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Susan peterson Gateley
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Ellen meiksins Wood
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New Society Publishers, 240 pp.
Review by Barbara Beebe
If one were to depend solely on the mainstream media for information regarding genetically modified organisms (GMOs), one would come away with the impression that (1) Americans really dont mind the stuff, (2) its really those pesky Europeans who are making all the fuss, and (3) the FDA would never permit GMOs to be in the food supply unless they were safe. By presenting GMOs in this light, information contrary to the mainstream impression is often difficult to come by, obscure, or so filled with scientific jargon as to be useless to the average person. Farmageddon: Food and the Culture of Biotechnology presents a critical view of GMOs for scientists and lay persons alike.
Kneen, a Canadian food system analyst and publisher of the Rams Horn, has written a compelling book, part testimonial, part research. Interestingly, it is Kneens testimonial of artificially inseminating his milk cows (and relating AI to sciences current love affair with the gene) which strengthens his research. Like Michael Pollans cover story for the New York Times Magazine (Playing God in the Garden) in which he grows Monsantos New Leaf Russet Burbank potatoes while researching GMOs, or the farmers who are suing Monsanto over their Bt crops, it is the personal Ive-had-experience-with-that dimension which assists any food-oriented cause and compels the reader to take heed.
Kneen should be commended for tackling such a multifaceted dilemma. In Farmageddon, he attempts not only to explain how we came to create genetically modified organismsalong the way commenting on its failing predecessor, the Flavr Savr tomatohe also documents the moves of some of biotechnologies biggest players, namely Monsanto and Ag-West. Kneen explores the numerous governmental bodies which have different roles in the regulation of GMOs, an explanation which illustrates the massive web of conflict and distortion at the heart of the GMO controversy. Kneens knowledge of the regulators and their purpose, along with his critical ideology which questions GMOs from numerous angles, makes Farmageddon a perfect primer for proponents and opponents of GMOs.
Kneens at his best when he deconstructs the language of the biotechnology industry: The suggestion that biotechnology is really about administering death may sound harsh, but consider the GE crops that have been developed by the life sciences industry: Canola, soybeans, corn, and cotton have all been genetically altered (immunized, so to speak) so that they are able to withstand lethal doses of particular agrotoxins (herbicides) aimed at anything else green that grows in their midst. The result is that the life of the designated crop is protected by its genetic transformation while the chemicals do their killing job on everything else.
Harsh? Yes. True? Yes. For example, Monsantos Round-Up Ready soybeans are genetically altered to withstand Monsantos highly effective and poisonous herbicide Round-up. Any of their soybeans sprayed with the herbicide will live while every bug, weed, or plant in the vicinity will die. Now, thats life science.
However, Farmageddons impressive strengths do not quite conceal its glaring weaknesses. First, Kneenwithout any due explanationrelegates the science of biotechnology and the procedures for developing genetically modified foods to the appendix section of the book. This indeed is the books great error, for scientists and biotech corporations have used the lay persons lack of basic scientific knowledge as a justifiable reason to ignore and avoid any public discussion of this new and experimental procedure. How GMOs are created could be a book itself. A chapter would be sufficient; but Kneens bookend treatment is an insult to the food and the science.
Additionally, and surely without justification, Kneen does not have one quote from his esteemed fellow Canadian, Dr. David Suzuki. Besides being the host of the science program, The Nature of Things, Suzuki is the author of Introduction to Genetic Analysis and Genethics, two texts any aspiring Monsanto geneticist must read. Moreover, he marshals powerful arguments against GMOs that few geneticists would be willing to contest. Lastly, Kneen misses out on opportunities to fully exploit his own book title. For example, Kneen states at the end of a paragraph in Chapter 7 that the use of antibiotics as marker genes on GE foods is an added and unnecessary burden, not only in regard to antibiotic resistance itself, but also because of their effect as promoters of genetic instability and increased gene flow; the random movement of genes to other organisms. The statement, espoused by many critics of GM foods, requires explanation, quotes, charts, graphs, photos, etc. This should be the idea behind the title Farmageddon, the possibility of human-made genes flowing outside human control. Surely this creative title merits one chapter on just what horrors we may be bringing upon ourselves. Maybe in all those experiments Monsanto claims to have conducted, there is some mutant potato or soybean distorted enough to scare even a rock-bottom eater. Farmageddon should have shown the reader that.
These weaknesses could be the result of rushed publishing or they could be examples of incomplete research. However, they need not be excuses for ignoring Kneens work. Few critics of GMOs have attempted to explain their position as fully as Kneen. GMOs are a recent, ill-understood phenomena which have rapidly spread throughout agriculture in Canada and the United States. While some may view Kneens title as alarmist, sometimes present exaggeration is necessary to avoid future catastrophe.
Barbara Beebe is a freelance writer and library serials coordinator in Fayetteville, NC.