Breaking the Silence

A Review of Against the Grain: Biotechnology and the Corporate Takeover of Your Food
by Marc Lappé, Ph.D. and Britt Bailey

Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press. (, 1998. $14.95 Tradepaper

Reviewed by Joanne Lauck, Book Editor for Loma Prietan, a Sierra Club's Chapter Newsletter, March, 1999

"A hasty genetic transformation of world food resources ignores the wisdom enshrined in aeons 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 foreword by J.B. Neilands, Professor Emeritus at the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at UC, Berkeley

Prior to its publication in 1998, an excerpt from the Against the Grain appeared in Coast magazine. Shortly afterward, the authors Dr. Marc Lappé 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 liable.

Lappé 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, Lappé 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 Lappé 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, Lappé 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, Lappé 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 Ä, 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.

Lappé 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.

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