Did We Get It Wrong On GMOs?
Review by Nicholas DelRose
Seeds of Science
Why We Got It So Wrong on GMOs
Book by Mark Lynas
On April 21st, 1997, as part of a “Day of Action” in England against genetic engineering, Mark Lynas led about 50 activists on an occupation of the British headquarters of Monsanto near High Wycombe, just south of Oxford.
At the time, Lynas was an editor for the website OneWorld, a charity network for the environment and human rights. But he was also an activist who had discovered a new cause, fighting genetic engineering, which he believed was the greatest corporate-led threat to our food supply. Thwarting the progress of biotechnology became a goal of Corporate Watch, an activist magazine focused on holding corporations accountable for irresponsible actions. Lynas was one of Corporate Watch’s founders.
Lynas’s commitment to blocking genetically modified organisms (GMOs) did not diminish over the next several years. In 1999, under cover of darkness, Lynas and a group of activists hacked down a test field of GMO maize in eastern England. He also played a role in an attempt to kidnap Dolly the sheep, the first cloned farm animal.
Given his avid participation in these extreme anti-GMO activities, Lynas’s later decision to become a proponent of GMOs marks a shocking conversion. His change of heart is easily romanticized, Lynas admits, and was spun by pro-GMO organizations that “over-egged my role in the early anti-GMO movement for their own purposes.” Nonetheless, Lynas went from being vehemently opposed to GMOs to very publicly supporting them. How that change happened, how Lynas came to view the anti-GMO movement as misleading, and how he now sees the current state of biotechnology are all part of his provocative new book, Seeds of Science: Why We Got It so Wrong on GMOs.
At one level, Seeds of Science is an account of Lynas’s personal evolution from fierce opponent to unabashed champion of a controversial new technology; at a deeper level, it examines how influential voices of criticism (in this case, against GMOs) can persist when not subject to the checks and balances the scientific community uses to reassess and fine-tune its own understanding of nature and biotechnology.
Lynas offers an especially interesting voice because he is able to reflect on both the environmentalist and the scientific sides of this quandary. He describes how a shift from activist to writer on climate change may have given him the context he needed to see biotechnology in a different light.
He realized, first of all, that emotion had to be removed from the discussion. As he began to cover climate change issues, it dawned on Lynas that an argument of right or wrong could not be won by “how strongly one felt about it,” but rather required extensive evaluation based on years of research and evidence.” In the end, a hypothesis is either right (accepted) or wrong (rejected)– facts are facts. But, as Lynas realized, science is constantly updated as more knowledge is gained. “I began to see that scientific knowledge is cumulative: it is built up slowly like a house made of bricks,” Lynas writes. “Sometimes individual bricks need to be relaid or taken out and replaced altogether, but overall the wall generally continues to rise.”
Lynas grew to appreciate the scientific process while writing extensively about climate change, but he continued to hold strong anti-GMO views. That began to change in 2008, when he was commissioned to write an anti-GMO Op-ed for The Guardian.
The reaction was fast and furious. Critics bashed him for sputtering unsubstantiated claims about the dangers of GMOs. Troubled by a potential threat to his credentials as a climate writer (he had just received the Royal Society prize for his 2007 climate book, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet), Lynas was forced to confront his own hypocrisy: How could he ignore the science community’s consensus on the safety of genetic engineering, while simultaneously praising and echoing their consensus on our undeniable role in climate change, not just in Six Degrees but also in High Tide: News From a Warming World? In the face of this criticism, Lynas asked himself, “Was it really possible that not just Greenpeace, but pretty much the entire environmental movement, and indeed polite progressive liberal society in general, had got the GMO issue flat-out wrong?”
For an answer, Lynas quickly turned to the tools he’d learned to trust: he began poring through one peer-reviewed paper after another. While it was a foregone conclusion to anti-GMO activists that new forms of biotechnology posed a significant threat to the environment and to public health, Lynas’s search through scientific papers revealed something different—something that surprised him. The scientific consensus was not that GMOs were harmful, but rather that they were most likely safe. To Lynas, this common conclusion drawn by many major institutions of science triggered a personal crisis. He could no longer ignore what had become increasingly clear. In an article for the left-leaning British journal New Statesman, Lynas slipped in a brief mea culpa: “a science-led assessment of the likely risks and benefits suggests that I was wrong.” “There is,” Lynas continued, “zero evidence that any genetically modified foods in existence today pose a health risk to anyone.” This was the first public declaration of his conversion.
