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on March 5, 2002
You may have heard the biotech industry's claims that genetic engineering (GE) is the key to eradicating hunger, improving the environment, and helping humans live healthier lives. Yet, many people have resisted the adoption of these technologies (mainly in Europe but increasingly in the U.S.). Do these protests have validity?
This excellent book convincingly argues that Yes, the public should be concerned about GE. Its 31 essays are written by an assortment of knowledgeable but concerned scientists and activists. Some of them are ex-industry insiders who clearly understand the technical issues involved. These writers resoundingly dispel the industry's usual claim that GE dissenters are uninformed neo-Luddites.
It is clear that the biotech industry exists principally to make money for its investors. Statements about making the world a better place are, in fact, little more than a public relations smoke screen but have been effective in that it gives cover for politicians and regulators who must approve much of what the industry does.
It is a bit surprising that most people are not more concerned about the ownership of life forms (including human DNA) by private companies. To date, this has mostly affected farmers who are impelled to buy patent-protected seed, but in the future it may have profound implications for most people too. Several essays drill into this particular topic in detail, and are eye-opening.
Other articles focus on the many serious technical concerns that exist, such as the threat of cross-pollination. It is alarming to learn that companies such as Monsanto push aggressively to get new products approved, despite evidence that they may be dangerous.
The book also suggests common sense solutions to many of the problems that the biotech industry claims to be solving. For example, instead of growing GE pigs to produce replacement human body parts, why not simply encourage more people to participate in organ donor programs? If participation rates were increased in the U.S. to levels comparable to some other places in the world, there would be no shortage.
If you want to be better informed about the vitally important topic of GE, I strongly encourage you to read this book.
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on August 22, 2001
At our think tank we have watched a rather unfortuante level of triumphalism to the new genetic technologies. From Dolly to Rael to boistrous Italians and to "experts" at the American Academy for the "Advancement" of Science (AAAS) far too many individuals and institutions have staked a supportive claim for the new biotechnologies.
What these modern Huxley's fail to do, however, is locate biotechnology in a clear political-economic, and historical context. For most of these John-come-lately's (the antedeluvian, US President included) biotechnologies happen in the ever present now. Such experts provide little to no understanding of the deep historical relationship of the "new" technologies to their legacy with the global eugenics movement--that always includes Nazi racial-hygiene efforts.
Finally, Brian Tokar and his colleagues have arrived. Not with a venegenace, but with a calm, much needed, political-economic, historical and analytical insight, to be both appreciated and championed.
This book is important inasmuch as it contains a critical ad-mixture of prominent environmentalists from the North (e.g., a Director of the quasi-rightwing, xenophobic Sierra Club--that recently voted (unsuccesfully) to ban immigrants from the US) and the South (Vandana Shiva, acclaimed Indian scientists and activists for biosafety and much else) and many others that don't come out screaming.
Beyond the enviro-authors are many other scientists and activists many broadly published and read elsewhere.
The environmentalists contribution is notable and important inasmuch, despite the anti-GE-food movement they have spawned, environmentalists and other liberals would arguably be the first in line to receive the new genetic technologies, as few if any of these middle to upper-middle class liberals (Heller, Schmidt, Dorsey, et. al.) and global jet-setters (Shiva, Burrows, Von Weisacker, et. al.) would want to "produce" feeble-minded children to attend to the Harvard and Yale factories.
More importantly these folks make the point over and over again that biotechnology, as all technologies, just does NOT just happen out of some benevolent transnational ether, to "save the planet" or "cure diseases". Instead interested parties, Monsanto and its underlings, and a host of others, are out to make money.
Of course nothing is inherently wrong with making money (despite liberal angst against it), yet when we understand biotech in this light, we are forced to see it for what its worth and to whom.
So Redesigning Life is a very important contribution--especially in an age where anyone who dares tell the truth about the thuggery of Monsanto, the potential dangerous and unethical outcomes of Rael or the deadly consequence of GE food may face unwarranted attacks from those that would dare and be able to differ, if only with their huge budgets and fat pockets.
