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Television | Books | Video | Web


Unnatural Edibles

Genetically Engineered Food: A Self-Defense Guide for Consumers by Ronnie Cummins and Ben Lilliston (Marlowe, $12.95; online at

Like it or not, “you and your family are now part of a vast culinary and biological experiment--dining on an expanded menu of genetically engineered foods,” warn authors Cummins and Lilliston, of the Organic Consumers Association and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, respectively. If you’re uncomfortable with being a guinea pig but frustrated with the difficulty of making informed choices about genetically engineered foods because none of them are labeled, you’ll find this book to be a useful guide.

Exploring the current debates on the health and environmental risks of biotech foods, the authors present research on U.S. food companies’ use of genetically engineered ingredients. They list the foods and brands that do not contain genetically engineered material and expose those that do. “The debate over genetically engineered foods and crops may last decades,” the authors note. “However, as Europe has shown, the ultimate arbiter of power . . . is the consumer.” By providing the tools to find out exactly who is engineering what foods, they are equipping consumers to engage in a policy debate that has been dominated by corporate PR echoed by a gullible press (see “Spinning Science Into Gold,” page 40). If the government ever gets the nerve to properly monitor and regulate the biotech industry, it could start by demanding that food labels contain the sort of information presented in this book.
--Debbie Ortman

First Fruit: The Creation of the Flavr Savr Tomato and the Birth of Biotech Food by Brenda Martineau (McGraw-Hill, $24.95)

This tell-all biography of a tomato differs from much popular criticism of genetic engineering--it’s by an industry insider. Geneticist Brenda Martineau, who joined Calgene Incorporated in 1988 to build a better tomato through biotech, was clearly enthralled by her research. Her enthusiasm for genetic science contrasts sharply with her less than savory tale of genetic business. An attempt to corner the $4-billion-a-year fresh-tomato business was the main motive of the company’s founders. Executives kept the scientists working overtime, Martineau says, because “it was important to impress Campbell Soup in order to keep those contract revenues rolling in.” (Campbell was scouting for produce to enhance its expansion into fresh foods.) The promise of Flavr Savr was not higher yield or pest resistance, but better flavor than tomatoes picked green to withstand 2,000-mile shipping. Equipped with a gene to inhibit a fruit-softening protein, the new tomato’s longer shelf life permitted harvest at a riper, redder stage. It took almost a decade of work by a team of scientists, intensive safety testing by government agencies, and millions in investment and research-contract money before this “miracle” could be marketed.

The tomato may have tasted better, Martineau says, according to “anecdotal evidence” from taste tests. But Calgene’s losses were so heavy it couldn’t supply enough tomatoes, and it was sold to Monsanto--which dropped the tomato business, keeping only its canola and cotton engineering.

Critics who claim that the biotech food industry benefits corporate agribusiness and misallocates scientific resources will find plenty of support for their arguments here. The tomato’s main purpose was to serve huge transnational markets. And the costly effort to craft it arguably resulted in a smaller contribution to tomato culture than publications like Organic Gardening manage to assemble in one issue.

Despite its problems, at least this biotech tomato passed rigorous safety tests, and brochures in stores explained its genetic engineering. Martineau is troubled that other engineered foods don’t face equally tough scrutiny, and she calls for detailed labeling of biotech foods: “Since I am opposed to neither technological innovations generally nor agricultural biotechnology particularly, I need more information.” This would include labeling for Bt toxin and other biological additives, such as proteins from inserted genes. Martineau may get her wish if stories like hers can counter the self-praise from the industry flacks that she candidly portrays.
--Bob Schildgen

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