Book review:

Food, Inc.: Mendel to Monsanto—The Promises and Perils of the Biotech Harvest by Peter Pringle, Simon & Schuster, 356 pp., $25

In Food, Inc., journalist Peter Pringle presents a detailed, balanced and accessible statement of the battles – and many of the issues informing those battles – over genetically modified (GM) foods. While it is a well-written history of the GM food fights, don’t depend on it for understanding whether or not GM foods are needed.

Although foods have been genetically modified since the 19th century, GM foods are those that have been developed using modern molecular genetics and biotechnology. Instead of just crossing two plants to get traits – good and bad – from both, scientists can now extract the DNA from one plant, select a particular gene or set of genes and insert them into the other.

The battle lines are drawn between, on the one side, the giant agribusiness corporations that have developed GM crops and the conservative media and political leaders, and on the other, a potpourri of scientists, small-holder and organic farmers, and environmental and other activists. Early in his book Pringle claims the middle ground, between the special interests for and against GM foods. This attitude allows the author to tell colorful stories in an enlightening way. But it also permits him to avoid very important questions.

While the range of traits that can be newly incorporated into a plant is huge, most contain genes from two bacterial species.

Some of the GM crops contain a gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuriengensis (Bt). Bt produces a protein that injures or kills caterpillars that ingest it. The use of Bt genes has led to reduced insecticide spraying, which may be good news for farm workers and the environment. One criticism of the use of Bt is that humans also end up eating the protein and scientists don’t quite know how we react.

Another criticism is that as farmers increasingly use crops with the Bt gene, just as happened in the past with the chemical DDT, insects will evolve resistance to the Bt protein. The agribusinesses have developed strategies they think will prevent such resistance from spreading, but the jury is still out.

The other gene confers resistance to Roundup, an industrial chemical, glyphosate, invented by Monsanto. Glyphosate kills plants and is widely used as a weed killer. The resistance gene does nothing to reduce overall industrial chemicals in the environment or make our food tastier or safer, or improve yields, or improve industrial farm practices. By incorporating the trait into soybeans, Monsanto ensures that farmers who buy Roundup Ready soybeans use fewer other weed killers and more Roundup.

Pringle’s efforts to remain neutral result in his coming to grips with the basic questions that must be asked about GM foods only in the last three pages of his last chapter. His initial conclusion is on the mark: “Big corporations hijacked the technology.”

However, because Pringle focuses on the battles over GM, two critical contexts are not furnished. The first: What does the world’s population need in the way of food, and how can those needs best be satisfied?

Biotechnology offers the promise for producing more food, producing more food on marginally fertile lands, producing individual food items that are more nutritious, producing crops that require fewer industrial chemical inputs – at least as compared with a future of simply expanding conventional industrial agricultural practices. So far GM has failed to produce.

Pringle offers a whole chapter on Ingo Potrykus and his technical “fix” to a serious nutritional deficiency suffered mainly in Asia. Potrykus invented golden rice, a GM variety containing vitamin A. Critics say a simpler solution is to give the malnourished vitamin A pills or encourage them to grow vegetables containing the vitamin. Potrykus is now engineering golden rice to have higher iron to prevent anemia (a serious disease in much of the world), zinc and more protein. Is that what we want for ourselves and others – fewer kinds of food that satisfy all of our nutritional needs? Agriculture should be working to supply ample nutrition to all through variety, not monotony.

Also largely missing are the economic and ecological consequences of the concentrated control of the global farm and food economy now in only a handful of private mega-corporations and giant farms. The poverty of those who work the farms and harvest our food in the U.S. is missing.

Pringle is also right by blaming both the companies for misleading the public and also many of the activists for avoiding scientific discussion in favor of “scaremongering.” He is right that subsidies have been “rigged in favor of rich countries” and, we should add, in favor of the rich within those countries. Farmers who can’t afford the expensive GM seeds are left behind or put out of business.

GM foods may prove invaluable to put food on our tables in the future. With agribusiness behind the tractor, however, we’re in for a rough ride.

– Chester Steorra (pww@pww.org)

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