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How Genetic Engineering Is Changing What We Eat, How We Live, and the Global Politics of Food
By Bill Lambrecht
Thomas Dunne Books, 371 pp., $24.95

Dinner at the New Gene CafÉ

In 1986, when journalist Bill Lambrecht wrote a series on genetic engineering for the daily paper in St. Louis -- home to the pesticide giant and gene-splicing pioneer Monsanto -- few people even knew the science existed. Twelve years later, when Lambrecht reinvestigated the subject, people were not only aware, many were afraid that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) might taint food stocks -- and those who consumed them.

In Dinner at the New Gene Café, Lambrecht wades through the many questions surrounding the technology that has made it possible to insert a daffodil gene into a rice kernel to render it rich in beta-carotene. Among these concerns are whether genetic engineering is a natural evolution in our attempt to improve food, or dangerous meddling; and if it makes sense for a few corporations to control our food supply.

Lambrecht's reporting took him to Illinois fields proudly planted with GM corn and to the United Kingdom, where mistrustful citizens ripped up GM rapeseed test crops. In India, a nation desperate for famine remedies, Lambrecht finds people are understandably wary of embracing Monsanto's GMO technology: Hundreds of poor farmers have committed suicide because their crops were destroyed by insects that have grown resistant to Monsanto's pesticides.

New Gene Café is an invaluable and evenhanded work of investigative journalism. The author gives space to the moguls of multinational life-science companies, such as Monsanto, who stand to benefit from GMOs; the radical protesters who would rather eat wood chips than altered foods; and everyone in between.

But it also is a dense, often redundant read that is unlikely to attract an audience unfamiliar with the the intricacies of GMOs -- in other words, those who need the information most.
-- Christina Melander

Travels with Cranes
By Peter Matthiessen
North Point Press, 349 pp., $27.50

The Birds of Heaven

For the eminent writer and naturalist Peter Matthiessen, cranes are "the greatest of the earth's flying birds." With their majestic wingspans of up to eight feet, they are capable of soaring three miles above sea level -- prompting a rich tradition of crane-reverence in aboriginal civilizations from Japan to North America. But like many species attempting to share the planet with us, cranes are under increasing threat. As industrialization and intensive agriculture drain wetlands, poison lakes, and clear forests in places like China, Korea, and Siberia, critical feeding and nesting habitat is disappearing. Matthiessen's journey across five continents in search of the fifteen subspecies of crane becomes a powerful indictment of our ecological failings, and a worthy successor to his books on Siberian tigers and snow leopards.

In addition to the marvelous flow of his prose, Matthiessen's greatest gift as a writer may be his ability to combine precise observation with a radiant sense of spiritual wonder. Despite a lifetime of globe-trotting, his remarkable talent for conveying the freshness of encounters with new places is undiminished. This perpetual excitement in the world might be explained by Matthiessen's equally long experience with self-exploration of the soul. (He was ordained as a Zen priest in the 1970s.) Whatever the case, The Birds of Heaven is a wise and wide-ranging odyssey that lightens its burden of bad news with grace and hope. Though the overall prognosis for the world's cranes is sobering, the book ends with an optimistic look at efforts to reintroduce the whooping crane in North America, nearly a century after it veered towards extinction. Such are "the lengths to which man is driven to salvage the last wild survivors of his own heedless course on earth."
-- Jonathan Cook

What Scientists Learned in the Twentieth Century
By Gerard Piel
Basic Books, 460 pp., $40

The Age of Science

In his foreword to this eminently accessible survey of achievements in an age of scientific breakthroughs, Gerard Piel, the founding editor of Scientific American, confesses that he started out his lifework with "the most unlikely preparation. My A.B. in history from Harvard College in 1937 was a certificate, magna cum laude, of illiteracy in science." The Age of Science is a summing up of what Piel went on to learn as "a spectator at the inquiry after objective knowledge as it has unfolded in the second half of the twentieth century."

But this book is much more than that. For, as Piel conducts us through the fields of scientific exploration -- from astronomy and cosmology to geology and evolution -- he reminds us of the efforts of those who laid the groundwork for later advances. The book is rich in historical resonance, and the depth of Piel's knowledge is evident on every page. In a chapter that deals with tools, for instance, we learn that eleventh-century Chinese sky maps located the supernova of 1054 so accurately "that modern astronomy was able to find it and with time exposure reveal it as the beautiful Crab Nebula," or, again, that the grandsons of Genghis Khan, laying siege to Baghdad, learned of Kublai Khan's death "within 24 hours by heliograph from Peking." Astonishingly erudite, Piel is never ponderous.

This splendid work of explanatory journalism puts us humans in our place within the universe and warns of the dangers posed to human existence by an industrial civilization that "continues to depend upon fossil fuels...even with solar and other alternative energy the ready."
-- Jon Swan

The True Story of a Small Town, a Global Industry, and a Toxic Secret
By Duff Wilson
HarperCollins, 322 pp., $26

Fateful Harvest

Like farmers in all U.S. agricultural towns, the farmers of Quincy, Washington, use fertilizers to enhance the productivity of their fields. What goes into those fertilizers has been benignly called "a mixture of the most common elements and natural minerals" by the agriculture industry. Duff Wilson's Fateful Harvest reveals that those "natural minerals" include cancer-causing metals and radioactive materials, including cadmium, lead, arsenic, and beryllium. This isn't surprising, Wilson argues, considering that a legal loophole has allowed industrial waste to become a common ingredient of modern farm fertilizers. It's a nasty little secret that few people -- farmers included -- like to talk about.

But Wilson, a Seattle Times reporter, gets people talking. The story takes place in the small town of Quincy, where the feisty and indefatigable mayor, Patty Martin, believes that sludge-laden fertilizer from a local waste pond is rendering cropland toxic and infertile. It was Martin, in fact, who first contacted Wilson in 1996. "Fear in the Fields," his resulting series, won the John B. Oakes Award for environmental journalism and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. In Fateful Harvest, Wilson displays his talent for adding genuine human drama and complexity to journalism. Ultimately, the farmers who protest toxic sludge find themselves ostracized by the community -- whose denial is impenetrable, even as cancer rates soar, birth defects abound, and rare lung diseases pepper rural communities.

The lack of federal regulation alone is shocking. It remains to be seen whether Fateful Harvest will create enough outrage to incite action; those of us who prefer our dinners nontoxic can only hope.
-- Amy Hughes

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OnEarth. Spring 2002
Copyright 2002 by the Natural Resources Defense Council