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Food, Inc. by Peter Pringle (Simon & Schuster, 356 pages, $25) How many lobbyists does it take to grow a tomato? How many intellectual property disputes lurk in a bowl of rice? And if you make a steaming beverage out of caffeinated, coffee-flavored soybeans grown on a farm in Minnesota, is it coffee? In Food, Inc.: From Mendel to Monsanto — The Promises and Perils of the Biotech Harvest, Peter Pringle purposely raises more questions than he answers. A journalist who has written books on Northern Ireland’s troubles and the tobacco litigation of the 1990s, Pringle now takes on an equally light and simple topic: the systematic rearrangement of genetic material in the plants we grow for food. Biotechnology is not new. The most dramatic form of plant biotechnology, genetic engineering, originated with Gregor Mendel — the 19th century monk who first recorded, in his vegetable garden, the inheritance of traits as a function of selective breeding. The “Green Revolution” of the 1950s, the systematic modernization of agriculture in the developing world, was a matter of biotechnology; so was the introduction of strong pesticides. In Pringle’s effort to present a thorough and balanced introduction to biotech issues grounded in history, Rachel Carson shows up on Page 14. Though the story of biotech is as much a story of resistance as of science, Pringle does not share critics’ presumption that all new technology is guilty until proven innocent. Rather, he says up front, “[T]here is nothing inherently unsafe about genetically modified foods. However, there are possible hazards. Most scientists admit that transferring genes between species is an unpredictable operation” that can lead to new food allergies, new blights, and “new strains of plagues and pests.” He echoes an analogy to nuclear power: The new technology is safe and efficient when all goes well, but potentially catastrophic in the event of a serious accident. Indeed, Pringle could have written a book about environmentalist critiques of biotechnology, or one about consumer demands for informative labeling, or producers’ promises to eradicate malnutrition, or the bitter international politics of seed rights, or genetic engineering as a specialty of patent law, or the use of staple crops as a vector for the mass production of pharmaceuticals. He offers, instead, a solid overview of each of these facets of an accelerating and controversial field of endeavor — in a narrative format using case studies, some still unfolding. Even the intellectual property aspects of biotech are not as simple as inventions and infringement. Yes, novel gene sequences can be patented, even if they constitute an artificial organism. But the greater controversy — to which the typical American consumer is largely oblivious, but which preoccupies much of the developing world — is the practice of making patent claims on gene sequences that mimic those found in nature or in traditional agriculture with seed stocks older than recorded history. Practitioners call it “bioprospecting”; critics call it “biopiracy,” and many are farmers who are going about the business practiced by their ancestors for many generations, and who wake up one morning to a cease-and-desist letter from a U.S. corporation claiming patent rights to their seed. One small farmer in Saskatchewan, Percy Schmeiser, got word in 1998 that private investigators working for Monsanto had analyzed his crop of oilseeds and found that he was growing the company’s proprietary strain of seed (Roundup Ready) designed to withstand its proprietary weed killer (Roundup). Monsanto was counting on seed royalties to recoup a quarter-billion-dollar investment in research, and few small farmers, whether they had planted patented seeds knowingly or not, stood up to the legal apparatus of the agribusiness giant. Schmeiser did: He countersued Monsanto for $4.2 million arguing that the patented seeds were invading and contaminating his crops, arising to defamation as well as trespassing. Canadian courts had to weigh the natural processes of pollen, wind, and bees, and concluded that the farmer knew or should have known what he was planting. Schmeiser had become an international celebrity by then, at least among farmers, and the Indian government gave him its Mahatma Gandhi Award. The Schmeiser case is striking, but not unusual. Prized regional varieties of rice — the fragrant basmati rice of Punjab and jasmine rice of Thailand — could, by the late 1990s, be grown in the United States with some genetic tinkering. And the eye alone cannot determine whether the domestic and imported varieties are fungible goods; the patents for the U.S. varieties rest on minuscule differences in starch content. The U.S. Patent Office has retreated from several patents improperly granted despite evidence of “prior art” in other countries, such as a 1995 patent awarded for turmeric; in 2001, the