In telling the story of this dramatic, high-profile change of heart, Lynas carefully recounts the history of GMOs and describes how they are different from our traditional means of breeding. In fact, as he points out, they’re not that different. Historically, to develop plants that may be, say, tolerant to long periods of drought, we would subject them to “traditional random methods like mutagenesis.” Most random mutations have no effect at all or negatively impact the plant, but every so often one mutation might produce a plant that was able to tolerate drought. Small mutations happen in nature all the time. These molecular errors, if in the germline, contribute to genetic variation in populations. They are just one small tributary into the slow drifting stream of evolution. By using tools like radiation to create random mutations, plant biologists simply speed up a natural process.
Yet as soon as a new technology appears that allows us to make far more precise gene edits, all hell breaks loose. Lynas illustrates the hypocrisy of anti-GMO legislation in his discussion of CRISPR, a fairly new molecular gene-editing technique which is currently under attack: “CRISPR is like a pair of molecular scissors that can snip DNA at exactly the sequence targeted. Excluding it while allowing radiation mutagenesis makes no sense at all; it is like telling a brain surgeon they can use a blunderbuss but not a scalpel.”
As a plant biologist, I have used CRISPR to edit plant genes in an attempt to better understand their function in plant development. While there are vast seed libraries of mutant plants available, which have been generated by random mutagenesis, my gene of interest simply wasn’t listed— because it wasn’t directly targeted, it had been missed like a bingo number that never gets called. Instead of throwing up my hands and calling it quits, I swiftly designed a guide RNA—a molecular beacon of sorts that dictates where molecular machinery should target within the genome, for the generation of mutations. In a few months we had developed several plant lines with mutations in my gene, which appears to play an important regulatory role in plant growth and size. Mutations like these that affect plant size have been successfully used to increase crop yield in the field, in part by diverting the plant’s energy from plant growth to the generation of grain. As a prime example, I’m reminded of Norman Borlaug, “father” of the Green Revolution, who used traditional means of plant breeding to produce semi-dwarf and disease resistant wheat, resulting in significantly increased yields while decreasing acreage usage. While he used traditional breeding at the time, Borlaug was a big proponent of new gene-editing technology.
Despite its usefulness, debate over the technology rages on. Last July, the EU ruled that crops modified with CRISPR would be subject to GMO regulation, while conventional methods like radiation were exempt. The impact of this regulation is not only felt by scientists. One of the greatest frustrations Lynas expresses about the anti-GMO movement is its penalization of the less advantaged, despite its supposed fight for impoverished, subsistence-level farmers.
The social and economic costs of anti-GMO activism are especially heart-breaking in Africa. Here the cassava crop, a crucial staple food for rural Tanzanians, is under serious threat by the cassava mosaic and cassava brown streak viruses. This crop devastation is a hard hit to a country in which one third of all children are “stunted by chronic malnutrition.” In Uganda, however, the National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI) is testing gene-edited virus-resistant cassava varieties, which are growing healthily in test fields. The plants, Lynas remarks, are “lush and healthy…in comparison with the shriveled and infected cassava being grown in this part of Tanzania.” But local anti-GMO legislation prevents them from ever leaving that test field.
Local legislation, Lynas argues, is largely encouraged by anti-GMO activists who travel across Africa spreading misinformation. He tells of activists, for instance, who met with then health minister of Kenya, Beth Mugo, who had recently battled breast cancer. The activists showed Mugo graphic images of rat tumors, presumably caused by feeding the rats GMOs. Beth Mugo was told that GMOs had been the cause of her breast cancer; in response, she reportedly convinced Kenya’s president to implement an immediate ban on GMO imports. A memo from the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) reports, “Minister Mugo recommended an immediate ban on GM imports and products in Kenya citing the discredited Seralini study released by a French university in September 2012 that linked cancer in rats to the consumption of GM foods.” This infamous 2012 paper published by the French researcher Gilles-Eric Séralini is still cited repeatedly by anti-GMO activists despite the fact that Food and Chemical Toxicology, the journal in which the finding was reported, has since retracted the paper for questionable statistics. In another example, ActionAid!, an international company that fights world poverty and injustice, ran a misleading radio ad campaign in Africa that included the following: “This is a message from ActionAid! Did you know that GMOs can cause cancer and infertility?” None of these allegations have scientific standing.
