Baron Harvest, a novel by Peter Lind

JD Publishing, Kezier, Oregon, 2004, ISBN 0-9760617-0-8

Reviewed by David Heaf

The author is a doctor of chiropractic in Oregon, USA. His interest in health issues led him to investigate genetic engineering, the 'tip of a tremendously dangerous iceberg'.

Imagine combining a polemic like Moyra Bremner's Genetic Engineering and You, only turned into a novel of the Brave New World genre, with a James Bond book on international crime and espionage and you get an idea of Lind's book – a ripping yarn.

The hero, Elliott Chapman, is doing a graduation project but once too often manages to annoy his supervisor, a soul already sold to corporate biotech. Threatened with expulsion, the student does a deal with the college that takes him with his genetics expertise to the HQ and Mexican field station of Magalto (alias Monsanto?) to sort out a technical problem for the company. Improbability piles on improbability as Elliott is entangled ever deeper in the power-politics of the Latin American drug scene and of a transnational corporation intent on domination of the world food supply chain.

Lind weaves into his story lots of pros and cons of GM crops – mostly the cons – and addresses corporate control of the seed supply, of government and even of the World Trade Organisation.

As in the case of Brave New World, the polemical aspect prevents the book from being a true novel. But as the USA public are still largely unaware of genetic engineering this book could nevertheless prove to be a useful tool for drawing their attention to the issues.

It was a pleasant surprise to find in the plot two topics which are less commonplace amongst the large number of books on genetic engineering, fiction or non-fiction. One is that ethics per se is addressed. In one of the dialogues between tutor and student (p. 84) the author appears to argue that ethics is normative and morals are personal principles. But any hint at the higher status of morals in ethical individualism is unfortunately cancelled by making them into principles. The other topic is to do with the genes versus context controversy. J. Cairns' work is mentioned which shows that as well as random mutations the genome is capable of adaptive mutations in response to environmental stress. It suggests that the organism controls its genome, rather than the other way round. This topic is briefly reviewed by Craig Holdredge in the most recent issue of In Context (Newsletter of The Nature Institute; Sadly, Lind cancels this interesting contribution out by making Elliott say 'DNA, the essence of life…the basic blueprint of life'. Even biotechnologists don't subscribe to this erroneous view of DNA, but it will probably take a few generations to eradicate the view from the public consciousness.

There are two important things which mar the book. One is the high number of mistakes in the text. The most glaring mistake is that the publisher has half undone the pun in the book's title by putting 'Barron' instead of 'Baron' in the page headers. There were several howlers such as 'under the allusion' (p.41); 'rocked on his heals' (p.57), and, for the specialist, 'colour chromatography' (p.199). The latter brings me to the other problem. The dialogues involving science were very often unconvincing. This does not detract from the plot, at least not for the lay reader. Any science mumbo jumbo in these passages would probably suffice. But sentences such as 'The plants were crossing genetic lines and producing phylogenies that were completely foreign' and 'So now the farmers have to buy their own seed that they used to germinate themselves' (both p.179) could seem somewhat sloppy even to the lay reader. What does the author mean here?

Despite the shortcomings I found the book sufficiently entertaining to read it to the end, and it is certainly full of humour, for instance where the hero takes over the kitchen of a restaurant and does a DNA extraction from liver using the ordinary chemicals and equipment that happen to be to hand. I understand from the author that he is hoping for a reissue only this time with a higher profile publisher. If it happens, my recommendation is first to enlist the services of a biotechnologist to get the science passages right and then those of a proof reader to sort out things like 'this data' (p.179).

March 2005