Review: Seeds of Science: Why we got it so wrong on GMOs (Mark Lynas)

Book: Seeds of Science: Why we got it so wrong on GMOs, by Mark Lynas (2018)
4.7k words (≈16 minutes)
Every review or description or even mention of Seeds of Science that I’ve seen notes that the author, Mark Lynas, used to be an anti-GMO activist before he switched sides and wrote this book. I assumed this fact was either an unimportant piece of trivia or was spread by the publishers as a marketing gimmick. However, after reading the book I think that the balance Lynas achieves as a result is one of the book’s best features.

This does not mean Lynas is not on the fence about the issue. He rightly stands with the scientific consensus regarding the safety and utility of genetically modified crops, and does not hesitate to set the record straight about many popular myths. But he also lets the anti-GMO activists – many of whom are his personal friends – state the strongest arguments for their case. He also embarks on a thoughtful exploration of the underlying philosophical issues.

Seeds of Science is an important book about GMOs. But it is also about how fragile the commitment to science and objectivity can be in the face of a stirring narrative or political ideology or even gut feeling. It also reveals the method through which Lynas changed his mind.

(The terms GMO (genetically modified organism), GE (genetic engineering), and GM (genetically modified) are all used when talking about GMOs/GE/GM. The term “GM” is misleading, since every organism is genetically modified, so I use “GE” to refer to the technology of artificial genetic modification. I will use “GMO” to refer to the resultant organisms.)

Genetic engineering: the theory and the practice

Genetic engineering got started in the early 1970s with the invention of techniques for splicing together DNA strands.

There have been times in the history of science when all caution has been thrown to the winds following the invention of a new technology, leading to a disregard for safety that has had disastrous consequences.

This was not one of them.

Instead, lead by Paul Berg, many of the world’s most eminent biologists got together in Asilomar, California and created a strong, self-imposed set of rules and regulations to prevent any possibility of research into the new technology causing harm. Then the biologists returned to their labs and continued doing research, in accordance with the decisions of the Asilomar Conference.

What they found was that horizontal gene transfer (transfer of genes between organisms that is not the “vertical” transfer of genes from one generation to the next) was common in nature. There are species of bacteria that transfer genes to other bacteria, or fungi, or plants, or even animals. Genetic sequencing has shown that horizontal gene transfers have played a central role in the evolutionary history of life, and have occurred between organisms that are only extremely distantly related.

Horizontal gene transfer had therefore been happening for billions of years, rather than happening for the first time in Earth’s history in 1970s biology labs. This, and various other findings, eventually convinced the vast majority of biologists that there was nothing intrinsically dangerous about horizontal gene transfer.

(Just as scientists were reaching a consensus, public opinion began moving in the other direction. The details of this are a long story, recounted in Seeds of Science.)

This is not to say that all genetic engineering is good or safe. There are many examples of questionable GE products, some of which I will discuss here, and a case-by-case evaluation of GMOs is obviously desirable. The point is that genetic engineering is not inherently unsafe. It is just a faster and more powerful way of changing the characteristics of crops than the classic method of selecting which crops to breed for generation after generation. Since crops and other food items are important – without them, we’d starve, and they have enormous economic and environmental impacts – the ability to change their characteristics can be of enormous benefit.

In practice, study after study has shown that the GE products on the market today are safe, that consumers who eat them suffer no ill effects, and that they generally benefit the environment and increase agricultural productivity.

Yes, you can use chemical engineering to make a bomb. But to resist all chemical engineering on this basis is ridiculous.

Monsanto, everyone’s favorite company

The story of Monsanto has become linked with the broader story of GE.

Monsanto no longer exists. In the spring of 2018, anti-monopoly regulators in the EU and US gave clearance to a $66 billion purchase of Monsanto by Bayer (leaving some to wonder whether these anti-monopoly regulators are doing their jobs).

For some companies, their name and brand are a significant part of their value. Not so for Monsanto. Bayer has announced that it will discontinue the Monsanto name and operate the company under the Bayer brand.

What made Monsanto so infamous? In the mid-twentieth century, Monsanto was a typical big chemicals company, with the typical lax attitude of a big chemicals company towards trivialities like health and environment. Perhaps the most damaging scandal was over its role in supplying Agent Orange, a toxic herbicide used to clear jungle in the Vietnam War, to the US military.

Ironically, where things really went wrong is when Monsanto decided to make a turn-around.
Ever more conscious of the environmental movement (and its impact on the company’s profits), around 1980 Monsanto started a pivot towards becoming a “life sciences” company. Throughout the 1980s, it sold off assets in chemical manufacturing and oil exploration, investing the money into biotechnology.