Similar public sector efforts are happening in Tanzania, where local legislation also impedes their success. The Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, aims to provide drought tolerant maize to farmers in East Africa. We cringe as Lynas describes how scientists subjected to strict ‘biosafety’ rules are forced to burn their perfectly healthy maize harvest, while the local subsistence farmers struggle to feed themselves and their families. As the smoke rises and the embers cool, we’re left to reflect with Lynas on “how the rich world’s fearmongering on GMOs has harmed the interests of the poor.”
Anti-GMO activists raise many concerns when it comes to GMOs—environmental, health, social, economic, moral, or spiritual. While some of these arguments are nuanced and personal, Lynas insists that we at least get the science right and don’t cherry-pick the uncertainties. On the subject of potential health risks of GMOs, for example, the environmental group Greenpeace “highlights a statement by a small group of dissenters…but simultaneously ignores contradictory conclusions from the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Royal Society, the African Academy of Sciences, the European Academies of Science Advisory Council, the French Academy of Science, the American Medical Association, the Union of German Academies of Science and Humanities and numerous others.” Lynas continues,“Even the European Commission admitted in a 2010 report: ‘The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies.’”
In fact, not only is the consensus that GMOs are safe, but there are actually many benefits to be considered. Throughout Seeds of Science, Lynas relays the data: “a 2014 meta-analysis, combining the outputs of nearly 150 separate peer-reviewed studies, concluded that GM technology adoption has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37 per cent.” The benefits also include “increased crop yields by 22 per cent and increased farmer profits by 68 per cent globally.” There are also environmental benefits: with increased yields, farmers can use less acreage and leave more land untouched. Because of no-till GM crops, soil carbon storage is improved.
Why, with such overwhelming evidence, are we still mired in a fractious public debate about the health risks of GMOs? I think there are numerous factors at play. First, there is a big discrepancy in how scientists talk science, and how the public receives those statements. The language we scientists use can sound weak. Similar to the Presumption of Innocence in the court of law (“innocent until proven guilty”), scientific research follows its own rigorous code in reaching its verdicts. Its language is cautious— there’s an understanding that nothing can be proven with absolute certainty, though we can present valuable evidence to support and strengthen– or disprove– a hypothesis. Despite the fact that its predictions agree with all experiments done so far, we still call Albert Einstein’s description of gravity ‘the general theory of relativity.’ To the public ear, though, ‘theory’ implies significant uncertainty. So when prominent organizations come out with statements on the safety of GMOs, I wonder if the careful scientific language in the statement might perpetuate an idea of uncertainty.
Lynas also acknowledges that opposition to a technology is hard to refute when it’s built on a foundation of emotion and ideology rather than empirical evidence—especially when that opposition comes from a perceived moral high ground. For example, when anti-Vaxxers argue that vaccines cause autism, they truly believe this is the case. Imagine the moral outrage you might feel if your child’s autism could have been prevented—why would we even take that risk? So when shown that no evidence links vaccination and autism, anti-Vaxxers might struggle to reframe their emotion-based beliefs, even in the face of rising measles cases. With GMOs, which provoke sincere concerns about health and safety for us and the environment, we see a similar dilemma despite the science community’s agreement on their safety.
Is the GMO debate ever going to end? In the face of overwhelming consensus among scientists, I would like to believe that GMO opponents will have to drop their anti-science (and unscientific) battle cries if they want to be part of the conversation. But we still have a lot of bad role models out there—politicians who deny the validity of climate change, despite copious evidence for our role in it.
Lynas’s book is a reminder that, like scientific research which continually checks and reworks itself, it would do us all good to strive for an intellectual integrity that is not marred, but strengthened, by the simple admittance of having been wrong. And if you are adamant that all our food must be “natural,” Lynas will be the first to remind you that “even our non-GMO crops, as domesticated species, are already a long way from their natural ancestors.” To read this book, you must be prepared to acknowledge that GE is a more nuanced technology than the extreme voices in a black-and-white debate make it out to be. You must be open to testing your personal belief systems. Lynas warns us that integrity and credibility are lost when an argument is based on twisted facts or cherry-picked quotes. Instead of GMOs being a threat to the environment, Lynas suggests they might just be a means by which we can decouple “human dependence on nature in order to allow ecosystems to recover.” And as Lynas said at a farming conference back in 2007: “The stakes are high. If we continue to get this wrong, the life prospects of billions of people will be harmed.”
Nicholas DelRose is a plant biologist and Ph.D. candidate at NYU, where he studies regeneration in plant roots.