Book review – Seeds of Science: Why We Got It So Wrong On GMOs

As a biologist, the opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) both baffles and vexes me. Spurious claims are being bandied about by people and organisations who seemingly haven’t a clue about genetics, and there has been a long-running campaign of fearmongering by large conservation bodies, notably Greenpeace. Like the “debate” around climate change or creationism, the dialogue has become toxic and polarised, and anyone who does not oppose is likely to be called a “Monsanto shill”. As this is first and foremost a book review though, I will try to keep my personal views on this issue aside for another time. This book, then, has a very interesting premise. A book arguing why we got it wrong by on GMOs, written by a former anti-GMO activist.

Seeds of Science

Seeds of Science: Why We Got It So Wrong On GMOs” written by Mark Lynas, published by Bloomsbury in April 2018 (hardback, 288 pages)

Although he is not the first activist to come around, Mark Lynas is, or rather has become, a public figure. His admission and apology at the 2013 Oxford Farming Conference went viral and it is a presentation I recommend you watch.

Seeds of Science starts off with some of the antics he got up to during his time as activist, highlighting his part in getting this movement going and getting an anti-GMO attitude embedded in the public consciousness. It was while writing several books on climate change that Lynas started appreciating the value of doing background research, and found himself trying to reason science with climate change deniers. Accepting the scientific consensus on climate change made him realise he could not accept the science on one topic, but refuse it on another. And so he did what a lot of people seem to be afraid, uneasy, unwilling, or unable to do. He admitted he was wrong and changed his mind.

After giving the reader a short history of genetic engineering (part-based on personal interviews with some of the pioneering researchers) and of biotech company Monsanto (a name which has become synonymous with GMOs), the rest of this book explores the opposition to GMOs, the misinformation that has been spread, and the devastating consequences this is having. Without playing cheerleader for Monsanto, Lynas sticks his head above the proverbial parapet to point out that some of the things they are accused of are simply not true or have been grossly distorted and misrepresented.

“The irony […] the very business monopolies that environmental activists oppose are being brought about by their opposition to GMOs”

Over the years, Lynas has visited countries around Africa and Asia where plant breeders are trying to create crops that need less pesticides or artificial fertiliser, are more drought tolerant, or provide much-needed nutritional benefits (Golden Rice with extra vitamin A being a notable example). These are people literally dying to combat malnutrition, hunger, and the impacts of a changing climate on agriculture. And everywhere, Lynas recounts, he encountered the same story. Influenced by Western NGOs, governments have banned research and development into GMOs. The situation in Europe is much the same. Plenty of crops with useful modifications are ready but are being held up behind bureaucratic red tape. Anti-GMO campaigners in Africa have created hysteria with claims of GMOs causing sterility or homosexuality. In effect, farmers have lost the right to choose how to grow their crops (see also Paarlberg’s Starved for Science).

The irony of all this opposition to GMOs and the resultant regulations is that the only parties who can afford to develop GMOs are large biotech companies. Public sector and open-source initiatives simply can’t take off in this climate. So the very business monopolies that environmental activists oppose are being brought about by their opposition to GMOs. Lynas rightfully dedicates the last chapter to the ultimate hypocrisy Greenpeace committed by putting out a report in November 2015 entitled Twenty Years of Failure: Why GM Crops Have Failed to Deliver on Their Promises. Gosh, could it be, I wonder, because you ceaselessly campaigned against them?

The only thing I found lacking in this book is a dedicated section debunking the false claims of the anti-GMO movement, and correcting the many factual misunderstandings. Granted, a lot of this is woven throughout the text, but for a book subtitled “why we got it so wrong on GMOs”, I would have liked to see this. Instead, Lynas has had enough of the trench warfare that he has found himself embroiled in. In his 2018 presentation at the same Oxford Farming Conference (another presentation I recommend you watch) he outlines a proverbial peace treaty. And in this book, he opens chapter 8 mentioning he had planned such debunking, but decided that enough angry, one-sided books have already been written (though there is enough irrational behaviour on display here to infuriate you). So instead, chapter 8 is called “What anti-GMO activists Got Right”. Here, he seeks out some of the people he fell out with since his change of heart, including Paul Kingsnorth and George Monbiot, to talk more in-depth about their disagreements. And I’ll be honest with you, I think this is a chapter well spent. Even though he disagrees with them on some points, his willingness to open up and talk shows enormous bravery and maturity.

“Has it ever occurred to anyone in this debate that you can be both pro-GMO (the tool), but anti-Monsanto (the wielder of that tool)?”

Finally, it is worth pointing out that Lynas provides a very balanced account with this book. He is not blindly pro-GMO, openly admitting they are not a silver bullet to solving the world’s food problems, but a small piece of a puzzle. He is not a “Monsanto shill”, and sees many reasons why you would want to oppose their business practices. Has it ever occurred to anyone in this debate that you can be both pro-GMO (the tool), but anti-Monsanto (the wielder of that tool)? And despite harshly criticizing Greenpeace, he supports them on many other issues. Furthermore, Lynas agrees that there are many reasons to have a discussion around GMOs (ethical, political, moral etc.), but he insists that the misinformation campaign stops. The health debate is a closed case. Instead, he wants people – whether farmers or consumers – to be allowed a choice, but wants this choice to be based on sound reasoning, rational thinking, and factual information.

Seeds of Science is thus an incredibly powerful statement that is all the more convincing coming from a former anti-GMO activist. I wish more people would have Lynas’s courage and moral compass to admit their own failings and change their mind. The book also brilliantly exposes how this is not a scientific but an ideological debate. Whether you are pro- or anti-GMO, I urge you to read this book. With billions of people to feed and food production (conventional or organic) having an enormous environmental impact, there is simply too much at stake.

If you would like to read more, I also interviewed Mark Lynas for The Hoopoe, the blog of my employer NHBS.

Disclosure: The publisher provided an advance reading copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own however.

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