The Missouri Botanical Garden auditorium is strung with enough cords and cables to truss a yeti. Stepping carefully, Ira Flatow, host of National Public Radio's Science Friday, walks onstage to prepare for today's hot topic: "bioprospecting," the hunt for commercially viable medicines and other plant extracts amid the developing world's fast-vanishing green gold.
To his right sits a panel of experts. Two of them, the Garden's applied-research director and a Shaman Pharmaceuticals vice president, stare fixedly ahead, trying to ignore the audience in front of them. As one clears his throat and adjusts his tie, the other scoots his chair up, nervously tapping the microphone.
The third guest, renowned botanist and Garden director Peter Raven, is utterly relaxed. Cracking jokes at his stone-faced colleagues, he leans forward to ask bright-kid-on-a-field-trip questions about NPR's soundboard.
At a gesture from Flatow, silence falls and Raven turns solemn. He makes a dignified, eloquent plea on behalf of vanishing species and describing the Garden as "a kind of diffuse Noah's ark for plants." After the broadcast, a producer compliments him: "We'd like to do one with you alone. We'll be in touch."
Riding a wave of praise, Raven makes his way toward the reception. Before he's even reached the baby quiches, a soft-voiced woman has him buttonholed. "Um ... I have a question about Monsanto's relationship with the Danforth Center." Raven smiles encouragingly. She takes a deep breath. "How can it really be independent? Won't a lot of it be genetic-engineering research?"
"Well, a lot of it will be plant-molecular-biology research," he revises, explaining that St. Louis' new Donald Danforth Plant Science Center stands independent of its founders -- Monsanto, the Garden and four universities. Granted, those institutions' leaders make up half the board, but, Raven says, "it will own all its own intellectual-property rights. And of course it is free to make whatever contracts it wants with anybody, including those founding members."
She blinks. "Are you concerned about the patenting of genes by corporations?"
"It's something we have to do very carefully," he replies, as blandly confident as he was on the air.
"The rest of us are trusting people like you," the woman reminds him, reaching out impulsively to touch his tie. "Thank you for doing the right thing."
He beams at her, turns toward two elderly ladies in suitably floral print and then moves off, skimming the surface of the reception like a dragonfly.
Raven taped Science Friday at the end of August, when he was brainstorming a biological-research center on the fragile rainforested island of Dominica, planning a trip to Ecuador, chatting with a Department of the Interior official who wanted him to give a talk in South Africa on invasive species, and contemplating his next advice to Pope John Paul II in the 80-member Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Science Friday was a nanosecond. Yet everything was there in microcosm: The world-class reputation for botanical brilliance. The dire environmental statistics, recited with passionate urgency. The agile mind and social finesse. The vague corporate optimism.
And the confusion of environmentalists who can't decide whether one of their heroes has been bought.
The pioneer of agricultural biotech, Monsanto's been anything but cautious in unleashing its commercial products on the world. A recent $8 billion buying spree made it the world's second-largest seed company. Its first genetically modified (GM) crops only hit the market four years ago, and they already cover more than 52 million acres in the U.S. alone. Antitrust lawsuits have been filed in 30 countries, accusing Monsanto and the other giants of using biotech to control world agriculture. Europeans are furious because Monsanto has resisted demands for long-term testing and labeling. Back home, a coalition of nonprofits -- including the Council for Responsible Genetics and the Center for Food Safety -- is so angry they're buying full-page ads in the New York Times. Scientists around the world are warning that large-scale GM crops are unpredictable and unstable (GM klebsiella, soil bacteria, have the unexpected effect of killing wheat); that they threaten lacewings, ladybugs and monarch butterflies; that randomly inserted genes do spread, on their own, to nearby weeds; that we may see increases in toxicity and untoward effects -- such as antibiotic resistance -- on the human immune system.
Meanwhile, the developing world is protesting the bioprospecting they call biopiracy and the patents that let high-tech corporations own life itself. They say Monsanto's one-time-use seeds encourage monocropping instead of environmentally healthier crop rotation, and small, poor nations are finding themselves dependent on multinationals for food they used to grow themselves.
Raven's not bothered by any of this. He admits that positioning biotech as the only way to feed the world's hungry (Monsanto's favorite strategy) is "a bit crude," but he's convinced that sustainable agriculture will require biotech. He's also convinced that biotech can reduce use of traditional pesticides and stanch the hemorrhage of the world's biodiversity. To him, these are such acute, life-threatening emergencies that any peripheral damage -- a few monarch butterflies killed, a couple million more gallons of Roundup sprayed right on top of the crops -- pales by comparison.
