Book Review

Too Much to Swallow


Food Inc: Mendel to Monsanto-The Promises and Perils of the Biotech Harvest

In Food, Inc., a cool-headed Peter Pringle aims to find one. Our media-driven tendency toward sound-bitten extremes, he argues, has heretofore prevented an impassioned investigation into whether plant biotechnology should rot in the dustbin of history’s bad ideas or help feed the developing world. Through a purportedly objective presentation of the international biotechnology debate, Pringle counters hysterical manipulation with a calm investigation that dutifully explores plant biotechnology from both perspectives. “I am persuaded,” he writes as a testament to his own fairness, “that the biotech harvest has considerable perils… but I can also see it has considerable promise.” In the end, he explains the complexities of biotechnology, agribusiness, genetically modified (GM) food, and patent law in fluid prose. Nevertheless, Pringle ultimately tips his own hand—albeit slightly—in favor of what his own evidence shows to be a potentially devastating way to produce food. Despite promises to the contrary, he has chosen sides. He likes the idea of biotechnology, or is at least tempted by its charms. Problem is, the veil of objectivity keeps him from saying precisely why. And it’s a troubling omission given that Pringle has written a well-informed book thoroughly exposing biotech’s flaws.

So, in an attempt to remain loyal to the middle ground, an annoying coyness rather than a sustained argument weakens his informative book. A later chapter on “plant hunting” exemplifies the tenor of his waffling rhetorical strategy. He recounts how a Colorado bean merchant named Larry Proctor brought yellow beans from a Sonora, Mexico farm stand to the United States, where he planted them and allowed them to self-pollinate until they eventually yielded beans that were a new shade of yellow. Based on nothing more than the unique color, Proctor applied for and received both a patent and a U.S. Plant Variety Protection Certificate, thereby securing what amounted to a legal monopoly over yellow beans sold in the United States. Under the terms of the patent, he could, according to Pringle, “sue anyone in the United States who sold or grew a bean that he considered to be his particular shade of yellow.” Yellow beans imported from Mexico, moreover, were slapped with a six cent-per-pound royalty, which went directly into Proctor’s pocket. The Enola bean—named after his wife—made Larry a mighty rich bean farmer.

There are a couple of obvious directions to go with this story, and Pringle follows the leads to their conclusions. First, there’s the no-brainer interpretation that Proctor’s bean heist was patently unfair. The Mexicans were steamed. Developing countries were unnerved. Small American growers gave up and sold their land to agribusiness. Proctor had committed a legally sanctioned but brash act of “biopiracy,” one that denied peasant farmers profits from a crop they’d nurtured as long as anyone could remember. “How could he invent something that Mexicans have been growing for centuries?” asked a Sonora producer. Scientists had their own questions. A bean breeder at Michigan State University noted that Proctor did nothing more than “plant a mixture of beans that were different in size, shape, and color.” This kind of self-propagation of a seed type, he insisted, did not “imply novelty or invention.” Indeed, he was truly befuddled, insisting that “to patent a color is absolute heresy.”

Perhaps the only justification was the long precedent behind this manner of doing business. Maybe it goes without saying, but this murky business was the just the kind of semi-corrupt prospecting adventure that Texas couldn’t avoid jumping into. In the late 1990s RiceTec, Inc. of Alvin received patent number 5,663,484 for a new variety of basmati rice, which it described as “similar or superior to” Asian basmati (affectionately known by connoisseurs as Asia’s “scented pearl”). RiceTec’s engineers simply crossed a traditional basmati grain from India with a “dwarf” variety engineered during the Green Revo-lution, called it “new and improved,” and sought a patent. “Biopiracy!” screamed India’s government, and sued, noting that American companies had already abused patents to strip India of its right to the spice turmeric and the medicinal benefits of the neem tree. The Indian government’s suit against RiceTec (who, please note, prefer the term “bioprospecting”) weakened the terms of the patent. Nonetheless, you can still buy RiceTec’s bastardized grain at your local supermarket. It comes in a useful little plastic box and is called “Texmati.” (Don’t buy it. Phoenicia Bakery in Austin sells 15-pound burlap sacks of the real basmati rice.)

The outcry against plant patents was not ignored by the international community. As Indian activist Vandana Shiva puts it, “if biopiracy is not stopped… our indigenous knowledge and resources will be used to make patented commodities for global trade.” So that’s the most obvious reaction to the purloined beans. Biopiracy. And it’s one we’re pretty familiar with, because this alleged floral imperialism has been the driving force behind the often violent WTO/Worldbank/IMF protests over the past eight years. But there’s another side to the story. As Pringle reminds us, eight million people in developing countries are living “at near-starvation level.” Africa suffers the most. Political instability, civil wars, inadequate roads, dwindling arable land, and a per-unit crop production that’s the world’s lowest make Africa, according to Pringle, “fertile ground for the heated debate about whether transgenic crops could bring the continent relief from hunger.” Seed companies, for their part, could help, but they are reluctant to enter markets that don’t adequately protect their property rights to the seeds and plants they legally own. The Organization of African Unity hasn’t helped that cause. It drafted a proposal that does not recognize patents based on life forms and biological processes. According to some, this decision on the part of African leaders misses a rare chance to incorporate high-yielding crops into the fields surrounding a starving population. Florence Wambugu, a highly respected Kenyan biologist, argues that while transgenics alone won’t solve all the problems, “it will lead to millions more tons of grain.” In Africa, she says, “GM food could literally weed out poverty.”

Pringle’s passive advocacy of agribusiness, its desire for voracious patents and international property rights, and its often bizarre transgenic creations is further evident in his not altogether unfair critique of the opposition’s rhetoric. He slaps the “green activists” on the wrist for their “propaganda war” waged against golden rice. “Frankenfood!” Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth charged in response to “the ungodly act of transferring genes across species.” The quotation is Pringle’s, and it’s sarcastic. But while many of his points are valid, his sarcasm seems misplaced, given that 50 pages later we learn about the creepy “35S promoter,” a gene delivery “cassette” used by scientists to ferry genes into the DNA of a new species. Once it does its job, however, 35S has a tendency “jump” to other DNA sequences within the host. Where it will jump, where it will land, and, most importantly, what it will do there is anyone’s guess. Sounds pretty Frankenfoodish to me. Why such an unpredictable process—one that might trigger the production of unwanted genes—does not deserve a propaganda war remains unclear.

Instead, Pringle—perhaps overly inspired by Beyer and Potrykus—decides to trust the producer’s intentions. He ends his yellow bean chapter with a suggestive non-sequitur about an Ethiopian grain called tef. An American biologist named Wayne Carlson brought tef to the United States after working for the Ethiopian government in the 1970s. He currently grows it in Idaho and Oregon to sell to the Ethiopian community in America. Many predict that tef will one day take off due to its effectiveness as a wheat flour substitute for those who are allergic to wheat. And if it does? “Carlson,” Pringle writes, “says he has no plans to use his tef plant certificate to challenge the Ethiopians if there should suddenly be an international tef fad.” The implication is a long shot, but it’s evident what Pringle is trying to say: The potential is there for biotechnology, plant hunting, genetic modification, and agribusiness—all this stuff that we’ve always distrusted—to serve both humanitarian and profit-making interests.

Nice idea but, for now at least, it’s just too much to swallow.

James McWilliams is busy trying to think of a title for his book about early American food.