The books other bonus is that each chapter can be consumed one part at a time, in any order. Although overall the text is a terrifically coherent whole.
Its more than appropriate for reading groups, students (at all levels) and the curious citizen, interested in some solid research on the matter.
We highly recommend it.
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on August 7, 2001
This book, a collection of articles pretty much against biotechnology, is a mixture of rationality and hype. There are some good arguments in some of the articles, and the book inadvertently introduces the reader to a lot of the activity and research currently being done in biotechnology and genetic engineering. In that respect the book was extremely helpful, but in terms of rational argumentation against genetic engineering, the book is lacking in general. There is a lot of anger and fear in the articles, and so it is difficult sometimes to sift through this to get at the essential points the authors are attempting to make. The authors speak of the threat of "corporate globalism" and "horrific" designs for our future. Genetic engineering, says one author, threatens to perpetuate a never-ending cycle of famine and hopelessness. No evidence, either empirical or from a modeling perspective, is given for this claim though. It is also asserted that organic agriculture has proved ("time and time again") to be the better technique for growing more food, but again, no evidence is cited for this belief. In addition, the authors always emphasize the negative "inadvertent" consequences of genetic engineering, and do not mention any positive "inadvertent" ones. Can they not think of one instance where genetic engineering will have positive unintended consequences?
In arguing that the Monsanto Roundup Ready soybeans will not do completely away with other herbicides or with ploughing, one of the authors emphasizes that nature is adaptable, and will find a way to circumvent a system based on a single strategy. Could it not be argued then that nature would find a way then of circumventing any negative consequences of genetic engineering? Is it purely an argument of time scales that the author is making, i.e. that a sudden introduction in nature of genetically engineered crops makes nature go wild and immediately fight this invasion? What makes nature so predisposed to treat genetically modified crops differently than those that are not?
The reader is warned in the book that genetic engineering often has unexpected results, and that introducing bioengineered plants into the food supply could cause any number of possible health and environmental consequences. But is this not true of anything in the real world? Does not the introduction of "pure" organic foods have unseen consequences for health?
In addition, the authors in the book are fond of pointing out the fact that biotechnology companies have invested hundreds of billions of dollars into genetically modified plants and foods. The use of the word "billions" is supposedly meant to frighten the reader into believing that biotech has evolved into a business scale of gargantuan proportions. But does not the organic food industry invest billions of dollars into the development and marketing of organic foods? Should we be threatened by their attempts to "control" the food supply?
University researchers have also taken on a bad name in this book, due to the millions of dollars that are now invested by biotech firms in various universities around the United States. But researchers have worked on projects financed by other corporations as well, and will continue to do so. There have been conflicts of interest in these collaborations and there no doubt will be some with biotech companies. This by itself does not justify the book's anti-biotech stance. It merely says that researchers have funding sources outside the government sector, and this, in my view, is something to be applauded and not condemned. University researchers should be proud of their work and accomplishments, and even more so if a useful product is a result of their endeavors.
Human cloning is condemned in the book as being irresponsible and threatening, with the "designer babies" scenario created to mesh with the distorted view propagated by science fiction. The novel "Brave New World" is the canonical reference in the book. Parents, it is argued, should not want to have the choice of reproductive freedom, especially cloning, since this route is beset with enormous difficulties. This is an odd argument, since if cloning does turn into a viable technique for asexual reproduction, genetic risks would stand more of a chance of being alleviated, rather than aggravated, as claimed in the book. (The authors do have reason to rejoice however, since last week (July 31, 2001), the US House of Representatives voted to ban human cloning, unfortunately. ). Worries about selling clones are misplaced; human clones should have the same rights as any other human being when it comes to what is to be done with their internal organs. The authors in the book should spend more time on focusing their energies on securing these rights legally, rather than engaging in irrational and irresponsible scare tactics. The same could be said of their discussion on eugenics.
