Mark L. Winston
Travels in the Genetically Modified Zone

Nowhere in my travels did I encounter a proven risk from transgenic crops sufficiently dangerous to justify stopping their development and sale, but I also did not get the sense during any of my visits that we know enough to proceed without caution. (p. 255)
For a balanced account of genetically modified food, its benefits and potential risks, this is the place to start. Winston's travels take the reader from farms, to conferences (scientific and those of environmental activists), to the EPA & FDA, to England, to Monsanto, Syngenta, and other biotech companies, and to several other related events, people, and places with an interest in, or opposition to, genfoods. It's an interesting travelogue that provides the reader with a fuller, and more well rounded, picture of the debate than they are likely to find in other books.

In the end, and most of the way through, however, Winston doesn't come out right in the middle of the debate. Opponents to genfoods of all kinds, for instance, won't take too kindly to quotes like the following.

The opposition campaign against genetically engineered crops has been remarkably successful given the absence of clear, substantial, and demonstrated negative impacts on the environmental or human health. The critics have used unjustified interpretations of a few ambiguous and preliminary scientific findings, clever public relations gimmicks, and the ubiquitous fear of unknown consequences from new technologies to mount an effective assault on biotechnology...

Of course, critics are correct in demanding that proper science be conducted before a company can proceed with a new bioengineered product. Eventually we may discover that a novel GM crop can indeed drive monarch butterflies to extinction, cause life-threatening allergic reactions in humans, or pass genes from bacteria to plants to humans. But although all these things are possible, the preponderance of the data does not support these and other horrific consequences for the bioengineered crops that are currently available. (p. 127)

Clearly, Winston is no Luddite. On the other hand, he isn't exactly running for the VP of PR at Monsanto either.

What I find ironic is how the environmentalists who oppose any and all genfood research and production are the same people who are opposed to pesticide and herbicide use. Shouldn't they be for genfoods that reduce or eliminate the need for pesticides and herbicides (assuming there is little or no other risks involved)? It kind of reminds me of the 'conservatives' who are in direct political opposition to the 'conservationists' or the conservatives who want things to be how they were in the 'good old days' but who oppose birth control/abortion rights and hence are stuck with an ever increasing population. They also claim to be for individual freedom, but they oppose a woman's right to choose. All of these double standards, or hypocritical approaches as some may wish to call them, strike me as more religiously, rather than scientifically/logically, driven.

The final chapter, "Risks Real or Imagined", is a great summary for someone who doesn't want to read the entire book. It seems too repetitive, however, for those of us who actually read the first 10 chapters. If you can't sit through the 10 then check out just the last chapter for an even-handed and reasonable perspective.

Unfortunately for genfood proponents, Winston is probably correct with the following summation which I will conclude with.

We face a long period of difficult negotiations and compromises about GM crops and biotechnology as agricultural trade issues collide with diverse societal and political values, not only in Britain, continental Europe, and North America but around the globe. Science may play a role in these discussions, and benefits may be balanced with risks, but the final outcome will depend more on cultural and societal beliefs than on the interplay of fact and data. (p. 213)

from the publisher:
With genetically modified crops we have entered uncharted territory--where visions of the triumph of biotechnology in agriculture vie with dire views of medical and environmental disaster. For two years Mark L. Winston traveled this fraught territory at home and abroad, listening to farmers, industry spokespeople, regulators, and researchers, canvassing high-security laboratories, environmentalist enclaves, and cyberspace, making a thorough survey of the facts, opinions, and practices deployed by opponents and proponents of transgenic crops.

Through his sympathetic portrayal of the passions on all sides, Winston brings a clear, unbiased perspective to this bewildering landscape. Traveling with Winston, we see the excitement and curiosity that pervade laboratories developing genetically modified crops, as well as the panic and outrage among dedicated opponents of agricultural biotechnology; the desperation of conventional farmers as they look to science for solutions to the problems driving them from their farms, as well as the deeply held values of organic farmers who dread the incursion of genetically modified crops into their expanding enterprise. And, Winston shows us, these contrasting attitudes transcend national borders, with troubling counterparts and consequences in the developing world.

As he seeks a middle ground where concerns about genetic engineering can be rationally discussed and resolved, Winston gives us, at long last, a full and balanced view of the forces at play in the chaotic debate over agricultural biotechnology.

Mark L. Winston is Professor of Biological Sciences at Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia. He is a Fellow in the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue.