghostly apparitions, they reform into new shapes, their power over the human imagination as great as ever.