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by Ruth Ozeki

Ruth Ozeki is one of my heroes. She’s able to write really enjoyable novels that actually bring to light important environmental and social issues. Her first book, “My Year of Meats” concentrated on the factory farming of animals. In her latest book “All over Creation,” she tackles agribusiness and genetically modified (GM) foods.

Ozeki’s books are so accessible because she merges faces and stories with the issues, enabling the reader to identify with them. We can’t help but empathize with the potato farmer trapped in a cycle of chemical use, on which he blames his wife’s frequent miscarriages and her struggle with breast cancer. Wanting a way out, he feels compelled to plant GM potatoes based on the manufacturer’s promise that he will be able to “reduce chemical inputs by more than half.”

Another potato farmer has suffered multiple heart attacks and colon cancer. It’s never stated in the book that his illnesses have anything to do with his occupation. The reader may wonder why all these farmers are having so many health problems. This farmer, however, does not believe that GM crops are the answer. In fact, he publicly denounces genetic engineering on principle – not because of environmental or health reasons – but because he feels it is a sin against God. He believes creating “novel life forms that have never before existed on God’s earth” is like trying to become gods ourselves.

The book does educate the reader on the environmental and health concerns of genetically modified goods. A band of environmental activists called the “Seeds” travel the country in a biodiesel vehicle that runs on used fast food fryer oil. They stage demonstrations at supermarkets to speak out against GM foods. Again, Ozeki takes it a step deeper so the reader doesn’t just see them as a group of badly dressed, pierced, dreadlocked kids. We get to know each activist and come to understand their individual personalities, emotions, and motivations.

Many other issues beside commercial agriculture are addressed in the book as well. Ozeki intertwines generational differences, corporate greed, political resistance, and globalization in a story that will give the reader plenty to think about long after he or she has read the last page.

One of the biggest strengths of this book is that it is fiction, giving it the potential to reach a wide range of people – some who may not even know they regularly eat genetically modified foods or that there are questions about their safety. Most nonfiction books on food politics are preaching to the choir because they’re often only read by those who already share that particular view. This book has the opportunity to reach people who might not normally look for books that expose problems in the corporate food industries. Another difference between this and many political books is that it presents multiple sides of the issues – leaving the reader to form his or her own conclusions.

I’m so pleased that Cal Poly chose this book for its Preface Program this year. I highly recommend you read it and then attend one of the community discussion groups at your local SLO County Library.

Cathe Olson is the author of “Simply Natural Baby Food” and “The Vegetarian Mother’s Cookbook.” For more information, go to her web site at www.simplynaturalbooks.com .