Peter Raven's been trying to save the world, in a big way, since grad school. But in tiny species-rich countries whose people are starving, environmentalists don't make much headway talking about long-term sustainability. And if years of juggling government grants and courting government agencies have taught Raven anything, it's that government does what is politically expedient.
So he's placed his faith in the speed, flexibility and efficiency of multinational corporations. Especially Monsanto.
In 1995, after 27 years and two children, Raven divorced his second wife, politely saying their interests had diverged. In 1996 he married Kate Fish, an environmentalist who went to work for Monsanto the same year and is now their director of public policy. The two met on an advisory committee charged with helping Monsanto clean up its environmental act. Today, both navigate the mainstream in trusting partnership with Monsanto -- and they're infuriated by any hint that Fish's job might influence Raven's attitudes. "It ought to almost be a moral question whether people start labeling people because they are married," explodes Raven. "I have been a very well-regarded scientist for all my career and achieved everything I wanted to achieve, more than most, and I didn't do that because I was married. Kate, if anything, is more of an environmentalist than I am. She works with public acceptance, listening and bringing people together and trying to find ways Monsanto can operate effectively and well with public approval. Her job is not selling or convincing people of anything."
Fish, who spends much of her time in Europe setting up "stakeholder dialogue" with biotech's critics, answers more calmly: "The reality," she says, "is that corporations have the biggest influence on these kinds of issues." Government's role is shrinking; nation-states plod too slowly to react to global change. Besides, she firmly believes that if corporations ignore environmental problems, "it will ultimately erode their profitability. So at some level there is -- there should be -- a convergence between corporate interests and sustainability."
Her husband agrees. "One of the bottom lines is, it's not in the interest of any company to do harm," he says. "Why would a company want to do that?"
Er ... why did Monsanto produce Agent Orange? "Well, nobody knew, did they?" he fires back. "The government said, "We want Agent Orange.' Unless you adopt the extreme point of view that you are not going to cooperate because there might be some bad environmental impact later....
"Major companies will be, are, a major factor if we are going to win world sustainability," he concludes. "There is nothing I'm condemning Monsanto for."
The Garden received $3 million from Monsanto in their last fundraising campaign (almost one-third of the total contributions from Civic Progress companies). Monsanto also contributed land and a large chunk of the $146 million startup money for the Danforth Plant Science Center. Monsanto matches its employees' contributions to the Garden ($225,000 last year) and contributes to the operating fund ($25,000 last year). Trustees give privately, too, and in past years the Garden has had Monsanto CEO Robert Shapiro, Monsanto vice president Tom K. Smith and Monsanto research-and- development director Howard Schneiderman on its governing board. Now the Garden is collaborating with Monsanto's nutrition sector on a food library, collecting samples of all plants used worldwide as foods and medicines. (The World Resources Institute lists Monsanto as a bioprospector since 1989 and lists its collector, as of 1993, as the Missouri Botanical Garden.)
When Confluence, an environmental quarterly, criticized Monsanto, the Garden's PR woman pulled it from their literature table.
When we asked Raven whether he's ever criticized Monsanto, he says, "Hmm. I can't really remember. I may have. I think I probably have. But I can't really remember."
Environmentalists make cracks about Raven's blinding ego and corporate-sponsored sex life. But underneath, they're genuinely puzzled. He's still, after all, a member of the Sierra Club -- and this August, Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope wrote President Bill Clinton to demand labeling of GM foods; extensive research into long-term effects; and removal of antibiotic resistance genes from all GM food crops. Ken Midkiff, director of the Missouri Sierra Club, says that environmentally, "Raven's done many good things -- but this is one of the things where he's not so good. As a scientist he should view (biotech) with great skepticism. But there are a lot of scientists who normally would be calling for more studies, and in this case it appears they've decided to let money dictate where their mouth is." (As for biotech feeding the world, Midkiff notes that the Green Revolution had the same rationale -- and India's still starving. "By importing our brand of culture and food to indigenous communities, we have destroyed agricultural systems that sustained them for millennia.")
Longtime St. Louis environmentalist Kay Drey thinks St. Louis is lucky to have Raven: "He's done more than anyone else in the world to educate people about preserving rainforests. And I love everything about the new Monsanto Center except its name. But I'm very concerned about GM organisms and the manipulation of crops, and Peter is just not concerned, and I don't know why."
