The Common Good
March-April 2002

Changing the Menu

by Bethany Spicher Schonberg | March-April 2002

My friends and I are young and hip. We buy local, ride bikes, vote for
Nader, and we do not despise conspiracy theory.

My friends and I are young and hip. We buy local, ride bikes, vote for Nader, and we do not despise conspiracy theory. Corporations and Cheez Whiz, suburbs and SUVs, global warming and GMOs (that's genetically modified organisms)—all bad. When our college debts are paid, we'll buy a farm together. Meanwhile, we swap e-mails: "GMOs Taint Tacos!" "Bt Corn Kills Butterflies!" "Monsanto Bankrupts Farmers!"

Monsanto is the St. Louis-based Microsoft of the biotech world, best known for Roundup Ready soybeans, built to withstand a weed-killing dose of the company's most profitable herbicide, and Bt corn, engineered with a gene from Bacillus thuringiensis to poison caterpillars. Depending on your perspective, Monsanto's a start-small, dream-big company that will revolutionize agriculture and end hunger, or a profit-mad corporation out to crush its competitors and wreck the environment. I have friends who say "MonSatan," and it always startles me. Surely, I think, there's more to this story. And so there is—in Daniel Charles' wise and generous new book, Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money, and the Future of Food.

"I am a storyteller by profession and with conviction," writes Charles, science writer for National Public Radio. And it's true: For all its sophisticated science (and Charles doesn't dumb-down), Lords of the Harvest reads like a novel most pages and tells a story stranger than fiction. It all begins early in the 1980s, when industry starts tinkering with genes and government okays the patenting of seeds. Life itself can now be manipulated, bought, and sold—which in fact launches a biotech blowout as big as the dot-com craze to come, and sparks the fiercest opposition to a new technology since nuclear power. Charles' book chronicles Monsanto's charge to the front lines of biotechnology, its duel with arch-rival Pioneer Hi-Bred Seeds, and its PR battles with Greenpeace. Ultimately, however, Lords of the Harvest is less about conflicting institutions than clashing stories.

First story: Human ingenuity will save the world, the potential for technology is boundless and ecstatic, genes are commodities like cars or oil, and patenting seeds is just how you make a buck in biotech. And I almost buy it; Charles' vignettes make the most profit-grubbing scientist wacky and lovable. A researcher in St. Louis opens a letter from a competing lab, swabs it with a Q-tip, and streaks a petri dish, hoping to steal a stray spore of Bt. Some guy in Madison builds a gene gun in his basement with 25,000 volts and a potato chip bag. Scientists on the fourth floor of Monsanto's U Building nickname their lab "U4ia." I catch the spirit: these guys really think their work will feed the hungry and fix the environment, and they're having so much fun.

Second story: Human folly has ruined the earth, the promises of science are ambivalent at best, seeds are free as sunlight and rain, and claiming ownership is hubris. I've always believed this story. Lords of the Harvest, however, doesn't paint environmentalists all green (turns out many of the e-mails my friends forward are almost pure propaganda), but they get high marks for creativity. Protesters meet ships of U.S. soybeans with a flotilla of rubber rafts in the port of Hamburg. Environmentalists paint their bodies with anti-biotech slogans and strip for the cameras at the World Food Summit in Rome. One critic hurls a tofu-cream pie at Monsanto's CEO. And they've got my sympathy: These guys are concerned for the poor, afraid for the natural world; they know big business, and they're fighting for all they're worth.

AND UNDERNEATH everything is the longer, older story of agriculture. The son of a Mennonite farmer, Charles wonders if the modesty and patience required to care for land are lost on scientists and environmentalists alike. He quotes the CEO of a failed biotech startup: "You're producing products outside, for God's sake! The wind blows, the rain falls, the sun shines! It's a crappy business!" Ultimately, Charles advises biotech's proponents to leave the ivory tower and listen to Mexican subsistence farmers who can't afford hybrid corn; he counsels biotech's critics to come off the high horse and chat with Iowa commodity growers who love Roundup-Ready beans. It'll take all of us and lots of time to reframe "crappy business" as noble vocation and to reshape the ag and food industry into a just and sustainable economy.

Meanwhile, says Charles, we've got to hear each other's stories—beginning, perhaps, with the charming tale of Wolfgang Van den Daele, a sociologist who attempts to reconcile Germany's biotech scientists with their harshest critics by inviting both sides to a 10-day retreat in the woods. No one backs down in the end, but they see each other's faces, learn each other's names, and, oh, a water-quality specialist finds himself falling for a corporate exec. (They later marry.) In the end, then, progress and protest are equally human enterprises, marked by greed and pride, yes, but not untouched by love—and nobody, surely, is organized enough for conspiracy. In Lords of the Harvest, Charles hosts a retreat of his own. I'll invite my friends.

Bethany Spicher is editorial assistant at Sojourners and resident authority on all matters agricultural.

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