Monsanto’s vision was simple. Genetic engineering could obviate the need for pesticides and herbicides while reducing land and fertilizer use. Monsanto would spearhead this charge towards a more sustainable, environmental future. The only risk was that Monsanto shareholders might drown in cash.

However, Monsanto’s history returned to haunt the company, and its first foray into commercial GMOs was not quite in line with the goal of reducing herbicide use.

In 1970 Monsanto had discovered a pesticide so powerful it had only one flaw: it was too powerful. The pesticide was called Roundup, a name invented by a participant in a competition to name the compound (the winner received $50 for inventing the name of a product that would earn billions). By genetically engineering Roundup-resistant crops, Monsanto had a killer combination: plant the GE crops, spray Roundup, and everything on the field that is not a Roundup-resistant crop will die, up to and including your cat.

Realizing how attractive such a product might be to farmers, Monsanto rushed it to the market as its first GE crop. Farmers loved it. Consumers didn’t. Monsanto didn’t really care about consumers, since they weren’t the ones paying for the product.

But consumers had a point. By introducing Roundup Ready as their first GE product, Monsanto had forgotten its commitment to using biotechnology to reduce the use of chemicals. There were also monopolistic undertones in packaging the crop and herbicide together in a way that meant neither could easily be substituted for competing products. Roundup Ready also increases the benefits of scale, benefiting larger producers at the expense of smaller ones (as confirmed by studies by Oxfam).

Soon after, Monsanto introduced a GE corn crop that produced bacteria-derived proteins that acted as an insect repellent. The use of this crop could majorly cut insecticide use.

But public perception had already associated Monsanto, and GMOs in general, with the competition-snuffing, chemical-intensive Roundup Ready.

Had Monsanto introduced the insect-resistant corn first instead of focusing on Roundup Ready, the subsequent history of GMOs might have gone differently.

Outside observers predicted Roundup Ready might be a public relations disaster. So did Monsanto’s competitors. Therefore, the mistake seems specific to Monsanto. Perhaps, had Monsanto been less blinded by the perceived righteousness of its mission, it would have made better decisions and avoided a PR disaster that stymied the entire industry.

GMOs: the plant, the myth, the legend

The most egregious myth about GE crops is that there is no scientific consensus on their safety. In fact, I have never seen a sentence on Wikipedia that has as many citations on it:
There is a scientific consensus[5][6][7][8] that currently available food derived from GM crops poses no greater risk to human health than conventional food,[9][10][11][12][13] but that each GM food needs to be tested on a case-by-case basis before introduction.[14][15][16] Nonetheless, members of the public are much less likely than scientists to perceive GM foods as safe.[17][18][19][20]
Forget meta-analyses, this is the new gold standard of scientific evidence.

More seriously, there is a lot of evidence on this.

There are several other myths about GMOs. The first, and one that I thought was true before reading Seeds of Science, is that GE seeds are sterile. The technology to enable this, dubbed the “Terminator gene”, was partially developed by a company that Monsanto purchased in the 1990s. Thankfully, it was never been put into practice because even Monsanto knows enough about public relations management to not put “Terminator”-anything into food.

Many farmers do buy new seeds each year, but this practice predates genetic engineering and has nothing to do with Terminators. A major part of the famed Green Revolution which increased agricultural productivity starting in the mid-20th century was the use of hybrid seeds to get plants with better characteristics. The disadvantage of hybrid seeds is that, due to basic Mendelian genetics, subsequent generations will not breed true. For example, let’s say you want a plant with a trait for which there is a dominant allele B. A hybrid of two plants with genotypes of BB and bb will have the Bb genotype and hence the desired B phenotype. However, breeding these plants together results in a mix of BB, Bb, and bb genotypes in the next generation. Of these, BB plants have the B trait but are not hybrids, and bb plants do not have the B trait at all.

As a result, it has long been the norm for farmers to buy new seeds each year. It is true that GE seed contracts often include a clause forbidding the saving of the seed for intellectual property reasons, but for the most part this is something few people in modern agriculture would have done anyways.

A popular idea about GMOs that does have some credence is that they tend to concentrate power in large biotech companies. This is because only the largest companies can afford to develop GMOs. But why is this the case?