"He's a fine scientist," notes a nationally respected biologist. "I think he's just lost his critical judgment on this issue. The ecological and evolutionary down side is so obvious, and he just brushes it aside. Is he dazed by Monsanto, has he swallowed their line? Or has he made a decision that the future of the Garden, and Washington University, depend on a close relationship with Monsanto? He's a good biopolitician...."
So good, in fact, almost no one will criticize him to his face. "He's got an elephant's memory," an acquaintance mutters, "and a newborn's tender skin." After 13 terms as home secretary for the National Academy of Sciences, Raven wields enough power to scotch grants and poison carefully nurtured projects.
Still, purists call him an old-fashioned reductionist who'd rather bring home little bits of the vanishing world than protect whole ecosystems from being plundered. "He operates out of a kind of Teddy Roosevelt view of the world, a stuffed-animal-in-a-glass-case model," remarks one activist. "A rainforest is an extraordinarily complex system. To say that grabbing a dozen or even 100 of its pieces will save it is like saying if you chip some flakes of paint off the "Mona Lisa' you can preserve the masterpiece."
Raven pronounces such criticism "ridiculous. What we do is try to understand it, then put that information in the hands of people in the countries where the forests exist." He warms to his subject, and soon it becomes clear: He is thoroughly resigned to what his friend, writer Bill McKibben, wistfully named "the end of nature." Raven thinks it's too late for a hands-off ecology that honors nature's rhythms and apologizes for human arrogance. "Human beings are already totally dominating nature," he says. "People are really managing the world." Does that sadden him? "What makes me sad is that the world is going downhill and becoming less and less interesting," he replies crisply.
Hence his hopes for biotech, and his carefully concealed contempt for the farmers, consumers, European activists and scientists who disagree.
"I just wish Peter was more reflective, more willing to engage with the people he calls naysayers," comments his old friend Wes Jackson of Salina, Kan., a geneticist who heads the Land Institute and who will disagree publicly, even at the risk of alienating a man he admires. "Peter's a born biologist, and what's happened to the Garden under his tenure is impressive. But I don't think he's critical enough of what oligarchy can do. The fact that living substance, germplasm, can become the property of a corporation is going to come at a cost." He sighs heavily. "I think the boundaries of consideration need to be broader than Peter's willing to make them. In a certain sense he's a paid traveling salesman for Monsanto."
Peter Raven was born June 13, 1936, in Shanghai, with exotic dinner parties and high finance swirling around his bassinet. His father had gone to work for an uncle's bank. Then a scandal erupted (Chinese banking rules had changed precipitously) and the uncle lost his newly made $1 million. Young Peter's parents returned to California, wrenching him from the Chinese amah who'd nursed and tended him more assiduously than his own mother.
Boyhood was an extended romp through the fields of golden California. At 8, Raven started collecting bugs and plants; at 12 he joined the Sierra Club; at 15 he discovered a heather unseen for 50 years; at 16 he discovered a member of the evening primrose family unseen since 1900.
It was the Bay Area landscape that shaped Raven's conscious experience, yet to this day he feels an inexplicable affinity for all things Chinese, and the memory of that amah still warms him (he keeps her picture, carefully restored and color-tinted, on his desk). As an adult, he asked his mother how the separation had affected him. "She said I cried for two weeks and didn't eat well for a year," he reports solemnly.
His eldest daughter, Alice Raven, also thinks his generation suffered from the Shanghai syndrome, driven to succeed by oblique hints of their elders' disappointing fall. In any event, Peter was the only child of attentive, meticulous parents -- a father who actually enjoyed doing the dishes, a mother who wore white gloves to Mass and dressed her son in little pressed shorts.
Details come from family members; Raven, despite a healthy ego, talks loquaciously on any subject except himself. "Childhood? Ah, well, I was little...." he says, trailing off. Asked the source of his aesthetic, he shrugs and says his home was "tidy." He doesn't even tell the life-altering story of the butterfly-specimen pins, a special gift to him from a Chinese doctor. Young Peter, a budding entomologist, was already involved in the California Academy of Sciences' student section. When they saw the pins, scarce in wartime, they decided the child had stolen them. According to family members, he never explained, never sobbed to his parents about the black cloud. He simply switched to botany.
