Technology and Culture 43.2 (2002) 450-451
Lords of the Harvest
Lords of the Harvest. By Dan Charles. Cambridge, Mass: Perseus, 2001. $27.
Lords of the Harvest, a journalistic history of genetic engineering in agriculture, is a highly rewarding book for those who persist to the end. It will take you above the fray of the last decade's media battles over "frankenfoods," illuminating some of the hidden motives and preconceptions of both proponents and opponents. It will give you a road map to the last two decades' bewildering changes in the business of farming. And it will give you a fascinating look inside one company, St. Louis-based Monsanto, whose grand ambitions and fateful decisions were at the center of the technology's transition from the laboratory to the supermarket. But the book will only do this if you take a deep breath, suppress your need for an explicit, up-front thesis, and surrender yourself to Dan Charles's skillful storytelling, trusting that when you surface for air on page 328, you will find yourself somewhere worthwhile.
Charles, a longtime science writer and National Public Radio correspondent who comes from a family of farmers, begins his story in January 1983 with three reports of breakthrough work on Agrobacterium, a type of bacteria whose ability to splice its own genes into plant cells made it a tempting potential tool for genetic engineering. Two teams of researchers, one from Belgium and one from Washington University in St. Louis, announced at a Miami Beach symposium that month that they had used Agrobacterium to transfer an antibiotic-resistance gene into tobacco plants. It was an important step toward splicing other, more useful genes into crops, genes that might give them the ability to survive frosts or synthesize their own herbicides or pesticides. For both teams, the advance was the result of a decade of trial and error. But they were quickly followed by a third researcher, this one from Monsanto, who announced that his team had obtained nearly identical gene-transfer results with petunia plants after a mere two years of work. "In that moment, [the scientists'] field had changed," Charles observes. "The solitary genius of the independent scientist had given way to [End Page 450] the organized, collective, purposeful genius of corporate institutions" (p. 6). The rest of the book chronicles the unfolding of that change, in which Monsanto and its unusually early and deep commitment to biotechnology were a driving force. Why was a chemical company mainly known at the time for its widely used broad-spectrum herbicide glyphosate—brand-named Roundup—so interested in a technology that could render its best-selling product obsolete? Charles explains that Monsanto had a very specific application in mind: locating a gene that would make plants Roundup-resistant. After a decade-long research program that insiders likened to the Manhattan Project, Monsanto scientists finally found the gene responsible for the crucial enzyme that Roundup attacks. They inserted an altered form of this gene into soybean, cotton, and canola plants, making the enzyme less vulnerable to Roundup. Now farmers would be able to buy even more of the herbicide and spray it on fields without damaging their crops.
If, that is, seed companies could be persuaded to pay Monsanto for the right to insert the Roundup-resistance gene into their seeds, and if farmers could be persuaded to buy them. These were big ifs that led to a second world-changing moment, according to Charles. The major seed companies like Pioneer Hi-Bred would pay Monsanto only a paltry sum for the right to use the "Roundup Ready" gene in their seeds. So Monsanto decided to license the gene directly to farmers, asking them to pay a separate "technology fee" over and above their seeds' regular cost. At the same time, the licenses required farmers to agree not to use any part of their harvest as seed for the following year, forcing them to buy a fresh supply every spring. Attracted by the prospect of bigger yields, farmers proved willing to put up with the extra fees and the Draconian conditions, and Roundup Ready crops have subsequently spread over a large percentage of the Earth's cultivated land. Monsanto's success with the Roundup Ready licensing program soon inspired the company, as well as competing chemical and pharmaceutical giants with their own engineered crop genes, to take the next logical step, simply buying up Pioneer, DeKalb, and the other independent seed companies and folding them into their new biotechnological empires.
These fundamental changes in the culture of agriculture, just as much
as fear of the possible health effects of genetically engineered foods,
were behind the 1990s' mass uprisings against the technology, Charles
argues. "Biotechnology has proceeded hand-in-hand with claims of ownership
to the building blocks of life," he writes in the epilogue, where
he finally reveals a few of his own conclusions. "This proprietorship. . . has enraged biotechnology's most committed opponents." Fortunately,
it has also motivated this fascinating book, a must-read for anyone
interested in the history of agriculture or biotechnology.
Dr. Roush is a senior editor at Technology Review.
Permission to reprint a review published here may be obtained only from the reviewer.