Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Sex and Pringle's Dandelions

The sexual life of the dandelion is more interesting than anyone thinks… so Peter Pringle discovered in researching a recent non-fiction book Food Inc.

Grigor Mendel, the Austrian monk who discovered the laws of genetics by scrutinising peas over many generations of their immaculate sexual reproduction, could not account for the dandelion. Spawned from this discovery is Pringle's hero, Arthur Hemmings, an unlikely cross between Botanist Boffin and Bond. In this first novel, Day of the Dandelion, Hemmings works at Kew Gardens but is under special assignment as agent for the British Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, a task which he interprets liberally in the name of freedom of thought and common access to genetic resources.

The Holy Grail of genetic research is to get food plants, particularly grains, to reproduce asexually, and to continue to so, in effect cloning themselves. (Actually, Pringle does not get into it, but this form of monoculture is also fairly dangerous, since as with potatoes and bananas, the crop is left open to the rapid spread of diseases).

But even more dangerous is the prospect of an unscrupulous multinational company patenting and monopolizing genetic discoveries of this kind. Some farmers have already been sued for having patented maize lines growing on their farms – whether they knew it or not.

But these weeds are killers. There is mayhem and lawlessness in those labs, with several deaths and near misses as unscrupulous multinationals backed by governments who see the agricultural future in sexlessness pursue naïve but dedicated good academics trying to beat corporate patents.

The researches of the engaging, energetic and somewhat sybaritic Hemmings who has no intention of emulating the celibacy of the asexual plants he studies, allow Pringle to disparage the increasing role of business in academic institutions, such as Oxford, actively promulgated by the British government. In parts Pringle is lamenting and gently lampooning a rapidly disappearing middle class Britain, which however mistakenly, though it knew what it stood for.

What begins as the enjoyable hokum of a secret agent who kicks corporate tails in the crotch on behalf of seeds and weeds soon becomes quite plausible in what Pringle suggests is just one in a series. I look forward to more Arthur Hemmings adventures with this stimulating hybrid of science and politics.

Day of the Dandelion

Food Inc

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