Food, Inc: Mendel to Monsanto-The promises and perils of the biotech harvest

Food, Inc: Mendel to Monsanto-The promises and perils of the biotech harvest
Peter Pringle
New York: Simon & Schuster 2003 | Pp 356 | ?17.99 | ISBN 0743226119
Reviewed by Suzanne Farrell

There are few scientific topics that generate as much controversy as genetically modified (GM) foods. The author of Food Inc presents a well researched and comprehensive view of the area, which addresses both sides of the debate; this book is as a welcome addition to the subject. The book is organised into chapters based around a few types of plant, such as long-lasting tomatoes and vitamin-A enhanced rice (’golden rice’).

Food Inc is eminently suitable for non-scientists; terminology and pertinent basic information about genetics are clearly explained. Primarily this is the story of how GM foods were developed (by academic and industrial scientists) and how a subsequent backlash by the anti-GM groups began. There are some fascinating stories and characters along the way. Nikolai Vavilov - a kind of Russian Indiana Jones - travelled the world collecting seeds, from often dangerous locations, to form a seed bank in his native country. His collection managed to survive Hitler’s bombardment of Leningrad and hoards of starving post-war Russians looking for potatoes.

The contribution of biotech industry is also well documented. Several large companies synonymous with GM, such as Monsanto, are criticised by Pringle for their programme of gene patenting, their short-term need to please their share-holders and the lack of clear information presented to the consumer. On the other-hand the anti-GM brigade also get a pasting, particularly for the wholesale scare-mongering of GM foodstuffs.

I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in what they eat or wants to learn more about the on-going GM debate from an objective point of view. While I can’t say that Food Inc helped me to decide whether I want GM food as a consumer, I certainly feel better informed about the issues behind the subject.