One reason is that genetic engineering is a capital-intensive technology. However, the price of the technology has gone down, making this a far less significant factor. What is driving the costs? Lynas writes:
[…] these enormous costs mostly now arise because of over-strict regulation, meaning that only the deepest-pocketed corporations can afford the multiyear process of steering new crops through the byzantine approvals processes of multiple countries. Costs are also increased by delays resulting from opposition by anti-GMO groups like the Center for Food Safety, which generally opposes, through court action or lobbying regulators, every new genetically engineered product, irrespective of whether it is private or public sector-derived. Indeed by raising costly barriers to market entry for open-source, small business or public sector innovations, these anti-GMO groups have ironically helped to cement the very same corporate consolidation of the seed industry that they cite as a justification for their opposition.
There is a terrible irony here:
Activism has been most successful in locking out small and public sector players from the biotechnology revolution, thus cementing exactly the monopolistic situation that many campaigners say they are fighting against.

GMOs in the wild

A 2014 meta-analysis of over a hundred studies produced what might be the most important statistics on the real-world effects of GE technology.

Among farmers who adopted GE crops, the average effects were:
  • a 37% reduction on use of chemical pesticides,
  • a 22% increase in crop yields, and
  • a 68% increase in farmer profits.
All the usual caveats apply. These are averages, not guarantees. Maybe the numbers are driven up by the fact that only the most useful GE crops are currently grown because of legal hurdles.

But still. If you care about the environmental effects of pesticides, a technology that allows a one-third reduction is great news. If you care about food production, a technology that allows a one-fifth increase is amazing. If you care about farmer livelihoods, a technology that allows a two-thirds increase in profits is incredible (especially taking into account that many of the farmers in question are in developing countries – though note that it might be that the extra profits from GMOs are accruing disproportionately to, say, large American farms rather than small ones in rural Africa).

Anti-GMO activists in the wild

No argument about food technology is complete without a reference to the proverbial “kids in Africa.” So let’s talk about Africa.

Africa has a strong history of anti-GMO laws, often driven by (mostly foreign) NGOs rather than national governments, let alone farmers.

In 2002, Zambia banned GE food, with president Mwanawasa claiming it was poisonous. 14 000 tons of maize supplied by charities was locked away in warehouses amidst a famine caused by severe drought. Non-GE food was eventually distributed and the Zambian government’s official statistics claimed no lives had been lost to starvation.

Nevertheless, this debacle remains highly controversial due to its scale. The drought left about three million people without food, and aid efforts were significantly delayed due to the GMO ban. Anti-GMO organizations, including Greenpeace, have been blamed for pressuring the Zambian government into its GMO ban.

In Uganda, efforts to pass legislation that would allow various disease-resistant GE plants, many of them already tested in laboratories, to be sold to farmers, have been paralyzed by anti-GMO activism. Much of it is funded by foreign activist organizations (Lynas’s interviewees in Uganda name ActionAid, the Catholic charity Caritas, and the Food Rights Alliance), and much of it consists of blatant misinformation, including Photoshopped images of mutilated plants. Tanzania is also locked in a legislative battle over GMOs.

Many anti-GMO organizations claim to speak on behalf of farmers and indigenous groups. They paint a picture of themselves as protecting the rights of farmers to “traditional farming”. Lynas writes:
Maybe farmers preferred traditional lifestyles, and the NGOs were right to defend them? ‘There is no farmer who wants to remain poor!’ Nyange [a Tanzanian scientist] responded passionately.
This, of course, is just one opinion by a Tanzanian GE scientist. But the disconnect between the (mostly poor and rural) farmers and the (mostly wealthy, foreign, and urban) anti-GMO activists is one that is echoed in many of the anecdotes that Lynas tells about his time in Uganda and Tanzania.

As the proverb goes, the plural of anecdote is not data. Thankfully, actual data is available.

Several studies of transgenic bananas in Uganda have found them to have high potential for reducing rural poverty. While farmers tend to be strongly in favor, surveys in Uganda have found that wealthy, urban consumers tend to be skeptical of GE products.

An even greater divide exists between African farmers and European GMO ideologues. Nevertheless, the latter have had a great influence on the former. Lynas cites the conclusion of Robert Paarlberg, an agriculture and environmental policy researcher: “Africa’s rejection of genetically engineered crops today is far more western than it is African. Governments in Africa did not begin to get cold feet about GM crops until they saw activists and consumers in rich countries – particularly in Europe – rejecting the technology.”

Some take this conclusion even further. Lynas interviews a Ugandan farmer representative who says the motive behind anti-GMO activism is for Europe to reassert colonial influence on Africa by preventing Africa from achieving food security. This, of course, is not true. Anti-GMO activists may be many things, but somehow I doubt they are neocolonialists.