Raven planned to teach high-school science but wound up with a doctorate and a faculty position at Stanford University. At 22, he'd married his high-school sweetheart, Sally Barrett; 10 disappointing years later, she died of a cerebral hemorrhage, leaving him with two daughters and a remarkably blank memory. "He was so intensely interested in his work," explains Alice. "If I ask him about my mother, he really can't remember anything. I don't think it's conscious selective amnesia, but it's selective amnesia nonetheless.
"He and my mother were already separated when she died," continues Alice. "He was in the hospital, in traction with a broken leg he'd gotten skiing with Tamra." The hurt in her voice is unmistakable: Her dad never did understand how bereft his little girls felt when he hired a live-in housekeeper, dug back into his all-consuming work and, eight months later, married the 23-year-old Tamra. (Early biographical accounts identify her as a fellow biologist he noticed during a '67 visit to Costa Rica, watching, captivated, as she skinned a poisonous fer-de-lance reeking of recent prey. The real story unfolded a bit more prosaically: Tamra was a graduate student in Stanford's biology department, Raven one of its faculty's young turks.)
At Stanford, he did unprecedentedly detailed research on the languid, droopy fuchsia plants that couldn't have been less like him, and he wrote what's considered the world's best botany textbook, Biology of Plants. He also compared notes with colleague Paul Ehrlich over morning coffee, and together they developed the theory of coevolution. (Raven knew that mustard plants produced a harsh, horseradishey chemical in self-defense; Ehrlich knew that certain butterflies had acquired -- evolved -- a taste for it. By charting this delicate reciprocal dance, they spelled out far wider implications that, until then, no one had heeded.)
Already a collector and scholar, Raven was now beginning to finger the fragile knots in the web of life. Back in grad school, no one had even known rainforests were in danger; all you had to do, Raven says, was "keep away from the bandidos." But in 1962, Raven -- a bushy black beard grazing his dashiki -- read Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, early notice that the Green Revolution's pesticides were turning farms into killing fields. In 1967, when he taught in Costa Rica, he noticed with a sinking heart that "things were really getting cut down." Over the next three decades, he watched a world indifferent to huge losses of topsoil; destruction of forests; pollution; energy waste; global warming; overpopulation; and an extinction of plants and animals unparalleled since the dark death that ended the Cretaceous Period 65 million years ago.
As Raven gained stature, he began speaking out, using dramatic sound-bite statistics to galvanize his audiences. Always, he laced the doom with a natural optimism, making it palatable. His curriculum vitae grew so long that it looks as if an imposter got carried away. He received a MacArthur "genius grant," 15 honorary doctorates and three pages' worth of international prizes. Today he chairs the biodiversity panel of the President's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology, as well as the National Geographic Society's prestigious committee on research and exploration (launcher of Dian Fossey, Jane Goodall and the Leakeys, among others).
Even his name connotes praise, the long "a" of "rave" rolling out smooth as red carpet. On top of all that, he's nice. Thoughtful. Chats with his PR woman about books, then has a box of his favorites delivered to her the next morning. Sends his daughter a case of the wine she liked at dinner. Gets people jobs, grants and awards. Remembers the details of their lives more precisely than he remembers his own.
"Look at that -- isn't that beautiful?" Raven veers the golf cart to the side of the Garden path. "Snakeshead, I think it's called." He peers closer. "Oh! It's not what I thought at all." The air's heavy with challenged ego. Aha, you're thinking, he's goofed -- how will he handle it?
Turns out the sign's wrong -- that, or the plants have slyly rearranged themselves. Raven's out of the golf cart in a flash, double-checking, and there's an edge to his voice he might not lighten when he chastises whoever's responsible. Fallible humans, driven to keep up with a Nature that, however formally they choreograph it, keeps dancing wildly.
The director's displeasure dissipates. "Hi!" he calls cheerily to a mother and daughter looking for the Nanjing Friendship Garden. "Don't worry, I won't run you over!" He steers around the Bank of America Family Vegetable Garden and heads toward the scented garden for the blind, reciting a spontaneous litany of which donor gave which lantern, which sculpture, which bench.
He made this tour for the first time back in 1971 as the hotshot new 36-year-old director chosen to shake things up. Before him lay a staid scape indeed, dotted with lily pools, a rose garden, some venerable herbs and Bucky Fuller's geodesic Climatron. "Nobody ever planned it as The Garden," explains Raven. "I didn't understand the history at that time, but I did think there ought to be more different kinds of things here for people to enjoy." He hired experts and inked a master plan, choosing course carefully.
