BOOKS & THE CULTURE Food, Inc.: Mendel to MonsantoThe Promises and Perils of the Biotech Harvest By Peter Pringle, Simon & Schuster 256 pages, $24. .vv . hen it comes to food, everyone’s an outspoken expert. Ever since we could afford to be choosy, food has been one of the few things in life that lacks ambiguity and inspires fanatical opinions. Nobody bites into a chunk of bittersweet chocolate \(say, the “Hmm… not too sure about this stuff.” So it comes as little surprise that a foodrelated issueplant biotechnology has generated worldwide political controversy. It’s also little surprise that the forces for and against have made their public cases with all the subtlety of a train wreck. In this debate there’s no middle ground. In Food, Inc., a cool-headed Peter Pringle aims to find one. Our mediadriven 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, food, and patent law in fluid prose. Nevertheless, Pringle ultimately tips his own handalbeit slightlyin 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 wellinformed 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 centper-pound royalty, which went directly into Proctor’s pocket.The Enola bean named after his wifemade Larry a mighty rich bean farmer. There are a couple of obvious direc tions 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 simply crossed a traditional basmati grain from India with a “dwarf” variety engineered during the Green Revolution, 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 terms of the patent. Nonetheless, you can still buy RiceTec’s bastardized grain Too Much To Swallow BY JAMES MCWILLIAMS 24 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 8/29/03
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