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A protester’s change of heart sheds light on the public’s reservations about genetic engineering

Seeds of Science: Why We Got It So Wrong on GMOs

Mark Lynas
Bloomsbury Sigma
2018
304 pp.
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As a biologist working to understand how plants sense and survive in stressful environments, I hope that some of my laboratory’s findings will contribute to a more sustainable society by reducing the environmental costs of growing food. Any success we achieve will likely involve the use of genetic modification (GM) technology. But this method of crop improvement has become the subject of a contentious debate that has tempered the enthusiasm of many governments and food producers.

In Seeds of Science, Mark Lynas gives readers a firsthand look at both sides of the discourse. Lynas, formerly a dyed-in-the-wool anti-GM activist for Greenpeace, is now an advocate for the safe use of GM technology. The book begins with heart-racing accounts of the law-breaking activities Lynas engaged in as one of the pioneers of the anti-GM movement. We follow along as he slashes corn plants in a research field, runs from police, and tears through documents in the Monsanto headquarters. But then Lynas comes face to face with evidence that contradicts what he thought he knew about GM technology. “Certainly it was very worrying if real scientists—not to mention the scientific community in general—were on the other side from me on this issue,” he writes. By the end of chapter 7, science has won the debate.

Most major global scientific organizations have firmly stated that science backs the efficacy and safety of genetic engineering. Yet in the minds of many, consuming food with a GM organism (GMO)–free label is a must. So what went wrong? Lynas argues that applying GM technology first to herbicide-resistant crops was a mistake that aligned the chemical manufacturing industry—which was already regarded with skepticism—with the burgeoning technology. If pest-resistant crops that allowed farmers to apply fewer chemical pesticides had been introduced first, the narrative might have been different.

The book’s subtitle, “Why we got it so wrong on GMOs,” may, at first, seem to refer to the activists at Greenpeace. But Lynas might believe the people who “got it so wrong” are those who believed that a scientific argument would be sufficient to convince the public of the safety and utility of GM crops.

GEORGES GOBET/STAFF/GETTY IMAGES

A merger of agribusiness giants Bayer and Monsanto, approved on 29 May 2018, has some concerned.

Lynas finds that what actually bothers many people about genetically engineered crops is that to produce a GMO, genes and genomes are treated like resources and tools for scientists and engineers at large multinational companies to manipulate at will. Many feel that there is something sacred about nature and that it should be preserved, as much as possible, in an untouched state.

“Let’s use science as the wonderful tool that it is,” Lynas encourages, “but let’s also respect people’s feelings and moral intuitions about the proper extent of human intrusion into the biosphere.” This sentiment could be a starting point in a new discussion—one that focuses on evaluating the most effective ways of preserving the natural world.

Indeed, GM technology has already dramatically improved a number of indices of environmental health. Chemical pesticide use is down by an estimated 37% due to the introduction of Bacillus thuringiensis–based insect control, which in turn has increased insect biodiversity. GMOs are also reducing the carbon footprint of agriculture, with an estimated 26 million tons of carbon dioxide being saved in 2015 alone.

Implementation of GM technology in agriculture is limited to a few multinational companies due to the tremendous cost associated with the regulatory process. Lynas points out how efforts by Greenpeace have created a system in which “only the most profitable mass-market global commodity crops have been worth investing in.” “Activism has been the most successful in locking out small and public sector players…thus cementing exactly the monopolistic situation that many campaigners say they are fighting against.”

In the end, Lynas draws a line in the sand. If Greenpeace and other environmental advocacy organizations are going to fight the use of genetic engineering in agriculture, the old arguments—that GMO crops are unsafe for consumption or ecologically hazardous—need to be abandoned. “We have already wasted 20 years fighting over a mere seed-breeding technique that—used sensibly and in the public interest—can certainly help global efforts to fight poverty and make agriculture more sustainable,” he writes. “Let’s not waste 20 more.”

 

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Biology, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305, USA.