"Plants are becoming extinct so fast, I could've said we ought to spend all the money we can get our hands on to do research," he confides. "But I just intuitively knew that the Garden was a St. Louis institution and could only do things in a big way if it had the support of the people in St. Louis."
So he won it, carving 14 flat acres into the rolling, harmonious Japanese Garden whose secretive vistas soon became world-famous; reorienting the Garden entrance with a gleaming, commodious new visitors' center; hosting classes and festivals for everything from Kwanzaa to Hanukkah. Along the way, he brought the Garden's endowment up to $60 million; the membership to nearly 35,000; the staff to 367; the annual budget to $21.2 million (with $6.1 million coming from local property taxes).
Now the master plan's essentially finished, awaiting only an $8.5 million Desert House. Raven, who needs about four hours' sleep a night and has myriad interests but no hobbies save his work, swears he won't get bored; gardens change constantly. Still, you can feel the center of gravity shifting outward, to the serious global issues that tempted him from the start.
He parks near the newly emerging Strassenfest Garden (ignoring the workmen hand-digging a trench beneath a hackberry tree, cursing because he won't let them use power tools). Raven's heading for a special staff meeting; the Garden's been invited to take the lead in establishing a research center in the Caribbean, and he's all for it. "Botanical enterprises there are starved for money," he reminds staff members, "yet 60 percent of the plants are found nowhere else. A center with faculty, making small grants throughout the region ... it could make all the difference. I look at it as a responsibility."
A born risk-taker, he's careful but not cautious, simply suggesting they "keep the institutional focus narrow for now," get the right partners, set it up to become self-sufficient. The group brainstorms -- or, rather, Raven does, mentally thumbing his Rolodex. "Off the top of my head, I would say the Field Museum. They're Midwestern, our collaborations with them have been sweet, and you'd instantly get a lot of depth in anthropology and zoology.... I'd send an e-mail to the director, who's at Kew right now, and ask who to talk to. Then the Zoo -- that's logical; the Wildlife Conservation Society; World Wildlife Fund; Nature Conservancy. Ask what foundations have been active in the Caribbean. And get marine people, someone who works on coral reefs. The top person at the National Science Foundation who's relevant. National Institutes of Health could well be a participant, for tropical medicines...."
His staff look dizzy. The same look returns the next day on the face of his marketing director, when Raven rattles off a detailed plan to hire someone to canvass the East Side, "find out where the natural alliances are and what cultural institutions we could collaborate with." Smiling wanly, she adds it to a lengthy to-do list. "Bueno, bueno," Raven says heartily.
He's working steadily to raise the Garden's notoriously low pay -- but that's not the only reason for the turnover.
Tuesday's managers' meeting is held so early, the Garden's sprinklers cross each other like searchlights in the morning mist. Education director Larry DeBuhr quietly reports that he's leaving for Capetown, South Africa, to develop an exchange program with their botanical garden. "I can't say more; I'm not sure about the details yet."
"I can, because I have it completely in my imagination!" announces Raven, who proceeds to expound. Then he asks employees to write elderly benefactors and urges more programming with the Coca-Cola Foundation. "That's why I'm drinking this Diet Coke," he jokes, stroking the can. He listens with interest to the next report, hands folded in his lap. "Since it's their lab and it's named for them and everything, they'd be the first place you'd look for money," he offers. "Hmmm. Great!" Another report. "I just had an idea as you were talking, Larry. With the leadership changing, it might be opportune to visit people in NSF (National Science Foundation), schmooze around, see how the programs are changing. Being there is never a mistake.
"Keith, could we hear a little report on Y2K? You know, Monsanto is in a steady state of uproar, replacing things all year." Then comes a report on the new private dining room's Italian table, marooned in customs. Raven doesn't care -- it's the next handout he pounces on. "Can't we even spell "Shoenberg' correctly in our own literature?"
He leaves with deputy director Jonathan Kleinbard, a wry, smart pessimist whose background spans journalism, social work and University of Chicago administration. Kleinbard has his kitchen tap rigged for espresso; it takes him four cups every morning to reach Raven's energy level. "Peter doesn't have a bone of cynicism in him," sighs Kleinbard. "He sees the glass half-full; I say, "No, Peter, it's full of dirty water.'" Long pause. "I think I depress him."