agency also sustained a patent challenge by the Indian government, ruling that the basmati rice grown in Texas is “substantially identical” to the Punjabi product. These examples, Pringle says, “fueled a bitter debate over the way patent laws allow companies to assume ownership of the knowledge of indigenous people from developing nations.” This is not a rarefied debate confined to the armchairs of global McLaughlin Groups — in 2001, farmers in Bangkok burned an effigy of President George W. Bush to protest efforts to grow jasmine rice in Florida. Even unequivocally novel rice can cause trouble. German geneticists Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer, in 2000, announced that they had created a strain of rice that could prevent blindness — an effect of childhood malnutrition, with 50,000 children losing their eyesight each year. Potrykus and Beyer had taken two genes from a daffodil and one from a bacterium, inserted them into a common variety of rice, and presto: “golden rice” high in beta carotene. Who could object? Pringle summarizes the opposition: “If golden rice were ever to be an effective weapon against malnutrition, it would have to be grown on millions of acres. Such monocultures . . . encouraged crop failure, destroyed traditional varieties, favored the rich at the expense of poor farmers, and put the production of the world’s food supply into the hands of a few.” Moreover, it wouldn’t even work — to convert the beta carotene to a useful daily dose of Vitamin A, you’d have to eat 20 pounds of rice a day and more fat than a malnourished person is likely to find. Ironically, Potrykus and Beyer were impeded as much by the most devout champions of biotech as by its critics. Their research, whose humanitarian motives seem sincere in the evidence presented by Pringle, necessarily involved the use of various genetic accessories — “marker” and “promoter” genes — already patented by companies or universities. Some patent owners, including Monsanto, were happy to grant licenses for the purpose of humanitarian research, but it only takes one owner that isn’t. By the time the two scientists gave up on the golden rice project, “the extorardinary intrusiveness of plant patents as they affect new biotech crops,” Pringle writes, “had been fully exposed.” It’s not clear why Pringle focuses on genetic modification of plants, an arbitrary subset of food agriculture. Probably the most conspicuous debate about genetic engineering in U.S. history was the introduction, in the mid-1990s, of dairy products from cows treated with Monsanto’s recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), a synthetic gene sequence designed to stimulate milk production. Consumer groups were wary of milk from modified cows and demanded labeling standards that were tantamount to a boycott. Grocers were forced to side with consumers against dairy conglomerates, and products made with rBGH were largely withdrawn from the market and sold only to institutional consumers. Pringle, however, does present other cases that illustrate the same role played by the public relations industry as in the rBGH debate. In 1996, U.S. farmers began planting corn laced with a gene from the Bacillus thuringiensis bacterium, or Bt, that serves as an embedded pesticide — the corn is toxic to caterpillars that ravage corn crops. Yet the corn pollen can be blown onto wild milkweed plants favored by the larvae of the monarch butterfly. Consumers and environmentalists were outraged; in fact, Pringle notes, this is why protesters dressed as monarch butterflies at the WTO meetings in Seattle in 1999. But PR offices of Novartis and other biotech firms offered only feeble shots in the dark: “Industry propagandists suggested unwisely,” Pringle writes, “that more monarchs were killed each year by collisions with car windscreens than could possibly be affected by corn pollen. The fact is, the biotech industry had no evidence for this assertion; research on the issue had not been done.” Implicit is the premise that biotech firms could have fashioned solid arguments, could have made their case to the consuming public, could have marketed their innovations on their merits — at least in some cases — and have nothing to gain economically by belittling public concerns. Recent changes in leadership at some major biotech firms seem to reflect this, and Pringle and others will be watching. In an age when vegetables can be designed to kill insects, cure headaches, or fit neatly into a shipping crate, it still doesn’t take any lobbyists to grow a tomato — but it may well take armies of lobbyists to identify one. Mike Livingston is a free-lance writer based in Takoma Park, Md. He is the lead author of The Newcomer’s Handbook for Washington, D.C., 3rd edition, published by First Books in 2002; his next book, The Newcomer’s Handbook for the USA, is due later this year from First Books.

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