With the politics of food production trickling down to shoppers at neighborhood supermarkets, a convenient collection of materials presenting the case for why consumers should avoid buying or eating genetically engineered foods is clearly timely. Jeffrey M. Smith's new book, Genetic Roulette, is directed towards that purpose, but in some ways is both "under-inclusive" and "over-inclusive," thus reducing its utility.
First, what does it do? It is a great reference work, rationally organized and detailed in four main topic areas: documenting the health risks of GE foods, the inadequacy of government regulation over them, the incompetence of industry studies, and rebuttals to the arguments used to justify GE crops.
Smith's organization is designed for three different categories of readers: "the quick scanner, the casual reader who does not need technical data, and those wanting it all." This organizational scheme addresses a problem of technical communication which is rarely recognized, no less handled so skillfully. This content and organization, coupled with the substantial weight of the tome and its large page format makes the result very formidable, indeed. Activists will surely want it on hand as they prepare legislative testimony, respond to a skeptical reporter, or compose a talk for a community group.
What is missing? Foremost, this book presents only a partial view of the concerns engendered by GE foods. Certainly, people should be wary of the health impacts of GE in their diet, but there is little, if any, discussion of other important rationales for objecting to altering the genetic make-up of our food.
The addition of the following would have been helpful:
- Environmental concerns, such as the development of resistant insects and superweeds, soil damage, and the reduction of species diversity if GE varieties out-compete natural ones;
- Social effects, such as negative impacts on farmers, especially peasants and smallholders in the developing world, as the result of increasing prices for seeds, the reduction of demand for traditional varieties due to monocultural pressures, and the contamination of non-GE crops;
- Patenting and the monopolization of food germplasm by transnational corporations;
- Increasing concentration of economic power in the hands of an ever smaller group of corporations that are apparently immune from democratic oversight;
- Distortion of trade relationships, an emphasis on shipping food products afar rather than eating more locally grown items;
- Fraud on consumers via distorted or absent labeling requirements; allowing high thresholds of GE in foods legally labeled "GE-free";
- The genetic alteration of non-foods, such as grasses and trees, the impact of which are likely to be enormous.
Missing these key points, the book is under-inclusive; how, then, can it also be over-inclusive? Well, on the topics it covers it throws in everything without much discrimination. I am not a biologist, so it would be hard for me to evaluate the author's many summaries and paraphrases of technical papers; and he is not one either. While there are biologists credited in the Acknowledgments ("each section was reviewed by a minimum of three scientists"), a work translating so much science into lay language would have had increased credibility if it had been co-authored by a person with a PhD in biology or medicine; anonymous reviewers aren't subject to the level of responsibility that a co-author would have borne.
Far too many works covering technical subject matter are written so as to alienate one potential audience or another - either too jargony to be understood by the educated citizen (and often community activists as well), or else so simplified that the key points may be blurred and other scientists who "should" know about the work are turned off. By way of his layout, Smith aims to appeal to three varying audiences, as indicated above The left-hand page has a one or two sentence summary of the study in italics and a numbered sequence of its major points in a bit more detail printed in relatively large Roman typeface; the facing page has several paragraphs of detailed synopsis in smaller type. In this manner, the book is a 3-in-1 chimera of wide-ranging appeal. Several people could be viewing an open pair of pages and reading different material presenting the same key ideas.
The author notes that he is presenting 20 reports of adverse effects and 45 ways in which GE is responsible for them in Part 1 (but confusingly does not divide the text this way; instead he has 8 numbered sections containing 65 entries). After these entries, there are four pages "connecting the dots" into patterns and causes; these are very nice summaries. The last of these is "consistent avoidance of further investigations" which might be an apt title describing industry conduct or governmental malfeasance. However, Smith doesn't name those as being responsible for denying the necessary funding ("don't look, don't find") nor indicate the attempts of establishment powers to quash researchers who have looked into these issues on their own (e.g., Chapela, Pusztai, and Traavik).
Part 4, on the "flaws in the arguments used to justify GM crops" consists of only two examples, on only 4 pages. A major omission is a clear statement of the "Central Dogma" of genetic engineering (one gene/one protein/one trait), and laying out its fallacies (perhaps along the lines that Barry Commoner used in his Harper's magazine piece of February 2002), maybe using as an illustration the total incompatibility of this model with the realization that although humans have only 30,000 genes, our bodies produce millions of proteins. Smith would have done well to illustrate this flawed ideology behind genetic engineering because it is constantly on display. His readers need to be able to counter this propaganda assault. Subsequently, one might also want to confront the question of how highly educated people supposedly dedicated to "the truth" can convince themselves to continue to mouth dogma they know is false.
An analysis of this distorted doctrine would have been useful to undercut one of the industry's main argumentsthat GE is "precise," and indeed more precise than the sloppiness and slowness of sexual cross-breeding. Also, Smith's readers need to know how to counter the "flaws" in industry and governmental claims that GE crops are more productive, use fewer agricultural chemicals, and result in cheaper food; in other words, the book should have included some of the analytic work of Chuck Benbrook (ah, but these are not directly health issues).
What is the social context of this book? It was funded by the JMG Foundation, according to an acknowledgment it contains. This UK Foundation is based on some of the fortune left by Sir Jimmy Goldsmith but has no listed phone, fax, nor website. It has been among the large accumulations of progressive money funding the anti-globalization movement and has drawn sarcastic criticism from the likes of England's Financial Times as well as scurrilous invective from right-wing blogs. Smith's involvement with the Natural Law Party is known within our movement but is not acknowledged in the book. The back cover and first pages are a medley of fulsome praise by a wide-variety of people (some well-known, others not) useful for the author's promotional activities (this book proclaims his earlier work, Seeds of Deception, to be a "#1 International Bestseller").
Finally, while I appreciate the use of a large-format layout (to get his three-audience texts juxtaposed) and the elegance of heavy paper stock, the book is an ungainly, floppy and awkwardly heavy artifact. I could not imagine toting this reference tome with me to the next Meeting of the Parties to the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol, no matter how insightful the contents might be. Maybe there is a digital version in the works?
Phil Bereano, Emeritus Professor of Technical Communication at the University of Washington, was one of CRG's founders. For the last several years he has done national and international work on policy issues around GMOs mainly via two other NGOs: the Washington Biotechnology Action Council and the 49th Parallel Biotechnology Consortium.