Originally published in The MOF&G, September, 1999
Against the Grain--Biotechnology and the Corporate Takeover of Your Food
Marc Lappe, Ph.D., and Britt Bailey, 1998
Common Courage Press, P.O. Box 702, Monroe, ME 04951
$14.95; 164 pgs., paperback
Genetic engineering, say Lappe and Bailey, "is not so much a technological marvel as it is opportunistic. New genes are piggybacked onto existing genomes--the full genetic makeup of an organism--by brute force. The few plants in which such genes ‘take’ are the ones chosen for propagation." This piggybacking is accomplished either by using bacteria or viruses to insert the novel gene, or, "More recently, genetic engineers have used a literal ‘shotgun’ approach, firing microbullets coated with DNA into plant target cells."
Brute force, a shotgun approach...the so-called science of genetic engineering has taken the agricultural scene by storm, and Lappe and Bailey review how this was done (with essentially no regulatory oversight) and why (to profit corporations). They explain that farmers did not ask for this technology, and consumers have not expressed any desire to eat these ‘frankenfoods,’ yet the products have been forced upon us--with some frightening and some unknown effects.
The authors question proponents’ arguments that genetic engineering will feed the world, given that yields of engineered crops so far have not been stellar; that genetic engineering will reduce pesticide use, given that most such crops have been designed to be used with larger amounts of herbicides and/or to express insecticidal toxins at very high concentrations in all parts of the plants. One of those herbicides is bromoxynil, a teratogen (a substance that can cause birth defects and other reproductive harm) and carcinogen (a substance that can cause cancer) that is used on cotton. "Few public health officials would have recommended full-scale development of this toxic herbicide in transgenic crops like cotton," according to Against the Grain, and, even more alarming, the novel toxic metabolite of bromoxynil, DBHA, which is found in cotton engineered for bromoxynil resistance, has never been tested for toxicity. What’s the problem, if no one eats cotton? Consider the byproducts of the fiber crop: cottonseed meal, which is fed to animals, and cottonseed oil, which is a common ingredient in processed foods.
How did these engineered corn, cotton, soy, canola and other crops become such a large part of the agricultural landscape in North America? The authors talk about the power of corporations, conflict of interest within the government, lack of regulatory oversight, and muddled responsibilities within the EPA versus the FDA. They compare reactions to these genetic experiments in North America versus in Europe, where much more caution has been exercised and many more restrictions and bans have been implemented.
This book is a good resource regarding the problems of engineering crops to resist herbicides and insects; problems regarding regulation of engineered crops; ethical issues and long-term consequences relating to biotechnology; and more. The problem with writing such a book now is that this field is changing almost daily, with new crops being introduced while at the same time new research is highlighting the dangers associated with these crops. Thus, the book is already out-of-date regarding such topics as refuges (areas of nonengineered crops set aside to slow the development of resistance on the part of pests that the engineered crops target) and the effects of market forces on the amount of land planted to engineered crops.
Against the Grain is not always easy to read; I thought that it could have been better organized, less repititious, and more clearly written in places. However, it is an important book for anyone who is following this field and wants grounding in its background and thoughts on its implications regarding ethics, health, economics and the environment.
by Shepherd Ogden, 1999
Chelsea Green Publishing Co., White River Junction, Vermont
$24.95, 266 pgs., paperback
This is a superb book for the beginning gardener; for the gardener who uses pesticides and synthetic chemical fertilizers and wants to get off the chemical treadmill; even for experienced gardeners who want an up-to-date review of the issues and practices involved in organic growing.
Although arguments in favor of organic gardening are presented throughout the book, they are addressed specifically in the first chapter. Ogden says, for example, "The distinction between cultivation and control structures our whole approach to gardening." He eschews the outdated idea of dominating nature. He talks about the semantics of the word ‘organic’ and efforts of the USDA to contaminate the term. He talks about the hazards of pesticides and about cancer rates among farmers.
The rest of the book tells how to avoid these hazards, beginning with garden design, then moving on to tools and equipment (including a section on "Why I Hate Rototillers), caring for the soil, planning the garden, seeds and seedlings, planting and cultivation. Throughout these chapters, issues arise and Ogden addresses them. One sidebar discusses the history of the fungicide Captan, for instance. Another discusses genetic engineering; Ogden points out that scientists and engineers working in this field "have both abdicated responsibility" for the harmful social, economic and environmental effects of genetically engineered crops "and left decisions about which technologies we should embrace to the politicians and the economists." His sidebar about pressure-treated wood ends with a great insight: "The great inner truth of organic gardening generally is that all the costs are up front, with no surprises coming along later on when untested technologies are found to have caused extensive problems."
The final chapter--nearly 100 pages long--profiles different vegetables. This last part is bound to be of most interest to experienced gardeners. Did you know, for instance, that when you harvest basil, if you cut just above a pair of leaves, the plant will branch at that point and produce another harvest two or three weeks later? (This is from a short section on herbs.) Have you ever grown a white beet? Do you know how Mostoller’s Wild Goose pole bean got its name? (Look for that fascinating story on page 174.) Ogden’s vast knowledge of vegetable varieties--he and his wife own Cook’s Garden in Londonderry, Vermont--makes this chapter invaluable, and he has many cultural techniques to impart as well.
This book is not just full of facts, it’s full of personality, and it’s a personality you like more an more as you read the book. Ogden talks repeatedly about how his grandfather, "Big Sam" Ogden, gardened, about which techniques Shepherd picked up from his grandfather, and which he changed. He talks about how his wife, Ellen, freezes leeks. He expresses his thoughts and feelings passionately and logically. This is a writer worth reading. --JE