However, it is easy to see how such suspicions may arise. Many anti-GMO organizations extend their disdain to things other than GMOs, such as the use of fertilizer, hybrid seeds, and weed control techniques – in short, anything that reeks of technology, modernity, or improved agricultural productivity. If your goal actually was to covertly sabotage agricultural development under the guise of “poverty reduction”, you could not do much better.

Remember the previous statistics on GE technology: on average, a one-third reduction in pesticide use, one-fifth increase in yield, and two-thirds increase in farmer profits. Is it surprising that most of the farmers are in favor?

GE gets philosophical

Like many entrenched debates, the furor over GMOs does not seem to have very much to do with facts.

Where does the intense backlash against GMOs come from? It does not seem to be politics; opinions on GE technology are not split on political lines.

However, they are split on scientific ones. A Pew Research Center survey found that the difference in percent of the general public that holds a particular stance and the percent of AAAS scientists that hold the same stance was greatest for the issue of GE food safety: 88% of surveyed scientists considered GMOs safe to eat, compared to 37% of the public (for comparison, 87% of surveyed scientists said climate change is mostly due to human activity, compared to 50% of the public).

So what is it about the issue of GE food that makes it so controversial?

Lynas discusses several arguments, which don’t have very much to do with GMOs at all, but provide an interesting perspective on one side of the environmental movement. If you’re here for the GMO stuff, skip the next two sections.

Can’t concentrate

One argument, given by many of the anti-GMO activist friends Lynas interviews, is opposition to any kind of concentration. Sure, they say, GMOs are known to be safe. But that’s not the real issue. The real issue is how they contribute to a trend of increasing technological and economic concentration that empowers the capitalist elites.

Okay, sure. But why GMOs? Yes, some GMO products favor large producers over small and therefore contribute to concentration. Others help farmers in rural Uganda survive a blight. I understand concern over the former, but now how it justifies opposition to GE technology of any kind.

Unless, of course, you think that any technology that requires centralization and specialization is inherently bad (this is not a straw man; this view is held by some of the anti-GMO people Lynas discusses). But a complex technological stack is a feature of any civilization worthy of the term. I think it is also generally worth it.

Narratives, facts, and torpedoes

Another argument is offered by Paul Kingsnorth, in an essay that Lynas recommends and quotes at some length.

The essay is called “The Quants and the Poets.” It argues that, in the environmental movement, there are quants, who “might be telling you to change your lightbulbs or come out on the streets in favour of a nuclear power plant or a windfarm”, but “[don’t ask] you to examine your values or your society’s underlying mythology”. Then there are poets, who “start by observing that worlds are not ‘saved’ by the same stories that are killing them” and go on to “explore what it is about how we see ourselves which reduces us to […] arguing about machines rather than wondering what those machines give us and what they take away.”

Kingsnorth uses the debate over nuclear power as an example:
Though both sides pretend to be informed by ‘science’ and ‘facts’ both are actually informed primarily by prejudice. Whether you like nuclear power or not is a reflection of the kind of worldview you have: whether you are a confident embracer of the Western model of progress or whether it frightens or concerns you; whether you trust science or tend not to; whether you are cautious or reckless; whether you are ‘progressive’ or ‘conservative.’ On issues ranging from GM crops to capitalism, these are the underlying stories that actually inform the green debate. That they are then supported by a clutch of cherry-picked facts ’ easy to come by, after all, in the age of Wikipedia, is a footnote to what’s really going on.
Kingsnorth is correct in saying that someone’s broader worldview is an essential part of what determines someone’s position on GE or nuclear, and that we should be aware of those biases. Where he goes off the rails is when he relegates “science” and “facts” (note the quotation marks) to the role of footnotes, arguing that they’re not central to the debate. While he may be uncomfortably correct about the quality of the public debate, that doesn’t imply some kind of balance between the sides because they’re both somehow relative. Whether someone supports nuclear power is a question about values. But questions about the safety of nuclear power, or its level of pollution, or its level of nuclear waste, are factual questions to which there are objective answers, and any sane evaluation of nuclear power is based on the answers to these questions. If you’re saying that the facts are relative or unimportant, it’s usually not because they are, but because the other side has them and you don’t.

Narratives are important. A pragmatic approach to environmental issues obviously involves an examination of these narratives and an attempt to change the ones that aren’t working (for instance, a change of cultural narratives could likely reduce material consumption while increasing human welfare). The fixing of narratives and the fixing of the physical should also mutually reinforce each other. Kingsnorth’s attitude, however, seems to be that there is a conflict here, and that narratives are everything: forget the tedious bickering over facts and figures, what we need is a good story.

