They Shall Beat Their Petunias into Pork Chops

BY RICK WEISS

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

by Daniel Charles
Perseus Publishing, 2001
It was 1981, and California scientist Martin Apple was showing visitors his new, futuristic enterprise: the International Plant Research Institute, one of the world's first biotechnology companies devoted to agriculture. The biotech gold rush was just getting started, and Apple, talking about his plans to revolutionize agriculture, confided enthusiastically to a New York Times reporter, "We are going to make pork chops grow on trees!"

"When that quote appeared in the newspaper Apple was mortified," writes Daniel Charles in Lords of the Harvest, his fascinating and thoroughly reported book about the science, business and politics of agricultural biotechnology. "He meant, of course, that engineered plants might produce the same nutrients that one finds in a pork chop, not an actual hunk of meat hanging on a tree. Besides which, as an observant Jew, he'd never touched a pork chop in his life." Apple even called the chairman of his board to see how they might get the Times to print a correction. "Don't worry about it," he told Apple. "It's great publicity."

Ah, those were the days. The days before biotech crops were vilified as "Frankenfood." Before night raids on test plots of genetically modified trees. Before tortilla chips and corn muffins were tainted with gene-altered StarLink corn, approved only for animals because of human health concerns but inadvertently (and inevitably, critics would aver) homogenized into the human food supply soon after its introduction as cattle feed.

It was a time so full of promise and unlimited potential that at Monsanto--the company that would later become the 800-pound gorilla of ag biotech but which was then an old-fashioned chemical giant just starting to experiment with genes--the main biotech research area on U Building's 4th floor had been nicknamed "U-4ia." It was also a difficult time of transition for the old-school Monsanto chemists and agricultural division reps, who felt threatened by the new laboratories full of red and white petunias--the plants that gene engineers were practicing on--and who expressed their fears as ridicule. At a Monsanto Christmas party in 1984, writes Charles in one of his numerous insider vignettes, one scientist brought a mocked-up picture of a petunia-leaf salad with the caption: "New Marketing Strategy: Eat More Petunias!"

Most of all it was a time of discovery and intellectual adventure. Charles, a science reporter who has been a technology correspondent for National Public Radio and for New Scientist magazine, relates many of these adventures in wonderful detail. One of my favorites is the tale of how scientists invented a device resembling a BB gun that shot new genes into plants by blasting them with tiny DNA-coated tungsten pellets. Wearing white lab gowns and booties, they tested their invention by strafing onion after onion until the lab was reeking and dripping with onion puree. Their colleagues laughed, but it worked. So did a competing team's version, which used a 25,000-volt charge and some Mylar from a potato chip bag.

Charles's descriptions of seed-company business deals sometimes left me a little confused, and at times his chronology of biotech's advancement got hard to track--an unavoidable shortcoming, perhaps, in a book organized (and rightly so) by topic instead of time. Laudably, however, and unlike many of the books already out on this subject, Lords is not a piece of political hatchetry bent on slicing and dicing biotech foods into Veg-O-Matic oblivion. Indeed, Charles is sympathetic to the industry side of the debate. A number of the scientists who gave birth to ag biotech were children of the sixties, he notes. Sure, they were arrogant as hell. But they really did believe that genetic technology might feed the world, clean the world, change the world.

Yet Charles is not an apologist for Monsanto and the other corporate generals in the ag biotech business. He offers a collection of telling anecdotes that reveal the leading scientists and entrepreneurs in the industry as aggressive and even ruthless competitors who were not above stealing ideas and intellectual property from one another and who repeatedly put their own economic interests ahead of the world they had promised to save. On at least one occasion a scientist went so far as to aseptically shred documents received from a competing lab and to culture the bits of paper in petri dishes, hoping the paper might carry a few cells containing the competitor's valuable proprietary genes. Charles also subjects to rigorous analysis Monsanto's claim that its high-tech seeds are going to help poor farmers in the developing world and concludes along with the industry's opponents that, on the whole, the claim is false.

In one enlightening chapter, Charles describes an extraordinary but little-known series of private retreats attended by high-ranking proponents and opponents in the early 1990s. Coordinated by Berlin sociologist Wolfgang van den Daele, the meetings helped to reveal what many had until then been unwilling to admit: the dispute over gene-altered food was about much more than human health and the environment; it was rooted in deeply conflicting views about democracy, capitalism and global trade. In the end, the meetings broke down, with industry claiming that opponents were unwilling to admit to having a larger revolutionary agenda and opponents claiming that industry was using those unresolvable issues to paper over biotech's problems immediately at hand.

History, I suspect, will ultimately agree with Charles that in this respect both sides were right.


Rick Weiss writes about science for the Washington Post.