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There are two central questions about biotechnology that Lords of the Harvest attempts to untangle: how exactly can you compare the risks of scientifically-altered plants to the organic tinkering that we've been doing since Mendel began crossbreeding garden peas in 1856? And how do you actually make money at bioengineering?
The first is a fascinating question that's surprisingly difficult to answer. As Daniel Charles, an NPR science reporter, points out, the only reason we know that tomatoes are safe is because we've been eating them for years. Any organic food we ingest is a complex stew of chemicals that no scientist fully understands... And when we digest it, all those chemicals interact with the even more complex system of the human body. All we can really do is wait and see what the effects are. In the case of "normal" foods, we have a thousand years of history to draw from - but what about genetically-engineered "Frankenfoods"?
"No one could prove that a genetically-engineered food is safe," Charles writes, discussing the FDA's dilemma, "Because there existed no way to prove that any traditional food is safe."
Furthermore, as he points out, farmers have been changing the environment in potentially-hazardous ways since time began: Razing entire fields, damming rivers, and destroying the vast array of insects, weeds, and pesky (and possibly endangered) animals that threaten their crops. Yet nobody is seriously suggesting that farming methods should be regulated. Likewise, many of the "healthy" genetic engineering that we accomplish by crossbreeding plants have effects that are as profound as any genetically-altered plants... And yet there are no protests over the do-it-yourself amateur approach.
Despite his claim of impartiality at the beginning of this book, Daniel is firmly in the pro-bioengineering camp, presenting many fine arguments as to why we should not be overly concerned with genetic engineering - and that is one of the great flaws of the book. Lords of the Harvest doesn't interview noted biotech critics like Jeremy Rifkin and Benny Harlin, and openly scoffs at many of the arguments that the anti-Frankenfood groups make.
And as such, you never know: Was Daniel swayed over to the cause of bioengineering because the evidence for its harmlessness was overwhelming... Or was he there already, and wrote the book as a biotech apologist? The scientific arguments he presents seem thorough and well-thought out, and he raises many extremely good points that should give any biotech detractor pause. But after seeing the way he short-shrifts the opposition, you're never sure whether he's answered all the relevant questions.
But there's another side to this book, an equally-fascinating section that raises it above the level of simple scientific inquiry: The story of Monsanto, the most ambitious and risk-taking bioengineering company in the business.
Monsanto wanted to be the Microsoft of the seed world, stamping their own copyright-protected genes on every seed sold... And the irony is that they managed to become as hated as Microsoft was, but without ever making any serious profit. The entire history of biotech echoes the internet craze of the late twentieth century; a bunch of renegade smart guys with vast dreams of changing the way the world works, promising paradigm-shifting results without a scrap of thought to how any of it would make money.
One of the great ironies of Lords of the Harvest is that these biotech scientists genuinely believed that they were making the world a positive place. We can revitalize the Third World with nutritious foods! they shouted. We can stop the use of harmful pesticides! We can make this all so - damn - good! When you consider that they not only went broke trying to do this, but that they became the poster boy for corporate greed and irresponsibility in the process, the end results are heartbreaking.
As such, watching them struggle to find profits from what they have now, not what they'll manage to unlock in the future, makes you both admire their drive and shake your head at their naivete. It's not even until a third of the way through the book that they finally ask the question: Say, if we make these fantastic seeds that kill the pests and create tomatoes the size of watermelons, what's to stop farmers from just harvesting the seeds off of the first crop and planting them the next season? We've invested a hundred million in this; how do we get paid more than once?
Their efforts to get around it are both breaktaking in their hubris and amusing in their desperation. The scientists gleefully assumed that since their lab-grown seeds were perfect, they would thrive equally well in the outside, conveniently forgetting about things like bad weather and competition from weeds... Leading to a delightful moment where the scientists see the pathetic, battered harvest from their first real crop, and realize that what they hold may is not the future, but a lesson in how the real world works.
When you close the last chapter of Lords of the Harvest, what comes across most strongly is that like the internet, bioengineering may have untold potential for changing the world... But nobody really knows how to make a profit off of it yet. The changes that bioengineering brings are lamentably small, the opposition huge. And the third-world countries, who need the change the most, can't afford to pay what the biotech is worth.
The end of this book contains the final irony; despite all the protesting in Europe over Frankenfoods, Charles suggests, the matter of bioengineering may not be resolved by politics, but by the simple laws of capitalism. As such, even with the slight bias, this book is well worth your time.