Actually the two make a good team, arguing from amiably opposite corners. Still, the deputy director isn't even a botanist, let alone Raven's successor. "The Garden has a very unique structure," notes Kleinbard. "There's Peter Raven, and there's everybody else. In most organizations, that doesn't work; here, it does, because of his vision, his strength of personality, his almost maniacal attention to detail. There isn't anything he asks someone at the Garden to do that he doesn't turn around and ask someone else to do, too. He's not undercutting; he just can't rest. It's enough to drive you totally batshit."
Things do, however, get done. And if a project smacks into an obstacle, Raven makes an end run. (It took him years to find partners for Flora Mesoamericana, a catalog of all 18,000 species in Central America, but when he did, they made discoveries that traced Africa and South America to the same land mass. To finance the Japanese Garden, he managed to get state money by simply selling Missouri an easement.) "I keep a lot of footballs in the air," he grins, "so there are always some waiting to be caught."
He enjoys the metaphor, using it so often you want to hold his hands behind his back until all those footballs hit the ground. Raven's busyness was Fish's single hesitation about marrying him: "Will he ever be quiet long enough for me to have ideas? He can get on this frenzied path, moving so fast, trying to handle everything. He once said, "I've got a ratlike brain,'" she chuckles.
The effect can be intimidating. "His brain is always on," sighs daughter Alice. "Sometimes I'll be nervous around him and just babble. But he catches and corrects everything." He also interrupts everybody, including himself, until his comments seem like a Spirograph of tangents. In reality, says his longtime friend and textbook collaborator, George Johnson, "he's never left. He's thinking on all those levels at once, talking to you about one thing while he's thinking about something else. He's the only multilevel thinker I've ever met."
About the only thing Raven can't understand is why Europeans -- and environmentalists, and scientists he used to respect, and developing nations -- are so worried about biotech. "Since the beginning of agriculture, people have modified, captured, consumed and channeled living organisms," he reminded a worried audience in India, insisting that those techniques "are no different in principle from the ways we are talking about now."
DNA, says Raven, is DNA -- nothing special or mysterious, just "strings of bases which, in triplets, specify the amino acids that make up proteins. When people talk about taking genes from one distantly related organism to another, they talk as if every gene in a mouse had a little mouse on it and putting it somewhere else would be bizarre. A lot of different organisms use similar or nearly identical genes to do the same job. If you are just talking about sequence of bases, human beings are about 98.5 percent similar to chimpanzees. If you look at it by the genes' functions, a man and a mouse are essentially 100 percent identical. People talk as if they were incredibly different kinds of things."
It was the early hype that made us think of GM organisms as distinct, special commodities, he adds. "Once you can label GM stuff as a thing, it's going, "Ooh!' (he wiggles his fingers to the shrill sound) and it escapes." He resumes his normal tone. "There is nothing, to my mind, which has been shown, either practically or theoretically, which would make GM products dangerous or different."
The possibility that randomly inserted genes of other organisms could spread in the wild doesn't alarm him. "If they did slip into another organism, would that really be a bad thing?" he retorts. "While on the ecological side I wouldn't trivialize the possibility that some combination of genes might produce, say, a new weed, is that really an ecological disaster?"
Critics say it could be -- especially if people in power continue to be so blithe about the risks. "It's this very sanguineness that's worrisome," exclaims Ruth Hubbard, professor emeritus of biology at Harvard. "Traditional breeding is a very slow and conservative process. When you introduce foreign things, you don't know what you're doing. Genes function as part of a system. And they may function differently than you expect."
In Monsanto's labs, genetic engineering is relatively precise, because investigators are working under such controlled circumstances, in a petri dish of two or three proteins. Still, they're usually using an aggressive virus as a carrier, and they're inserting the new gene randomly, so nobody's sure where it will land. Then, once the modified organism enters the real world, its genes will interact with thousands of other proteins, under an unpredictable array of circumstances.
"Peter tends to think DNA is DNA is DNA," says Wes Jackson. "I take the position that it's context-dependent." In other words, the inserted gene brings a lot of possible interactions along with it, and if the background shifts, you'll see consequences you never anticipated. "Peter and I had a discussion at Monsanto, and I simply said this: I am not against all biotech. What I feel is that it's all right to move genes around within plant families, within the grasses or the legumes, but not from long evolutionary distance.
