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When Bill Lambrecht—a Washington correspondent for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch—decided to write a book about the advent of genetically engineered food, he didn’t just do interviews. A hard-boiled native of the rich corn-growing region of central Illinois, Lambrecht, 51, decided to plant some genetically modified seeds in his own back yard to see if they lived up to their reputation for hardiness and bountiful harvests.

Planting those seeds without a license—as Lambrecht did—encumbered him with a fair degree of legal risk. If the manufacturer (which is unnamed in the book) so wished, it could take Lambrecht to court for the theft and use of protected intellectual property. It could also discipline Lambrecht’s surreptitious provider, who is also left unnamed. As Lambrecht explains in his new book, Dinner at the New Gene Cafe: How Genetic Engineering Is Changing What We Eat, How We Live, and the Global Politics of Food, such high-handed enforcement is not rare. The agribusiness giant Monsanto, for instance, has been known to use satellites and detectives to track down crops planted with unlicensed seeds, he writes.

Such clamping down—a new development in agricultural history, he says—is one of many things that worry critics of genetically engineered crops. The critics also express concern about potential health risks to consumers, as well as the spread of altered genes into traditional crops—including genes designed to make crops kill themselves after one generation, thus ensuring farmers’ dependence on corporate seed supplies.

Lambrecht, who has been writing about genetically engineered food since the ’80s, says that he expects argibusiness executives to dislike his book because it gives the industry’s critics ample space to air their complaints. But though Lambrecht talks up the importance of proper government regulation and research about the health and environmental impacts of the new technologies, he says that he’s actually more middle-of-the-road than most agribusiness executives assume. “This is a powerful, transforming technology—one that I don’t believe can be stuffed back into the bottle,” he says. “I think the technology could offer some real hope down the line for the food supply.” —Louis Jacobson