From Monday Style
The Seeds of Change
'Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money, and the Future of Food' by Daniel Charles

 

By Marc Kaufman,
a reporter for The Post's national staff
Monday, November 26, 2001; Page C02

LORDS OF THE HARVEST
Biotech, Big Money, and the Future of Food
By Daniel Charles
Perseus. 368 pp. $27.

Genetically modified foods have become a staple of the American diet; not surprisingly, they are a featured item on the nation's journalistic menu as well. StarLink corn, Roundup Ready wheat and Bt soybeans have all become familiar to news and supermarket consumers alike -- sometimes because of their promise, sometimes because of their potential consequences and sometimes because things already have gone wrong. Advocates on both sides are eager to instruct the public in how to greet some of the most important new technologies on Earth.

But because the science can seem so complex and unfathomable -- and the story of the birth and spread of bioengineered foods so quickly contentious -- most people outside the debate don't really know what to think. Will the new technologies help feed poor and hungry people and limit the use of nasty chemical pesticides? Or will they cause genetic pollution and give a handful of global corporations dangerous control over the world's basic foods?

"Lords of the Harvest," by former National Public Radio reporter Daniel Charles, offers an accessible, well-reported account of how genetically modified crops became so widespread and why they have raised such a commotion.

Charles grew up on a Pennsylvania farm that still supports his brother's family; he knows that farmers could benefit greatly from a technology that can make their fields more productive and their lives somewhat easier. He has the scientific curiosity needed to write about the fast-moving discoveries of agricultural biotechnology with the clarity and amazement they deserve. But he is also a journalist -- a paid skeptic -- and he finds a fair amount to be skeptical about.

The story opens at a fateful 1983 scientific meeting in Miami. Researchers had been competing furiously to transform plant cells using just-discovered technologies to transfer genes from one species into another. Several claimed success in Miami, and the race to patent new plant life forms began. Charles traces that race through the personal stories of the men and women involved -- their motivations, their breakthroughs and their disappointments. He takes pains along the way to make the science behind the discovery comprehensible.

Inevitably, the story leads to the Monsanto Co. in St. Louis, a traditional chemical company that during the 1980s transformed itself into the giant of agricultural biotech. Monsanto had a bold vision for the future of food; it also had the business tenacity and possibly monopolistic ambitions of Microsoft. It soon came to define the technology and, with much the same force, comes to dominate the remainder of "Lords of the Harvest."

Charles argues that Monsanto's rise to power hurt the promise of biotech foods. The company did develop products that many farmers liked -- especially a strain of crops genetically modified to make pest and weed control much easier. Today about 70 percent of soy and cotton grown in the United States is genetically engineered, as is more than a quarter of the corn. But Monsanto also pioneered an agricultural business model that emphasized exclusive uses and patent rights in ways that appalled many farmers. Company officials employed pressure tactics that left hard feelings here and abroad, and they came off as arrogant in their dismissal of concerns about their revolutionary technology. Charles concludes that Monsanto's "business ambitions, more than any other single factor, brought forth the antibiotechnology backlash."

That backlash is now very much with us. A major trade dispute over genetic engineering is looming with Europe, where anti-biotech feelings are much stronger, and there are signs of growing consumer discomfort in the United States as well. Monsanto, which was itself purchased by a larger global player, Pharmacia, is trying hard to present a friendlier face today, and the entire biotechnology industry is spending millions to convince consumers that its products are safe and its intentions good.

While "Lords of the Harvest" describes the biotech opposition without much enthusiasm, it does ultimately give credence to some of its concerns. The book's final chapter tries to answer some of the questions that the technology's opponents have raised about its implications for the environment, public health and industry ownership, and in it Charles strikes a welcome note of common sense. He finds nothing "to get agitated about" when growers introduce genetically manipulated soybean plants to Iowa fields, but he also sees no great loss to consumers if Monsanto and company were to yank biotech crops from the market. Charles finds an idealistic impulse in biotech efforts to make farmers more productive; he also throws cold water on the industry's aggressive efforts to appear magnanimous to poor farmers around the world. The technology, he writes, will be used almost exclusively in wealthier countries for the foreseeable future -- because that's where farmers can afford to buy it.

The book could have used more editing -- Charles does, for example, repeatedly reintroduce the same key scientists. Nevertheless, "Lords of the Harvest" tells a little-understood story in a compelling and credible way.

 

2001 The Washington Post Company