Wednesday, September 21, 2005

What's the story?

On the plane to Washington on Monday, I finished Dan Charles' book on biotechnology, Lords of the Harvest. As I mentioned, he was the moderator for a panel at the Consumer Federation of America yesterday. Throughout the book, Charles paints memorable word portraits of the early key players at Monsanto, Calgene, Greenpeace, Pioneer, university research labs, and elsewhere. He also does very well in his science journalist role, explaining complicated technologies to lay audiences. One of his themes is that the most controversial new technology adoptions have not always been the most important for society, while more revolutionary production changes have sometimes been less noticed by the press and public.

Throughout the book, which has a balanced tone, I wondered if Charles would end with something really damning about Monsanto and the prophets of biotechnology. Instead, however, the story line is complicated and textured to the end. A fascinating epilogue reflects on this pattern. Charles describes how he wanted not to take sides, but to "just tell the story." This turned out to be difficult, because many different images and stories are used in the biotechnology debate: the tale of progress and discovery (Wright Brothers, Jonas Salk, and the Next Big Thing), the agrarian populist story ("corporate giants and city slickers exploit farmers"), the leftist story ("profit-mad companies lay claim to the earth's genetic heritage"), the tale of Pandora's Box (Rachel Carson's Silent Spring). He ends with the religious themes: the Garden of Eden ("the serpent tempts Eve: You can eat the fruit of this tree. You will be like God"). Charles writes,
I've tried in this book to liberate agricultural biotechnology from the seductive clutches of myth, to give it its own space in our mental world, carved exactly to fit. I've tried to turn it from an epic into simply a story -- the kind of tale one tells about a slightly crazy uncle with all his quirks and contradictions.
In my class on U.S. Food Policy, I expect the students to have some elementary economics fundamentals and policy studies fundamentals as prerequisites. For economics, I suggest a straightforward online beginning microeconomics text by Hyman, available for only a $40 registration fee from a company called dotlearn, plus something more if you want a hard copy (part of the appeal of this publisher was that I don't like the high prices of most university textbooks, which after all cover material that is not usually novel). In part as an antidote to the mainstream text, I recommend Deborah Stone's Policy Paradox. Stone, like the economist Deirdre McCloskey, emphasizes the rhetorical story-telling aspects of the traditional economist's outlook on society. Like Dan Charles, she encourages us to be aware of the more lyrical narrative that often lies behind the apparently dry text of policy analysis.

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