Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money, and the Future of Food

Book Reviews | Feb 16th, 2007

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Author: Daniel Charles
Publisher: Perseus Publishing
Pages: 368
Retail Price: 9.99
Buy on Amazon.com link

I found this one of the most gripping books I’ve read in a while; ironic, considering that both agriculture and genomics seem like boring topics. But Daniel Charles, a former science reporter for NPR, tells the background and history of the agricultural biotech industry in such a fascinating and fluid manner that it’s no surprise when he reveals in the epilogue that he considers himself more of a storyteller than reporter.

He means that in the sense of sharing a story – not spinning one. While biotech foods have bred only ardent supporters and passionate protestors, he manages to stay completely center, offering the most realistic and balanced account I have read on this issue.

Charles’ subjects aren’t black-and-white/good-and-evil, and neither is agriculture biotech. At all levels, Charles offers even-handed perspective on the scientists, corporations, investors, farmers, government officials and regulators, consumers, and protestors that are involved in this controversy.

At the center of the story is Monsanto, one of the country’s largest chemical company, whose scientists in the 1980s started turning towards biotech for ideals both utopian and commercial. Excited, scientists at the dawn of biotechnology thought anything was possible. For instance, if a plant’s DNA could be altered so as to kill the insects that feed on it, there would be less need to spray massive amounts of pesticides. Or perhaps a gene could be spliced into a fruit to make its shelf life longer. Or a potato that can be enriched with nutrients to feed developing nations. Or as Calgene had hoped, a perfect tomato that could be grown in the off-season and in chilly climates.

The result would be beneficial to farmers – bigger and better yields; to food retailers who can keep their products on the shelves longer; to consumers who could enjoy their tomato or strawberry year-round; and to the companies and their investors who would be reaping the commercial benefits of the seemingly infinite amount of new technology and markets. And, ideally, the world could benefit with a food supply that is designed to withstand disease, pests, and weather conditions.

Over twenty years have passed since the first successful genetic modification (not counting traditional agricultural practices, like cross-breeding), and utopia has not been realized. Part of it is the science itself, which took years to learn, understand, and test. Part of it is public suspicion at genetically-engineered food and the corporate patenting of the building blocks of life. And part is government bureaucracy. But most of it was caused by Monsanto shooting themselves in the foot with their Microsoft-esque greed – demanding farmers to only use their products, forcing them to not replant their own seeds (and the consideration of using a “Terminator” gene that would sterilize seeds to ensure farmers can’t replant), and finally, attempting to take over and control the seed industry. In effect, what has been considered a gift from nature – seeds – would come under the jurisdiction of one company. Our basic right to create our own food would no longer be free.

Fortunately, that nightmare scenario never happened, but the negative publicity created by these actions have fueled people’s mistrust of corporations tampering with food and the environment, which in turn has slowed down the scientific progress in this field.

But though biotechnology could potentially be the key to ending world hunger, those who hold the patents, money, and know-how aren’t the most philanthropic lot. And there’s always the chance that investor impatience and corporate hubris will more likely unleash Frankenstein’s monster before perfecting that perfect tomato.

Bottom Line: Fascinating look at the future of food.
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