"The real danger of this enthusiastic biotech boosterism is that nothing really bad will happen for 20 years," continues Jackson. "By then, we will have, institutionally and biologically, set the stage for problems from which the exits -- if they exist at all -- will be painful. You carry your mistakes with you, and with biotech you're doing more than carry your mistake; you're carrying a shifted background of accommodation to that mistake.
"There is a place for it," he finishes, "but with fear and trembling. Not with trumpets blaring hosannas."
Raven may not trust government to build a sustainable future, but he sure does trust it to monitor the corporate version. On Oct. 22, he cheered biotech for an hour on KMOX-AM, reminding listeners that "Americans tend to have more faith in their government than Europeans do. Most Europeans feel that their governments are in much closer league with big business."
What about the revolving door that placed Mickey Kantor, former secretary of the U.S. Commerce Department and former U.S. trade representative, on the nine-member board of Monsanto? What about the fact that deputy commissioner Michael Taylor, who wrote the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations saying it wasn't necessary to label GM foods, had been a consultant for Monsanto? So, for more than a decade, had John Gibbon, the U.S. Office of Technological Assessment chief who assured the FDA that Monsanto's GM bovine growth factor was safe. The list goes on.
"Well, I'm not an expert on the degree to which that's happened," replies Raven. "What can I say? It's almost a glass-half-full kind of situation. If they are experts, it would be natural that they are moving around. Sharing a pool of highly trained people is not that bad an idea, provided there are checks and balances."
Just look at Roger Beachy, president of the Danforth Plant Science Center. He testified before the House Agricultural Committee in March, explaining how his lab had collaborated with Monsanto on the world's first disease-resistant plant; then listing biotech's benefits and begging the committee not to impose any trade barriers or slow-down regulations. "The Food and Drug Administration has developed a longstanding history of food safety," Beachy reminded the legislators. "The seed industry also has in place well-developed protocols."
Those protocols were developed for traditional breeding, not genetic engineering. As for governmental regulation, "The Federal Government is one of three partners, along with the industrial and academic communities, in the collaborative venture that is biotechnology research and development," boasts a 1995 report from the National Science and Technology Council. In 1996, the Biotechnology Risk Assessment grant program had $1.7 million to offer for research into risks of "gene transfer," "additional pathogenicity," "changes in viral host ranges" and "potential for nontarget effects." Monsanto spent 70 times that much researching its own commercial products. Two years later, its budget for technological research, commercial development and patents was almost $1.4 billion.
(Patents, incidentally, are another biotech controversy Raven sits out. Monsanto currently holds 3,766 patents, with an unrevealed number pending. Some of the existing patents are so broad, they cover all GM cotton and brassica; all modified soy in Europe; all neem wax; and countless seeds, the first links in the global food chain. The very concept of owning plants and other life forms strikes many -- especially in the developing world, where each life form has its own spirit and right of existence -- as bizarre, unethical or unjust. "Mmm," says Raven. "I don't have any really very useful opinion on that. I'm generally thinking that a certain amount of patenting is OK. I don't find it illogical.")
The Garden has good reason to trust government agencies' benevolence: The largest single gift to their recent campaign was $7.7 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. When a caller to KMOX pointed out that the FDA does not require long-term health studies on GM organisms, Raven assured her, "The FDA will do basically whatever the people of the U.S. want them to do."
According to documents recently released by court order in the antitrust lawsuits against Monsanto and other companies, scientists from the FDA have long acknowledged, among themselves, potential problems with GM foods that they have never made public.
Raven speaks passionately against monoculture and the alien, invasive species that take over habitats, destroying indigenous plants and animals. Yet he waves aside the criticisms that agricultural biotech itself encourages monoculture, saps diversity and helps weeds and pests develop resistance to chemical controls. He also dismisses the point that GM crops are themselves alien species, introduced into an ecosystem where they didn't evolve naturally and artificially endowed with traits that will give them an evolutionary advantage.
"About 1.5 billion of the world's people live in absolute poverty," Raven exclaims, so sincerely concerned that he's urging developed nations to forgive the Third World's debts. Yet he has no problem -- at least not publicly -- with a corporation that controls a significant chunk of the world's supply of seeds and paid its CEO $19.7 million last year.
