When we talk about the genetic alteration of plants and animals, we rehash the arguments of Perdita and Polixenes. Are molecular meddlings—from the man-made pig and the gene-whacked salmon to the genetically modified soy that hundreds of millions of us consume each day in cookies, crackers, candy bars, and sodas—are these transformations condoned by the tools nature itself has given us, or are they freaks and abominations? In producing as much food as possible for as many people as possible by creating superseeds that promise superharvests—seeds laced with DNA from other species of plants and animals—we may be redeeming the world. However, we may also be aiding and abetting the destruction of nature as we know it.
Biochemistry may be destiny. Once food DNA was discovered, perhaps it was only a matter of time before our daily bread would fall victim to our infatuation with technology. But now that we can take apart and put together the chemical puzzle blocks of food, we can't ignore the game. We can't bury molecular biology underground and move on. We have to figure out what to do with the technology. What we do with it matters.
The greatest U.S. food technologist was arguably Luther Burbank, who bred 30,000 new varieties of plums before he came up with his pitless prune and destroyed who knows how many thousands of failed seedlings before unveiling his white blackberry and his spineless cactus. In 1893 Burbank published New Creations in Fruits and Flowers, and few doubted that the book would assure him a place in the scientific pantheon. Journalists dubbed him a "seer," Henry Ford and Thomas Edison came to visit, and Lionel Barrymore portrayed him in the 1947 radio play The Man with Green Fingers. Today, the effects of Burbank's breeding may be appreciated at McDonald's, where every French fry descends from a variety he invented in the 1870s.
It was largely because of Burbank 's extraordinary achievements in food science that the Plant Patent Act of 1930 amended U.S. patent law to provide botanists with a set of financial motivations to create new plant varieties. (Burbank was posthumously awarded U.S. plant patent numbers twelve through sixteen.) All of a sudden, plant breeding promised more than a little fame and a lot of strange new foods. There was money in it.
The Plant Patent Act of 1930 pushed food science forward and helped power agribusiness into the second most gainful enterprise in the nation (after pharmaceuticals). Companies like Dow Chemical, Monsanto, and Syngenta take enormous profits from their food patent operations, but the emergence of a custom-designed corn seed cannot be blamed on the modern world's seed giants. Hybrid corn appeared more than a century ago on the U.S. retail market, and the result back then was the same as the result today: general outrage. The reason: hybrid seeds lose their potency after a single generation.
For 10,000 years of agricultural history, seeds had been free for those who cared to gather them, a gift that ensured next year's harvest. But the newfangled scientific corn seeds of the 1880s and 1890s had to be cross-pollinated, packaged, and purchased anew every year. What farmer in his or her right mind would buy new seeds every year? Seeds could be gathered from the ground. Seeds were free. Seeds wanted to be free. But then the stalks of corn from high-priced hybrid seeds began to take home banners, medals, and ribbons at state fairs, and farmers recognized that these new products were packed with new genetic information and that agricultural information was not free.