GENTECH archive


book review

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Sat, 20 Feb 1999 06:50:47 -0800 (PST)
From: MichaelP <papadop@PEAK.ORG>
To: unlikely suspects:  ;

Review of AGAINST THE GRAIN  The reviewer is Joanne Lauck, author of
The Voice of the Infinite in the Small: Revisioning the Insect-Human


PULL OUT QUOTE:  "A hasty genetic transformation of world food resources
ignores the wisdom enshrined in eons of original evolution. Against the
Grain gives abundant reasons for health, environmental and ethical
concerns, and predicts that the world may be facing a disaster of epic
dimension."  From the foreward by J.B. Neilands, Professor Emeritus at the
Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at UC, Berkeley

AGAINST THE GRAIN: Biotechnology and the Corporate Takeover of Your Food
Marc Lappe, Ph.D. and Britt Bailey, Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press
(, 1998. $14.95 Tradepaper.

Prior to its publication in 1998, an excerpt  from the AGAINST THE GRAIN
appeared in Coast magazine. Shortly afterward, the authors Dr. Marc Lappe
and Britt Bailey received a threatening letter from Monsanto Corporation,
a St. Louis, Missouri-based company that has dominated the emerging
agriculture/biotechnology (agbiotech) market. Taking an aggressive stance,
Monsanto informed them that if they published AGAINST THE GRAIN - a book
that questions the motives and safety of applying high levels of
herbicides to our crop plants and the wisdom of planting wide scale
genetically engineered products without long term testing for safety -
they may be sued for libel.

Lappe and Bailey sent the letter to their publisher Vital Health with the
assurance that if it should come to a lawsuit, every statement in their
book was well documented. Vital Health Publishing, perhaps fearing the
considerable political and economic clout of Monsanto, dropped the book
anyway. Undaunted, Lappe and Bailey persevered eventually sending the
manuscript to a small New England press rightly called Common Courage
Press which decided to publish it. 

Much of the content of AGAINST THE GRAIN revolves around this question:
"Do genetically engineered food crops really offer the "risk-free"
breadbasket for the world promised by biotechnology companies like
Monsanto, or are there serious risks to human health and the ecosphere
hidden in this silent revolution?"

Author Marc Lappe who holds a doctorate in Experimental Pathology from the
University of Pennsylvania and is the director of The Center for Ethics
and Toxics (CETOS) in Gualala, California and co-author Brett Bailey, a
CETOS research associate who holds a Masters Degree in Environmental
Policy tackle this question and others in their meticulously researched
book. Their position is simply stated: "We are skeptical about
pronouncements from government officials and optimistic commodity experts
that tout genetically modified crops as a panacea for the world's food
shortage and a solution to over reliance on pesticides. We see transgenic
crops more as an extension of corporate dominance, one centered on
short-term gains for shareholders."

I found AGAINST THE GRAIN to be solid investigative reporting. It's an
impassioned yet thoughtful and methodical look at the technology that
allows us to insert foreign genes into our food plants and the practical
and ethical issues that surround a practice already implemented on a wide
scale -  despite little public input.

Well versed in plant science, genetics, and ethics, Lappe and Bailey
expose how companies like Monsanto, DuPont, Rhone-Poulenc and Dow Chemical
have been "feathering their own nests, introducing genes more to promote
pesticides and build monopolies than to feed the world." The quest for
corporate profits has overridden concerns about public health, freedom of
choice and ecological stability.

Chapter by chapter the authors cut through biotechnology's propaganda to
the science and politics behind "transgenic" food revealing how biotech
companies are less concerned with how transgenic food impacts human health
and more concerned with engineering crop plants to be compatible with
their chemicals. Showcasing transgenic crops as the solution for the world
food shortage, for example, biotechnology companies vigorously promote the
technology that they claim will end world hunger. Yet the African
delegation to the United Nations say these companies have exploited the
image of the poor and hungry "to push a technology that is neither safe,
environmentally friendly nor economically beneficial to us."

Although higher yields are central to the well advertised promise that
genetically engineered crops will solve world hunger, Lappe and Bailey
point out that to date biotechnology has been applied primarily to make
agricultural products more "consumer friendly." Few manipulations have
genuinely increased productivity and some have even lowered it.

"Instead of blocks of genes that will increase yield or improve efficiency
as did judicious breeding , geneticists usually inject only one [gene]
that confers an aesthetic change or makes the plant tolerant to a
proprietary chemical. Any increase in yield or nutritional value is
usually incidental to a more readily achieved economic advantage."

An integral part of the agbiotech propaganda blitz is the discounting as
irrational or exaggerated of any concerns about safety or health.  And
while the authors agree that most transgenic crops are genetically
identical to their progenitors in all but a handful of their tens of
thousands of genes, those arbitrarily chosen foreign genes inserted
abruptly have the potential to cause a health hazard of unknown
proportions. What's more, few studies have been performed on the
ecological impacts of long-term reliance on transgenic cropping methods
which include saturating our growing fields with particular herbicides and
creating insects resistant to naturally occurring toxins.

The book starts with the basic mechanics of manipulating DNA in language
that that even a non technical person like myself can understand. A
popular approach to inserting a gene into a plant is to literally shoot
micro-particles of DNA-coated gold, tungsten or other inert materials
directly into its cells. The foreign DNA gives the plant recipient certain
characteristics - traits arbitrarily chosen for short-range economic goals
and clearly not based on long-term objectives or public benefits. The
downside of this scattershot approach is that no one knows where the new
DNA has been spliced into the plant's own array of genes. Of the plants
that survive the technique, each will have this new DNA in a different
region of their genome and varying degrees of stability. And although it
is technologically possible to track where the new DNA has been
integrated, the biotechnology companies haven't found it economically
worthwhile to do so - even after the recent failure of two wide scale
plantings of genetically engineered crops for unknown reasons.

Lappe and Bailey use two herbicides (Roundup. a glyphosate herbicide made
by Monsanto and bromoxynil made by Rhone-Poulenc) and one natural toxin
(Bacillus thuringiensis or Bt which has been inserted into plants to make
each cell of the plant toxic to insects) - as examples to highlight the
issues and ethics surrounding the genetic manipulation of our crop plants. 

Other issues addressed include the resistance to labeling these crops, the
continued dangers of using pesticides and losing seed biodiversity, and
the ongoing sidestepping of regulatory reviews and public feedback. They
also provide recommendations that include insisting on a review of the
regulation, testing and inspection of all engineered crops and the
establishment of an Agricultural Biotechnology Commission to examine
ecological health and safety consequences.

It is an understatement to say that this is an important, albeit little
publicized, book. It breaks the veil of silence that has hidden from the
average consumer the massive changes being made to the world's diet and
lulled us into a dangerous complacency. It has also revealed the
possibility that engineered plants and microbes will disrupt local
ecologies, continue to undermine traditional farming practices and impact
our health negatively. In the opinion of the authors, "the burgeoning use
of transgenic food crops constitute a nonconsensual experiment on a mass
scale." As the public whose lives this technology will impact, we need to
find our voices. Then we might - as the authors suggest - hold these
multinational giants accountable for creating innovations that really do
improve health, protect biodiversity, and foster sustainable life
enhancing agricultural practices.

Reviewed by Joanne Lauck, Book Editor for Loma Prietan, a Sierra Club's
chapter newletter, March, 1999.

** NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material
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