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Real Food for a Change: Bringing Nature, Health, Joy and Justice to the Table

by Wayne Roberts, Rod MacRae and Lori Stahlbrand

Farmageddon: Food and the Culture of Biotechnology

by Brewster Kneen

It was Gloria Steinem who said that the personal is also the political. These days, the same applies to the edible, too. In North America, news about biotechnology does appear in the media, but it’s usually those stories with an element of the fantastic, such as the goat triplets recently cloned in Montreal, that garner the most attention. What doesn’t make headlines is how biotechnology is altering agricultural practices and changing what we eat. The recent outcry in Canada against bovine growth hormone (rbST), which is injected into cows to dramatically increase their dairy output, was an exception in that it inspired a public outcry. Citizens’ groups, alarmed by both the known health risks to cows and the unknown health risks to humans, lobbied against its approval and ultimately prevailed – though rbST’s manufacturer Monsanto is currently appealing the decision.

If you can get past its kitschy title, Farmageddon is a passionate call to arms against those who are monkeying around with Mother Nature through biotechnology. B.C.-based author and activist Brewster Kneen gives a thoroughly researched account of how a handful of corporations have turned agriculture into agribusiness in the name of progress. In vivid and compelling prose, Kneen spells out exactly how these firms have toyed with the natural order of things – is a potato still a potato when a gene from a chicken is added to its structure? – and how they have bullied governments into giving them free reign to develop and patent their discoveries. He concisely explains the science involved, but never deviates far from the political and ethical issues surrounding biotechnology’s impact on agriculture.

The questions Kneen raises are worthy fodder for a philosophical debate: what are the implications of governments’ decisions to allow companies to patent “organic technology” – in other words, life? In what way can science hope to improve upon nature? However, a serious flaw in the book is Kneen’s assumption that his audience shares his core beliefs about the evils of genetic engineering, and the unchecked avarice of biotechnology firms. There seems to be no room for debate on these subjects. The result is that Kneen sometimes sounds like he’s preaching to the converted.

He is also lacking a prescription to remedy the situation. It’s hard not to feel deep concern about what passes for food these days, but Kneen’s closing chapter, about the growing resistance to biotech progress, offers little advice on what the average citizen might actually do about it all.

This is where Real Food for a Change comes in. Written by a Toronto-based trio of food, science, and environmental experts, it offers a plan for reclaiming control over what ends up on one’s dinner table. In contrast to Farmageddon, it is remarkably upbeat. The book covers some of the same territory regarding biotech research and how it has affected agriculture, though in less depth, but it offers information that inspires hope, too. Its heroes are people who run small demechanized farms, those who plant vegetable gardens, and those who manage to eat well (i.e. nutritional organic produce) on a minuscule budget. While the book occasionally veers off into the esoteric – I doubt that most readers will head out to buy a composting toilet – it offers straightforward advice about practical matters such as choosing efficient kitchen appliances and making decisions about how to spend one’s food budget. Many of the suggestions aren’t too hard to stomach, either: for example, instead of wolfing down a fast food meal, make a point of eating with others. If you have a yard, plant a vegetable garden and buy from local growers – all basic common sense. The tone of Real Food is hopelessly earnest – unlike Kneen’s electric prose, this books ambles on pleasantly if a little tediously. Fortunately, it does not need to be read sequentially to make its point.

At heart, both Farmageddon and Real Food share the same premise: people in North America have lost control of what they put in their mouths; to regain control, people must challenge current definitions of progress. Biotechnology can indeed make a cow produce more milk, but can it guarantee that that milk is safe for consumption?