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Agriculture is a colossal environmental problem; genetic science could be part of the solution.

Mendel in the KitchenMENDEL IN THE KITCHEN
A Scientist's View of Genetically Modified Foods
by Nina Fedoroff and Nancy Marie Brown
Joseph Henry Press, 370 pp., $24.95

reviewed by Richard Manning

A young postdoctoral student in a molecular biology lab once told me the problem with her line of work is that she can't explain to her mother what she does. This is more than a personal problem. If the rest of us benighted laypeople could get some sort of idea of what is being done in those labs, we would better understand the depth of the world's environmental problems and the character of life itself. Indeed, those scientists who tinker with DNA have drifted into isolation from the rest of us, simply because they see something we cannot.

One of the things we need to see is that the controversy about genetically engineered foods is misguided. The problem is not genetically engineered crops; it is crops. The world is in terrible trouble because of the fundamental design of agriculture. Genetic science is finally developing some tools that may at least help with a redesign that is sustainable.

Still, when the world in general thinks about gene science, it thinks about genetic engineering. I wish we could get beyond this, and we will, but not because of any sudden outbreak of rationality. We will get beyond it because gene science has moved on to something far bigger and more profound than genetic engineering.

Nina Fedoroff and Nancy Marie Brown's Mendel in the Kitchen: A Scientist's View of Genetically Modified Foods helps us move on to these larger issues. It does so with the simple device of clarity. The book is not so much a polemic as a primer, delivering in plain language and apt analogy the nuts and bolts of genetic science and its history, and ultimately making the case that the opponents of genetic engineering are wrong. That young postdoc should give this book to her mother.

The clarity of the book stems in part from its coauthorship: Fedoroff is a leading geneticist and molecular biologist and Brown is a journalist, a combination that frames a comfortable doorway into the arcane world of genetics. I too am a journalist, and I got my education in this discipline, such as it is, by traveling to some 20 countries over the past five years, visiting labs and interviewing scientists, plant breeders and gene jockeys alike.

It's not at all easy to comprehend the fundamentals of biotechnology in an unheated lab in Shanghai in March, slurping bad tea and listening to an explanation of polymerase chain reactions from someone for whom English is a not-even-close second language. Yet in an odd way it's also easier, because at some point in the second or third megabyte of repeated naive questions from a jet-lagged visitor, the exasperated scientist will leap up, drag the questioner to a microscope, and say, "Look. Here. This is DNA." And then one understands that what is abstraction to most of us is as clear and readable to these folks as a calendar on the wall.

Fedoroff and Brown's book can do something like this for all of us. We are shown, not told, the evidence for science's key arguments in support of genetic engineering: that bumping genes around is nothing new, nor is playing God with various domesticated life forms.

The domestication of plants 10,000 years ago was the big bang of civilization, and it was indeed de facto genetic engineering. Proto-farmers moved genes through the natural-selection pressure that is domestication, a favoring of mutants that also made a wolf into a beribboned Pekinese. Everything humans have done since, including that which we call genetic engineering, has consequences that are trivial by comparison.

The tinkering accelerated in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, after Gregor Mendel's insights sent plant breeders to seriously rearrange genes, even before they knew that such things existed. Plant breeders crossed species lines -- that is, performed the equivalent of crossing a human and a chimpanzee -- at least as long ago as the late nineteenth century, when Luther Burbank, the scion of modern plant breeding, did his seminal work. Long-standing techniques of biotechnology, such as artificially forcing mutations, tissue culturing, and hybridization, have rearranged the genomes of domesticates with the same grace and precision Hurricane Charley used to rearrange Florida. Genetic engineering is a laser in comparison.

In fact, biotechnology comprises a wide range of tools, and genetic engineering is only one of them. Further, while the rest of us have been off fighting about the single tool of genetic engineering, science has made others far more powerful. The most fundamental of these tools is raw information, a part of biotechnology that is coming to be called functional genomics. It involves mapping and sequencing genes to the point where they can be read as clearly as that calendar on the wall, and it is telling us a lot.

Science has learned that genes routinely flow through the environment between wild and domestic plants and have done so for 10,000 years. Genes cross species lines on their own; mutation is common; genomes are full of mistakes, junk, clutter, and jumping genes; and all of life has far more in common than the best of genetic science could have imagined 15 years ago. Genetic science is now learning that distinctions like species and race are artificial constructs. In the end, this emerging picture of the squishy, protean, and chaotic nature of life is going to be a lot more unsettling than genetic engineering. It is nonetheless accurate.

Midway through their admirable book, Fedoroff and Brown quote Robert Bud, the historian of science, with an idea that gets to the heart of all this: "In the history of biotechnology...lies the story of the twentieth century wrestling with the concept of life." And the twenty-first. Beneath the philosophy, though, there are practical implications for agriculture, poverty, overpopulation, and the environment, each of the intertwined strands of our world's Gordian knot.

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From Our Contributors

Caribou Rising, by Rick Bass. Sierra Club Books, 164 pp., $19.95
Caribou Rising
OnEarth contributing editor Rick Bass reminds us in Caribou Rising that preserving one of our last wild places should not be the only reason to keep oil and gas companies from setting up shop in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. An ancient way of life is also at stake. Bass journeys to the Arctic to hunt caribou with the Gwich'in people, Native Americans who have built their lives for 10,000 years around caribou migrations in the northernmost reaches of Alaska -- migrations to calving grounds that would be irreparably disrupted by oil and gas development. Bass is ideally suited to chronicle the Gwich'in way. He once earned his living as a petroleum geologist and has made subsistence hunting his own way of life in Montana's Yaak Valley, not far from the southernmost reaches of the very same boreal forest that brushes up against the Gwich'in culture, some 1,500 miles to the north.

Vanishing, by Antonin Kratochvil. Design Method of Operation, 248 pp., $72

The premise of Vanishing is simple: Look now before it's gone. Photographer Antonin Kratochvil has culled 118 haunting landscapes and portraits from more than 16 years spent working in earth's most broken places: the tattered Amazon, Angola's diamond mines, New York City on September 11, and his homeland, Czechoslovokia. In 2003, one of his photographs of the Congolese bushmeat harvest was named World Press Photo's photograph of the year on nature and the environment. This newest collection of his black-and-white images, some first published in OnEarth, bears the trademark intensity of his expressionistic style, the raw emotion of his subjects tempered by the beauty of his compositions. Kratochvil's photographs are arresting, and given that his intent is to make us stop and think about the mark we're leaving on this planet, Vanishing is surely a success.

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Richard Manning is the author of Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization, published by North Point Press in 2004.

OnEarth. Winter 2005
Copyright 2004 by the Natural Resources Defense Council