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Genetically-modified organisms (or GMOs), often called Frankenfood because of the way they include genes from different organisms, inspire passion and anger, distrust and fear, among the general public. Affecting areas such as ecology, agriculture, economy and developing nations, the questions around GMOs touch so many people that it's no surprise that the debates concerning this new technology are impassioned. Yet how much do the debaters - or even the general public - truly understand about GMOs, their risks and their benefits? It becomes clear, as one examines some of the points raised by both camps (those in favor of GMOs and those against), that this new technology is barely understood, and that many of the fears presented as reality are exaggerated or even incorrect.
Paul Lurquin, professor of genetics and a scientist involved in biotechnology for several decades, presents in this book an overview of the technologies involved in creating genetically-modified plants. "Biotechnology is an extremely young science," says Lurquin, and it is "an innovation that requires some explanation." He sets out here to provide such an explanation, and, while his work is at the heart of this field, he claims to be critical of both the biotechnology companies, who "never went to the trouble of educating the public" and of "those who show their disapproval of GMOs through acts of vandalism rather than with open discussion".
But this is a difficult issue to explain. Lurquin attempts to do so through what could be seen as an undergraduate course in genetics. I found this difficult reading, and after finishing the first chapters of the book, which begin with Mendel's groundbreaking experiments on peas and end with the introduction of foreign genes into plant DNA, I'm not sure to have truly understood a lot. Lurquin tries to present a lot of material, and goes through it too fast for non-scientists to grasp these complex ideas.
Lurquin does a good job of explaining how GMOs can be useful. Aside from the applications that have gotten the most press, such as creating plants that resist herbicides, there are many such areas where GMOs can help us: protecting plants from viruses, bacteria, fungi and insects; increasing yields through enhanced photosynthesis; and improving the nutritive quality of some foods. For these reasons, we should look to GMOs as potentially revolutionary, providing valuable assistance especially to developing countries where increased yield and nutritive qualities can be a real boon.
But one must consider the risks of GMOs, and Lurquin gives fair treatment to many of the questions that the public worries about. Again, he does criticize both sides in his discussion, but his response to the standard charges of whether or not these plants will be seen as dangerous over time are evasive at best. And he drops the ball when he says that Europeans are against GMOs because they "do not trust their elected officials" and because they already think their food is good enough. Europeans mistrust GMOs because they see them as another example of American hegemony, and are not prepared to allow American biotech corporations (even though some of these corporations are European) to control their food.
All in all, this book gives a firm grounding in the issues surrounding biotechnology, but it doesn't go far enough in examining the risks. Its early chapters, which explain genetics, are a bit too complex for many readers, resulting in an unbalanced book. This is hardly surprising, because, as a researcher in this field, Lurquin is obviously convinced of the merit of biotechnology. While he attempts to seem objective throughout the book, and it does not read like proselytizing, one cannot ignore that a somewhat positive view of this issue permeates these pages, slightly skewing his explanations. A bit more objectivity, and especially a more thorough examination of the risks and criticisms, would be welcome so even those without scientific experience will feel they better understand these issues.