Raven worries about toxins, yet he's perfectly comfortable with Monsanto's Roundup herbicide. Granted, it's proved far less toxic than the old versions -- but it's now being dumped in unprecedented volumes. The 6.3 million pounds estimated in 1986 has grown to 60-75 million, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and they're getting lobbied for even higher tolerances. According to the EPA, long-term exposure can cause kidney and reproductive damage, and we're not sure yet about cancer. There's already a human condition labeled "Roundup pneumonia" in the medical literature; and Roundup poisons beneficial soil fungi, insects, earthworms and fish. Heavy use is also encouraging naturally resistant weeds like water hemp by killing off all its competition, and it's altering habitats for birds and other creatures by eradicating the plants they snack on. Roundup Ready GM seeds are designed to allow farmers to pour Roundup right on top of the crop and kill only the weeds. Volume growth for Roundup last year was 2,801 percent in Argentina, 647 percent in Brazil; Monsanto estimates the worldwide potential for Roundup-Ready crops as more than 620 million acres.
Then there are Monsanto's "Bt" crops, engineered with material taken from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis to produce a natural pesticide long used by organic farmers. (That'll end; large-scale use of GM crops is already creating resistance in the insect population.) Raven says he can't understand why "an organic farmer would be happy to grow Bt as "natural' but look at engineering the same toxin into a plant as unnatural." But organic farmers say it's a problem of degree: When Bt is engineered into crops, it courses through the plant for most of its life, and it's produced throughout the entire growing season, regardless of the level of infestation.
"Indiscriminate use of antibiotics is a good medical analogy," notes Dr. David Kennell, professor emeritus of molecular microbiology at Washington University School of Medicine. He's tired of Raven and other colleagues presenting any caution about biotech as "unscientific emotionalism." But Raven thinks people overreact -- especially when they hear that Bt crops threaten those magnificently sympathetic monarch butterflies. "If there are monarchs migrating through, and if there are milkweed plants the farmers haven't eliminated" (milkweed, the only plant on which monarchs lay their eggs, serves as food for the caterpillars) "and if they become heavily coated with pollen, the monarchs won't live," concedes Raven. "But to single that out is to forget about Silent Spring and what we are trying to do here. Pesticides cause $9 billion worth of damage a year. You have to balance a small iffy side effect against the good you are doing."
Monsanto, for example, claims that by modifying plants to produce a natural insecticide, they've "done more to reduce (conventional) insecticide use than all of Greenpeace's campaigns put together," in the words of spokesman Gary Barton.
Organic farmers and environmentalists have their own suggestions for reducing pesticides: rotate crops so you're not depleting the soil and encouraging specific pests; do companion plantings that repel pests; design habitats that welcome the pests' predators. Raven simply doesn't think any of that can be done on a scale large enough to feed a growing population. Anyway, he says, "It just seems to me that people are going to want to use the modern way."
Raven's not wild about the idea of showing a reporter around his house, but he accedes, even grudgingly introducing the two family dogs (he doesn't like dogs) and pausing at the kitchen message board. Below the pizza-delivery numbers is a note from his daughter Katie to Clara, Kate Fish's daughter: "Smoothie in fridge." "Clara was sick this morning," Raven explains, pleased to see how smoothly, indeed, his and Fish's families have merged.
He's less comfortable when grilled about their lifestyle. "We recycle up to a point," he shrugs. "It's just as hard for us as for anybody else." He makes $184,000 a year but doesn't bother screening their investments for environmental responsibility, because "any money we have is pooled in a fund somebody else directs." There are sport-utility-vehicle tread marks in his driveway. "We have three, among our children," he blurts, cheeks reddening at the contrast to his impassioned speeches about energy waste and overconsumption.
More pragmatic than purist, Raven prefers big-picture conversations, projects where the stakes are global. He wants plant science to heal the world, and he wants St. Louis to become a world center for plant-science research. Convinced that biotech poses no real risks, that governmental regulation is adequate and that corporations will do the right thing, he's weary of the naysayers. "Negativity makes Peter Raven upset," notes Jonathan Kleinbard. Fish says he's "an unbelievable optimist -- it's almost like he can only see the good side of things." And Alice Raven says the quips and sarcasm her dad uses to deflect darkness or avoid murky emotions are a family trait: "We can almost get hysterical at funerals."
Her sister Elizabeth Raven McQuinn remembers seeing their father scared only once, on Disney World's Space Mountain, when they plunged right into the darkness. "Why am I throwing my life away on this ride?" he wailed.
But the minute they emerged into sunshine, he was himself again: a can-do scientist, raising a glass half-full to the corporate ingenuity that is, in his mind, the world's last best hope.