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Who Voted this Book an Award?: Best Business Book of the Year is the Antithesis of a Well-Researched, Investigative and Compelling Report Worthy of a National Award

24.jun.00, Douglas Powell, National Post Financial Post: Editorial D11 Business; Column Junk Science Week

Pamela Wallin was gracious and professional in person. I got to appear on her Maclean's talk show last fall, waving cobs of genetically engineered and conventional corn, talking about the possibilities and pitfalls of the latest food technologies.

After the segment, Pam -- can I call you Pam? -- leaned over and said, "You know, I'm a farm girl, and I don't see anything wrong with this stuff. We've been changing food for a long time."

Which is all the more baffling as Pam was one of the judges who selected Unnatural Harvest: How Corporate Science is Secretly Altering Our Food as the winner of this year's National Business Book Award. The polemic by Winnipeg-based CBC journalist Ingeborg Boyens is the antithesis of a well-researched, investigative and compelling report worthy of a national award. Instead, it follows the tried but true path of headline culling: a rumour here, a sound bite there, amplified by repetitive citings from the Internet -- so it must be true.

Because nothing is referenced, science and speculation are represented as equal, all to cast a wide net of conspiracy and fantasy and to further support the predetermined conclusion that something is amiss. The first problem is the subtitle: What is the secret? Had Ms. Boyens done some basic research, she would have uncovered a vigorous public discussion of genetic engineering going back to the early 1970s, and specifically on genetically engineered food beginning with the first plant transformation in 1982.

Instead, the book is more of a greatest-hits compilation of solutions to the complex task of growing safe, affordable food. And while Ms. Boyens does get others to make such statements, she adds nothing, but rather leaves the allegations hanging, all pointing to her conclusion that big must be bad.

They're all here, starting with the supplement tryptophan, derived from genetically engineered bacteria, which killed 37 and injured 1,500 in 1989. To Ms. Boyens this proves that genetic engineering is dangerous. To the informed, who know the problem lay with a change in filters to remove impurities, it points to the need for oversight on any and all food products -- genetically engineered or not.

Ms. Boyens then moves on to mad cow disease, which she attributes to Margaret Thatcher's deregulation in Britain and to the introduction of rendering in the 1980s. Ms. Boyens seems not to know that deriving protein from the remains of slaughtered animals has been going on for decades, and that the changes in rendering had no effect on the persistence of the infectious agent.

Ms. Boyens links recombinant bovine somatotropin with human health concerns, although rBST has been deemed safe for humans by almost every major regulatory, medical or dietary body around the world. Ms. Boyens accords smoking gun status to a mysterious 90-day rat oral toxicity study conducted in the 1980s, although this study has been reviewed and dismissed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Health Canada's expert advisory panel on the human health effects of rBST.

Unnatural Harvest is laced with new-age hucksterism about things pure and natural that has currency in official circles on both sides of the Atlantic.  Last month, both Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne, and Charles Caccia, Liberal MP and chairman of the Commons Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development, came out with proposed solutions to the challenge of sustainable food production that exhibit a degree of ignorance -- the vast majority of farmers are already good stewards -- and uncritical faith in the mysticism of nature that is naive and downright dangerous.

Genetic engineering, the latest in a long line of powerful technologies, has considerable regulatory oversight -- much more so than conventional foods -- to appropriately steward such a technology. Genetic engineering is powerful -- and that is the source of potential benefit and unrestrained angst.

Revolutionary technologies have long created three public responses, in succession: unrealistic expectations (all new technologies are oversold), confusion and eventually finding a way to cope. In 1817, Mary Shelley, a member of England's radical intellectual elite, warned about science being out of control at a time when fundamental advances in organic chemistry led some charlatans to claim that they had discovered the secret of life.

Through the new-found wonders of chemistry, her Professor Frankenstein creates a monster that pursues him. He finally pays the price for his hubris with his life. But does that mean science should not improve either our understanding of the natural world or what some would deem life in its natural state -- "nasty, brutish and short," as described by British philosopher Thomas Hobbes.

Anyone, royalty, plebe or CBC journalist, can say the sky is falling. But where are the solutions? Ms. Boyens devotes three pages to the topic of antibiotic resistance, which the Prince also superficially cited as science-out-of-control, saying that, "more widely, we understand that the over-use of insecticides or antibiotics leads to problems of resistance." Yes, they do lead to problems of resistance. But would the Prince abandon antibiotics and return to bloodlettings? Nature did not provide smallpox vaccinations, electricity, flight or contraception. However, all of these aids to living required expanding our knowledge of nature.

Mr. Caccia argues that Canada's farmers should be encouraged to embrace so-called organic production techniques. The problem -- and Ms. Boyens fails spectacularly in this respect -- is that the same critical lens applied to conventional or modern production techniques is not applied to organic production, resulting in phrases like "there are booming markets for organic produce." Yet there is a dearth of scientific evidence on the difference between conventional and organic products, in terms of both human or environmental health.

Such statements smack of elitism -- they are applicable to those who want to pay exaggerated amounts for food -- by imposing the value judgments of a few on the pocketbooks of the many. A November, 1997, report, prepared on behalf of a panel formed by the Canadian Cancer Society and National Cancer Institute of Canada and published in the journal Cancer, concluded that the benefits of a diet rich in fresh fruit and vegetables far outweigh the theoretical risks associated with pesticide residues in those products. The report does not seem to have been referenced by the Caccia committee. Or by Ms. Boyens. 

A robust discussion of the purported benefits of organic or natural foods would mention E. coli O157:H7 in unpasteurized apple cider and lettuce, salmonella in alfalfa sprouts, and various other nasty pathogens that have a significant impact on human health. Unlike Ms. Boyens, food-borne bacteria and other micro-organisms do not display political preferences.