The right to secure a patent on an invention is thought of as more of a crime in this book rather than a way of securing a right to one's creativity and labor. But owning a patent on a gene is no different than owning one on any other object of discovery; if the authors feel threatened by this, a rational suggestion would be to enter the arena of discovery, come up with new ideas and innovations, and secure these patents for themselves.
The authors do correctly argue against genetic determinism and against irresponsible behavior towards the environment. But never do they suggest positive solutions to environmental problems, but instead rely on vituperative dialog to get their point across.
The last part of the book ends with a summary of the "world-wide" resistance to genetic engineering. One could argue that the authors are right: there seems to be a great reluctance on the part of many people to accept genetically modified foods and human cloning. But this will pass; people in this century are educated and smart enough to make decisions for themselves once the evidence is forthcoming on the enormous benefits of genetic engineering. The ramifications are awesome.
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on August 18, 2001
As a scientist I can honestly say that Brian Tokar's compilation of articles on biotechnology is the most comprehensive and penetrating review of the subject I have read of late. Mr. Tokar's book is of enormous use to all people with interest in this important subject, with the exception of those who are biased or mis-informed and therefore mistakenly take the whole of bio-tech as positive based on faith, ignorance or due to their stock investments. The range of views and the depth of information offered in this book is very impressive. In this time where politicians, industry and the media are promoting biotechnology as the solution to all that ills us, everybody owes it to themselves to read such an informative book. When it comes to science the most important commodity is true and accurate information; this book provides it in great quantity and with great quality.
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on August 22, 2001
'In this wide-ranging collection, scientists and activists discuss the pressing issues growing out of the wanton commercialization of the life sciences. The authors illustrate the dangers inherent in the unfettered manipulation of plant, animal and human biology for health and societal wellbeing. They also document the growing worldwide resistance to attempts to engineer life in all its forms. An excellent guide to the brave new world of genetic engineering.' - Ruth Hubbard, Professor Emerita of Biology at Harvard University and Board Member of the Council for Responsible Genetics
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on August 22, 2001
'The biotechnology industry has taken us beyond natural evolution into the unknown terrain of a never-to-be-natural-again world. We know nothing of the long-term biological, ecological, economic, public health and animal welfare impacts of this new technology. This book, with its excellent and wide-ranging coverage of this complex subject, will help us awaken to the costs and potentially harmful, even catastrophic, consequences.' - Dr. Michael W. Fox, Senior Scholar, Bioethics, The Humane Society of the United States, Washington, DC
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on August 22, 2001
'Biotechnology is truly revolutionary. But it is far from a precise science and the alliance of government, industry and universities to profit from genetic engineering has resulted in extravagant claims of benefits that are highly speculative. This book provides a welcome perspective that is missing from all the biotechnology hype. For anyone concerned about the real implications and potential hazards of gene manipulation, it is an excellent starting point.' - David Suzuki
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on August 22, 2001
'We are involved in a global war called genetic engineering. Most of us are totally unprepared to fight this war. Reading Redesigning Life is mandatory if you want you and your offspring to enjoy life as we have known it.' - Howard F. Lyman, President, EarthSave International, and author, Mad Cowboy: Plain Truth From the Cattle Rancher Who Won't Eat Meat
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on August 22, 2001
'This book explains why and how genetic engineering is adversely affecting our food, health, environment and human rights. It also shows what people are doing to counter the technology and the industry. It must be read by the public everywhere and by policymakers, especially in developing countries.' - Martin Khor, Director, Third World Network
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on August 22, 2001
'A cutting edge critique of today's headlong rush toward genetic engineering and the ways in which a few corporate "gene giants" are dominating global food supplies and pirating the planet's biodiversity, the human genome and the keys to life itself.' - Hazel Henderson, author, Beyond Globalization and Building A Win-Win World
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