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Review: How an Environmentalist Changed His Mind About GMOs

Review: How an Environmentalist Changed His Mind About GMOs

It’s hard to change your views when you are passionate about something. Indeed, some cognitive scientists think that holding onto persistent, even if untrue, ideas may have been evolutionarily selected for in the distant past. For scientists working on climate change, vaccines, evolution and GMOs, this tendency of significant sections of the public to resist facts that run counter to their existing beliefs can be extremely frustrating. This is why environmentalist Mark Lynas’s new bookSeeds of Science: Why we got it so wrong on GMOs, is such a welcome read: it gives us a peek into the process of changing one’s dearly held opinions, from someone who did so very publicly.

Lynas is perhaps most famous for getting up at the 2013 Oxford Farming Conference (an annual farming conference in the UK that first started in 1936) and giving a speech beginning, “For the record, here and upfront, I apologise for having spent several years ripping up GM crops… I now regret it completely.” Five years on, in his new book, Lynas walks us through this remarkable conversion with disarming, and sometimes brutal, honesty.

The book begins in 1999, with a post-midnight skulk around in a testing site of GM maize somewhere in eastern England. Lynas and a dozen other British activists, dressed in black and improbably armed with machetes and other “sharp tools,” are slashing the “living pollution” that is GM maize, when they’re rudely interrupted by the police.

Mark Lynas. Credit: Youtube
Mark Lynas. Credit: Youtube

Over the 250-odd pages that follow, Lynas introduces us to an eclectic cast of characters, including Vandana Shiva (the face of the anti-GMO movement), George Monbiot (the famed Guardian columnist, and an old anti-GMO comrade-in-arms), Paul Kingsnorth (a Man Booker long-listed novelist, who in the book doubles as Lynas’s antithesis), Professor Marc Van Montagu (one of the inventors of GM technology), Dr Leena Tripathi (a Kenyan scientist working on bananas) and Grace Rehema (a Tanzanian cassava farmer). He deftly uses his personal and professional relationships with these figures to narrate the story, first of how he came to repudiate his former allies and their beliefs, and then to describe his activities in the five years since.

As someone working in the field, I opened the book expecting to be bored by a repetition of often stale arguments and stories. After all, how much could Lynas really add in a debate that’s been raging for more than 30 years? Colour me surprised! Even the chapter about the scientific history of genetic engineering was revelatory, probing deep into the lives of the scientists who first created the technology, even chronicling how GMO research came to be monopolised by Monsanto even though it was first developed by a card-carrying socialist in Belgium.

Later in the book, Lynas shifts focus to ongoing GM field trials in East Africa, and in a chapter that’s become my favourite, he turns his platform over to African scientists and farmers in a manner that both anti-GM and pro-GM campaigners have largely failed to do. The chapter is littered with quotes from African scientists and farmers, all echoing the same frustration with their technological disenfranchisement by a European-funded anti-GMO movement that appears to have captured legislatures across Africa. In one shocking example of this, Lynas recounts how activists used a much-criticised (and now retracted) study to convince the Kenyan health minister, a breast-cancer survivor, that GMOs might have caused her cancer. Lynas also meets Tanzanian scientists and finds that anti-GM activists are spreading lies among farmers that eating GM corn will cause their children to become gay.

People hold signs during one of many worldwide "March Against Monsanto" protests against Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and agro-chemicals, in Los Angeles, California October 12, 2013. Credit: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson
People hold signs during one of many worldwide “March Against Monsanto” protests against Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and agro-chemicals, in Los Angeles, California October 12, 2013. Credit: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson

In nearby Uganda though, Lynas talks to Tripathi, who’s just completed a successful trial of GM, disease-resistant bananas, and finds hope when the government passes a law creating a path for their eventual release to farmers. Thus, in less than 50 pages, packed with stories of both hardship and optimism, Lynas manages to present an intensely emotional appeal for GM technology adoption in Africa, an appeal made largely in the words of the region’s own scientists, farmers, and lawmakers.

While obviously centred around a narrow focus, the second half of the book turns out to be a deeply personal exploration of what it means to be an environmentalist, an activist, a scientist and a progressive. The chapter provocatively titled, “What anti-GMO activists got right” forces the reader to re-examine conceptions of science and environmental activism by giving space to anti-GM environmentalists like Monbiot to expound on their sometimes persuasive objections to current agricultural systems.

Mark Lynas <em>Seeds of Science: Why we got it so wrong on GMOs</em> Bloomsbury, 2018
Mark Lynas
Seeds of Science: Why we got it so wrong on GMOs
Bloomsbury, 2018

Extraordinarily, this chapter comes after Lynas has spent about 50 pages discussing the homophobic propaganda – and outright lies – spread in Africa by the anti-GM movement and otherwise respectable charities like ActionAid; yet his writing still manages to persuade that the anti-GM movement has done some good. And I agree, the sustained opposition to GMO research has made scientists in the field think longer and deeper about the impact of our work, much more than I think we would have if GMO technology saw smooth-sailing in the 1990s.

Disappointingly, Lynas also occasionally embraces anti-GM objections in fields like conservation biology, going on to say, “It is not shameful to reject scientific evidence when it conflicts with a moral case, so long as this is done explicitly.” When pressed, Lynas admitted to me that he meant that it is legitimate to reject science as not relevant to an ethical argument, but not to deny science. Still, his is a flawed argument that has, I think to great harm, found takers in the anti-vaccine movement. In this same spirit of compromise, Lynas, after writing the book, returned to the Oxford Farming Conference a second time to propose a “peace treaty” with the anti-GM movement. He later told me that no one has yet accepted.

Overall this is a book I wish could be found and read in every classroom and every university library. It’s an honest and thorough accounting of the science, issues and emotions involved in the GMO debate, as well as the impact that perceptions of the technology in Europe have in poorer parts of the world. Mark Lynas accurately dissects the differences in thinking between scientists and activists that have stymied any agreement on GMOs for the last 20 years.

However, as I read the last, and possibly most anodyne paragraph of Seeds of Science, I found myself, much like the author, caught between two worldviews, with more questions than answers about the future of GMOs — a technology that I’m still hoping reaches those who need it the most.

Devang Mehta is a biologist at ETH Zurich.

This article was originally published on Massive.

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