Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Book Review: Uncertain Peril: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds

I got excited last month when I read a one liner that Audrey at Eat Local Northwest had read Uncertain Peril. I waited for her to post a review of the book. And I waited. And waited. Until I couldn't wait anymore and simply asked her if she would. Well, she had written a review for her community garden newsletter but hadn't posted the review on her blog. I'm so glad I asked her about it. Here's her review and it's beautiful and smart. Thank you, Audrey.

Seeds have fallen into the wrong hands, writes Claire Cummings in Uncertain Peril: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds.

What’s that again? You don’t think of seeds as something that would interest greedy multinational corporations, their armies of lawyers, and the U.S. government? Think twice. Seeds have always had a hand in destiny, since their genes direct how tall a plant grows, what kind of fruit it bears, and when it dies. A century ago humans began manipulating these genes to obtain better and hardier crops like hybrid corn.

Lately though genetic manipulation has taken a dark turn. Seed companies are deploying genetic modification to design novel plants to foster dependence on their products. Such altered seeds are known, of course, as GMOs. There’s Monsanto's Roundup Ready corn, a plant that isn’t affected by spraying with Roundup, Monsanto's best selling weed killer. And there are seeds with so-called terminator genes, whose plants grow sterile seeds, thus forcing farmers to purchase new seed every year.

Cummings reports on just how the US government has nurtured GMOs, issuing patents for individual genes and enabling multinationals to sue farmers wherever the modified genes appear in native crop populations – which can happen anytime wind carries pollen. Cummings tells how American food aid to impoverished countries not infrequently includes GMO wheat and corn seed rejected by North American growers. How the first provisional governor in Iraq, Paul Bremer, paved way for the entry of GMO seeds not long after Iraq’s seed bank was destroyed by American bombers.

This book is a wonky polemic, and Cummings takes the unrelenting position that GMOs are destroying civilization as we know it. Is she fair and balanced? I’m not convinced, in spite of Cummings’ credentials as a former USDA lawyer. Clearly there are downsides to GMOs and much that we just don’t know, both good reasons for caution. But consider a story like local do-gooder Bill Gates’ recent $17 million donation towards GMO sorghum for Africa, a food that was specifically engineered to be richer in vitamins A & E, amino acids, iron, and zinc. Is this just another boondoggle for agribusiness? Possibly, but since no one’s yet solved the most serious food problems of our time, I’m interested in hearing alternate perspectives on GMOs and those simply can’t be found in this book.

On a personal note, I picked up Uncertain Peril not long after a friend gave me a dozen Romano bean seeds, which she’d received from a dying eighty-nine year old neighbor who grew them all his life. He in turn had gotten them from his childhood pals, Italian immigrants whose families had grown the beans organically for hundreds of years.

So I read Cummings’ book while sprouting my friend’s Romanos and I got inspired, even if her punchline is sort of predictable – that organic growing can redeem us. I’ll be saving Romano seed this fall and want to try exchanging mine with others who save, if I can get viable stock. Because the alternative is a multinational corporation telling me what to eat. No thanks.

4 of 5 stars


Joyce said...

I'll have to read this. I worked summers for a seed corn researcher when I was in college, and my uncle was part of a Nobel Prize-winning team that worked on the Green Revolution. Monsanto's disturbing ways aside, there are some good things to be said about GMOs, in my humble opinion. There are ways to use them that will benefit hungry people. My uncle's research made it possible to grow grain in some of the arid regions of the Middle East and India, and it has changed people's lives for the better. Anyway, I'll get off my soap box and go to the library for this book!

Kale for Sale said...

I just learned of Mr. Gates contribution to GMO seeds for Africa from Vandana Shiva who doesn't have a good thing to say about GMO's. But I keep having the discussion that they can't be all bad. Right? And you comment Joyce, and your review Audrey, point to examples that people making them are good and believe they are doing a good thing. I definately need more information. Maybe a book by someone who believes in them. Any suggestions?

Thanks for the great review Audrey and the great comment too Joyce.

Anonymous said...

Joyce, thanks. On the one hand we have the story of penicillin saving millions, and on the other hand of the H-bomb killing hundreds of thousands. We like to declare scientific discoveries either good or evil and I think that's a disservice both to science and to the complexity of human nature. I'll be curious to hear how you like the book, where you're coming from.

Kale, thanks for asking me for the review. Full disclosure, I first learned about the book on Kale's lovely blog. Well, this wasn't the easiest book to get through but I'm really glad to have read it. As I learn more I realize that GMOs simply aren't going to go away. The challenge is to understand how to distribute their benefits more broadly, and perhaps protect the public from serious harm.

Karl Haro von Mogel said...

There's one good book I would highly recommdend, written by a former professor of mine: Tomorrow's Table.
Pamela Ronald is a plant geneticist, and her husband Raoul Adamchak is an organic farmer, and they argue that the two should be combined to reap the benefits of both aspects of agriculture.
From what I have read of Claire Hope Cummings' work (including a preview of this book), she very hyperbolic and wrong on several scientific facts. She claims that GE crops are bad science and bad biology, and she has no background in either.

Kale for Sale said...

TIM - Thanks for offering a book that addresses the flip side of Uncertain Peril. It sounds like it has a good balance which is always appreciated.

It would be very interesting if you and Ms. Cummings were able to have a discussion. I suspect you would each broaden each other's views.