December 23, 2001

What have they done to our food?

By Daniel Charles
Perseus, $27, 348 pages

     In the good ol' days, say 20 or 30 years ago, gene splicing or genetic engineering of microbes was used to create pharmaceutical agents like human insulin and growth hormone, and few disparaged either these ends or the means used to accomplish them. No one begrudged diabetics their recombinant insulin or growth hormone deficient children the possibility of normal stature. But less than 20 years ago, the biotechnology revolution invaded agriculture. The result has been unease and alarm that has affected business and science, and consumer and governmental attitudes about both. Our food supply, and our thoughts and feelings about it have been transformed.
     In "Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money, and the Future of Food," Daniel Charles chronicles how this came to be.
     First, the basic research was needed. Millions, perhaps billions, were spent before scientists learned how to manipulate genes and get plant cells to accept a gene from another organism, and then to grow those cells into new plants. Once accomplished, the challenge was to streamline the process — a feat involving the invention of yet another biotech tool — the gene gun. Using, of all things, potato chip bags from a local vending machine, the gene gun allowed scientists to mass produce the altered cells they needed in order to, in turn, mass produce gene-spliced seeds. Scientists from both academia and industry raced to be the first to accomplish the goals, and to patent their techniques.
     Then, of course, there was the application of these techniques to agriculture itself. Growing corn from cells in a lab or greenhouse is substantially different from sowing seeds in a field exposed to sun, rain and the unpredictability of nature in general. Financier George Soros clearly understood this fact when, in 1981, he declined to invest in agricultural genetic engineering: "I don't like businesses in which anything you could possibly do will be overwhelmed by the effects of the weather."
     Monsanto learned this well — after triumphing in the technology race, its leaders had to involve the company in the arcane area of seed production, an industry largely controlled by family-owned businesses like Pioneer Hi-Bred International and DeKalb Genetics. This they proceeded to do both by licensing their gene products and by acquisition, but not without some difficulties, which Mr. Charles amply documents.
     The business of agricultural biotechnology was, of course, beset by more ills than just bad weather. The rise of biotech was paralleled by the rise of the anti-biotech activists. Recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBST), injected into cows to increase efficiency of milk production, was the first gene-spliced product to hit the consumer market in the late 1980s, and was denounced vigorously by the activists. Among other unsubstantiated charges, they said rBST would cause cancer in those who drank milk from treated cows, and stress the animals themselves.
     Later, particularly in Europe, where the bureaucratic bungling of Mad Cow Disease undercut the credibility of governmental assurances of food safety, the anti-biotech activists seized upon consumer unease to raise a variety of fears about foods containing gene-spliced ingredients. Concerns about human health as well as about potential ecological disasters were widely promulgated.
     In his eminently readable account, Mr. Charles weaves the threads of science, agriculture, business and social activism into a coherent, if not simple, historical tapestry. Having been raised on a Midwestern farm, Mr. Charles has an insider's appreciation of the rigors and rewards of agriculture, and portrays both convincingly. His take on agriculture is prosaic, not romantic. "Agriculture, in fact, is the single human activity that has most profoundly erased 'nature' from the planet, with no help whatsoever from genetic engineering," he states outright in his prologue.
     In addition to his bucolic roots, Mr. Charles also paid his dues as a science reporter and technology consultant. His lucid explanations of the birth and development of agricultural gene-splicing are interlaced with interviews and anecdotes that paint pictures of a period of great intellectual excitement and achievement. It was also a time of relentless competition to be the first to report a scientific advance, and the first to patent a new discovery or invention.
     Trying to follow the threads of which company did what to which crop at times can be a little confusing — and for the non-business oriented reader, remembering that Monsanto acquired DeKalb, while Dupont bought Pioneer Hi-Bred (plus the 10 or so other companies involved) was also a challenge. Having a pen and paper handy to draw a chronology — or perhaps a business genealogy — will help the reader sort it all out.
     Mr. Charles gives space to both the industry and anti-biotech sides of the issues. His sympathies are not wholly with the corporate world by any means. He acknowledges the professionalism of some of the anti-biotech groups, who ran focus groups to help direct their campaigns. They learned that health and personal safety would resonate most with consumers, and thus emphasized these concerns over those related to potential ecological damage (although these, of course, have not been entirely ignored).
     In their zeal to push their agendas, however, these groups tended to neglect scientific facts. Mr. Charles relates that after demonstrators halted the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, Margaret Mellon, a trained scientist and member of an anti-biotech group, claimed to have learned something important: "The Europeans taught us that you can mobilize people without a shred of evidence [regarding actual harm to human health] . . ."
     And the struggle continues. Mr. Charles delineates the major issues he sees looming. These include the battle both here and abroad over labeling foods that contain gene-spliced ingredients, and the questions as to whether plants engineered to contain their own pesticides (Bt proteins) will lead to widespread resistance in their insect targets.
     While the book cannot predict the resolutions of such issues (or other ones that will surely arise), it provides the reader with an engaging, readable, well organized and relatively unbiased examination of the process that got us where we are.
     Ruth Kava is director of nutrition at the American Council on Science and Health.