The implicit assumption here is that narratives are somehow deeper and more fundamental than the merely physical. There are a great many philosophical debates we could have about whether this is true. However, you can have all the inspirational narratives you want, but some problems (including feeding people or reducing emissions) require someone to actually deal with the external world at some point. When it comes to solving these problems, disparaging the work of figuring out which objective things we need to change is counterproductive.

I think there is some truth to the “quant/poet” distinction in the environmental movement, though I hesitate to use those terms. Speaking in very broad caricatures, it is the distinction between the often science-skeptical, activism- and ideology-oriented, nature-is-sacred environmentalism and the pro-science, technology- and policy-oriented ecomodernist environmentalism. The former may work as an aesthetic movement or a radical political ideology, but it is counterproductive when it comes to deciding what we should actually do.

“[T]he green movement has torpedoed itself with numbers”, Kingsnorth writes. I think it’s the other way around: the green movement has torpedoed itself with narratives. Right now the environmental movement is stuck opposing important technologies like GE and nuclear precisely because of the compelling narratives that can be crafted against these high-tech, “unnatural” things. What the environmental movement needs to solve real-world problems is the opposite of what Kingsnorth recommends: a greater, not lesser, focus on facts and numbers. And, perhaps, some narratives that are in line with the facts, rather than opposed to them.

Back to GMOs

I emphasize once again that the point is not that GE is the Second Coming (GE-sus?). Like any technology, GE can be, and has been, used for good causes, for bad causes, and for dumb causes. When used for good causes with proper caution, it is a powerful, proven tool for increasing agricultural productivity and minimizing environmental impacts.

Yet today, largely due to misguided activism, only 12% of global cropland is used for GMOs. Disease-resistant crops sit out blights in Tanzanian laboratories.

Lynas’ discussion of anti-GMO activism focuses on the high-brow, philosophical arguments. In Seeds of Science, he does not offer much of a verdict about these arguments, but I’ve presented my own views in the preceding sections.

I don’t think these reasons explain the sheer magnitude of the GMO furor. Something about GE technology, the adoption of which would not inconvenience consumers in the slightest, has lead to a greater gap between public and scientific consensus than the one over climate change.

Sure, several accidents of history (which are well-documented in Seeds of Science) lead to a few charismatic leaders (like Jeremy Rifkin) and influential organizations (like Greenpeace) turning anti-GMO. That was just the spark, though. Plenty of other thinkers and organizations have campaigned equally eloquently and extravagantly, and often far more reasonably, for other causes. In the case of GMOs, the spark seems to have hit a four-ton pile of highly-combustible dried wood. So where did that wood come from?

Humans have many moral instincts. Some of them are noble and good, like altruism. Others are artefacts of evolution. Take xenophobia, for instance: it was a valuable tendency to have in hunter-gatherer tribes to strengthen the tribe and avoid diseases. Perhaps we owe the existence of our species to it. But today, there’s a strong case to be made that this particular moral tendency is not at the core of morality, and hence we spend a lot of effort trying to combat it when it infringes on more important moral principles, like the right to life, or the right to equal treatment.

Likewise, it is no surprise that humans value food purity. This has many good consequences, not least that it helped prevent our ancestors dying of disease. Other consequences are simply confusing, such as whatever the latest food fad is, or the fact that many religious texts read like they were written by an extremely picky food addict.

But then there are the times when the instinct towards food purity conflicts with deeper moral principles. I would argue GMOs are such a case. Some deep part of the brain feels that the intrusion of industrial lab-based high technology into the food supply is a violation. The benefits – to the environment, to farmers in developing countries, to agricultural productivity – are about distant places and people, so they don’t have the same emotional salience as the gut-level feeling that this is wrong. Reason goes out the window.

You might argue that some principles are sacrosanct and should not be violated, whatever the benefits are. It is certainly possible to construct a moral philosophy where food purity is inviolable. I think such a philosophy would be morally reprehensible – a vaguely defined notion of food purity? Really? Is that the highest good, above environment or sustenance or life?

Anti-GMO activists, from this perspective, are unwittingly exploiting a bug in human moral instincts, with the side effect of derailing the deployment of an important technology. We have been misled by our gut feelings to take a stance antithetical to our higher goals. As the world grows bigger and stranger, this is the type of mistake we must learn to avoid making.

How to change your mind

How did Lynas come to change his mind? The inciting incident, as he describes it, was being extremely embarrassed after a misguided piece of activism that involved throwing a pie at a pro-GE speaker. This episode, Lynas writes, taught him “to pay careful attention to supporting evidence.”

I wonder how scalable this method is.