Against the Grain: Biotechnology and the Corporate Takeover of Your Food - Marc Lappé & Britt Bailey (Common Courage Press, 1998)

Against the Grain is the ideal companion to Mae-Wan Ho's Genetic Engineering. Whereas Genetic Engineering concentrates on the science with little on the politics and the regulatory process, Against the Grain concentrates on Big Business, the social, political impact almost to the exclusion of the science and the implied dangers from the reliance upon flawed science.

The focus is on large corporations, in particular Monsanto, and their attempts to control agriculture and the food chain. In the introduction the authors show several maps of the world, large areas are blacked out to illustrate Monsanto's global dominance in various genetically modified crops. By the year 2000, Monsanto expect to have 100% of the US soya crop with their Roundup Ready (ie tolerant of the Monsanto herbicide Roundup) soya. Though recent developments where farmers growing non-GM crops are getting a better price and those growing GM crops are experiencing numerous problems may help to dent these projections and hopefully reverse them.

Farmers will become little more than indentured labourers as the sample contract illustrates:

The grower agrees not to supply any of his seed to anyone for planting and agrees not to save any crop produced from this seed for replanting or supply saved seed to anyone for replanting. The grower agrees not to use this seed or to provide it to anyone for crop breeding, research or seed production. If a herbicide containing the same active ingredient as Roundup Ultra herbicide (or one with a similar mode of action) is used over the top of Roundup Ready soybeans, the Grower agrees to use only the Roundup branded herbicide.

It is an inalienable right of farmers to save and reuse their seed!

The more acreage planted with Roundup Ready varieties, the more herbicide will be used, the greater will be the problem of spray drift and consequential damage to neighbouring farms. Thus the greater pressure on these neighbouring farms to switch to Roundup Ready varieties to protect their own livelihood.

As the authors note, this revolution in agriculture and the forcing of unwanted adulterated foods down people's throats has gone virtually unreported in the US.

In the United States few people know much about the dramatic events that undergird this transformation of American agriculture. Descriptions of this revolutionary technology in popular publications like Time, Newsweek or USA Today are a rarity. Such media avoidance of crop genetic engineering would be understandable if we were discussing corn or soybean futures on the commodity market or the price of a bushel of wheat. But what we are discussing here promises to affect all of our lives. If Monsanto and other primary actors like Dow Chemical, Novartis, and Dupont have their way, within the next four to five years, essentially all the conventionally grown soy products we consume will be derived from genetically engineered crops. Lest you think you can avoid this growing reality, consider that virtually all candy, chocolate bars, ice cream, cookies and salad dressings contain products derived from genetically engineered plants. So too will most of our meat, at least indirectly, as genetically engineered crops like soybeans enter livestock diets in increasing proportions.

The authors have little information on the science which tends to under play the dangers, and can give the reader a false sense of security. The book would benefit by a chapter or appendix summarising the dangers.

The efforts by a few corporations, in particular an aggressive corporation like Monsanto, to control the world's agriculture is though sufficient danger in itself to warrant a moratorium on genetic engineering.

The use of transgenic crops on the massive scale now contemplated is above all a vast experiment in agronomy. Its very size and scope assures that millions of people will also become unwitting subjects in a vast experiment. To say otherwise is to misconstrue the scope of this new enterprise. For the first time, corporations are exercising direct dietary control over the genetic makeup of whole orders of foodstuffs on the planet. In our ultimate hubris, we are not simply creating new plant varieties and watchfully waiting. Instead, like Zeus consuming his progeny, we are eating our own genetic experiments, putting our children and our children's children in possible harm's way.

Although each chapter contains notes, the book lacks a bibliography. Essential for readers who wish to pursue the subject further.

Monsanto did their damnedest to prevent publication of Against the Grain, that in itself is more than sufficient reason to read it. Common Courage Press are to be congratulated for living up to their name and having the courage to publish a book that others dare not touch.

Against the Grain was written before the huge consumer backlash in Europe against GM crops, a backlash that is starting to spread to the US so the future may not be as gloomy as the authors show. If nothing else, if widely read, it will help inform US consumers of the dangers.


Books Worth Reading
(c) Keith Parkins 1999 -- October 1999 rev 0