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Fedoroff and Brown offer a fairly conventional and limited argument that is the main purpose of their book: Genetic engineering can unwind some of agriculture's worst excesses. To a degree, it can. For instance, when China adopted cotton genetically engineered to exude a natural insecticide, pesticide use on that country's cotton crop dropped 80 percent. This is no small matter: When cotton farmers in China sprayed each year, they logged a human body count. Certainly environmentalists can be cheered by this, even if the cotton comes to us courtesy of the Great Satan, Monsanto.

This is the sort of fix the authors have in mind, but we need to draw on their information to take the argument further. Limiting the discussion to Band-Aids on a broken agricultural system that was fundamentally flawed from the outset won't untie the knot.

Luckily, though, there is more to report. Fedoroff and Brown build much of their case on golden rice, which uses daffodil genes to boost the vitamin A intake of some of the world's poorest people. The authors conclude -- as most scientists do -- that the political dustup about genetic engineering delayed the introduction of golden rice, a development that could yet prevent 230 million cases of childhood blindness in developing nations each year.

In fact, there were two roadblocks to golden rice and to all other genetically engineered crops, and political opposition was the lesser of those. More formidable was intellectual property law. The Swiss scientist Ingo Potrykus and his colleagues first made golden rice in 1999. The Rockefeller Foundation, which paid for the research, has spent most of the time since wrestling with patents. Potrykus's groundbreaking research ran afoul of as many as 70 patents on the basic techniques of genetic engineering, now mostly held by two corporations, Monsanto and Syngenta.

This is not unique to golden rice. One group of researchers, for instance, found it took a 360-page report to summarize the complex thicket of patents covering agrobacterium transformation, a tool that is to a genetic engineer what a table saw is to a carpenter. Nor is the problem limited to patents, which often don't apply in developing countries. Many researchers have signed "material transfer agreements," which create patentlike restrictions in countries where there are no patents.

The flaw of genetic engineering is that while the science was still in its infancy, corporations won some key legal decisions and bought the patents that gave them complete control of the technology -- not just of the genes they needed but of the tools for moving genes that everyone needs. The technology has become not so much an instrument for progress as an instrument corporations use for social control.

And this is the necessity that mothered invention.

As I said, I learned my molecular biology from public-sector scientists in the developing world, a group in deliberate opposition to the corporate control of genetic engineering, but not to genetic engineering itself. These folks -- and there are thousands of them -- will match the activists in their anti-Monsanto rhetoric, epithet for epithet. Beyond this, though, some of these researchers have been stunningly creative in evading the blockades of patents.

They have plunged into inventing a whole new area of gene science, just as they plunged into practical village-by-village solutions to hunger, poverty, and environmental destruction. They have applied their science not to mainstream, for-profit crops like corn and wheat but to orphans like cassava, sweet potato, papaya, chickpeas, and the Ethiopian cereal tef -- the foods that around the world go hand to mouth. Using tools like marker-assisted selection, tissue culturing, and functional genomics, they are building a light-on-its-feet guerrilla science that has already become so powerful that it can accomplish almost all of what genetic engineering can (and some things it can't) without introducing genes from other species.

Many of these innovations are also Band-Aids, but because this work is so rooted in basic information, something more profound is emerging. These scientists are starting to backtrack through the genetic record of domestication. They are learning that over 10,000 years, plant breeders lost important traits, such as innate defenses against insects and diseases. They are learning how to recover these traits from wild relatives. All of this promises eventually to allow us, in effect, to redo domestication. Agriculture fails because it is an oversimplification of natural systems. Ultimately, genetic science promises to render enough information so that we can design and manage the complexity that drives natural systems.

Agriculture is today the world's leading environmental problem. It pollutes, and it is largely responsible for the fact that our species, one among millions, claims 40 percent of all the plant biomass the planet produces each year. We must fundamentally redesign agriculture if the human enterprise is to continue. We will do so not by turning away from biotechnology but by looking as deeply as we are able into the microscopes and into the core design of life. Therein we will find not just the techniques we need, but some of the wisdom to guide them.

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