Book Review: Seeds of Science: Why We Got It So Wrong on GMOs, by Mark Lynas

Reviewed By Joanna K. Sax

Once an adamant anti-GMO activist, with notoriety for pioneering the movement, Mark Lynas recounts the mistakes of his early days in the movement and his point of view change on genetically engineered crops in his new book entitled Seeds of Science: Why We Got It So Wrong on GMOs.  (GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism.  GMO is used colloquially since not every bioengineered crop is from a GMO.  The terms GMO, genetically engineered, and bioengineered are used interchangeably within this book review to mean bioengineered.) Lynas provides the reader with a lot to unpack in his new book.  He begins with recounting some of his most destructive behaviors, such as destroying genetically engineered crops on private land and a failed attempt to kidnap the sheep Dolly.  Within these tales, Lynas communicates that he really thought he was doing the right thing and working hard to advocate against a technology that could ruin the world.  At the same time that Lynas was leading (or working with the leaders of) the anti-GMO movement, he was reporting on climate change.  On the topic of climate change, Lynas delved into the scientific evidence to support the consensus that humans are contributing to global climate change.  It was with this evidence-based reporting that Lynas opened his eyes and investigated the scientific evidence on genetically engineered food.  To his amazement, every single major scientific organization issued statements supporting the scientific consensus on genetically engineered food—it is as safe as conventional food currently in the marketplace.  Moreover, Lynas realized that this technology might be a key player in sustainability and helping to alleviate hunger.  This changed Lynas’s point of view and provided fertile ground to reflect on what happened.

As part of his reflection, the book then turns to a historical recount of the work of Monsanto and other big agriculture companies.  It is within this narrative that Lynas suggests that the release of RoundUp Ready seeds was probably the biggest misstep that activated the anti-GMO movement.  RoundUp Ready crops are genetically engineered to be resistant to glyphosate, the active ingredient in RoundUp herbicide.  The advantage of RoundUp Ready crops is that the farmer can grow the crop and spray the field with the RoundUp herbicide.  Everything will die but the genetically engineered crop.  The visual to this process could be promoted as farmers completely dousing their fields with chemicals, which will later be consumed by the consumer.  The reality, however, is quite different.  Although a portion of this is true—the farmers can spray the farmland—it turns out that this technology allows farmers to till less and use less fuel, which is more environmentally friendly.  And, as noted by scientists, the active ingredient in RoundUp is less toxic than other herbicides on the market. The next step in the generation of genetically engineered seeds were the Bt crops.  These crops are genetically engineered to produce a protein that works as an insecticide against specific pests that haunt and destroy many crops.  The advantage of Bt crops are that farmers can use less pesticide, and they are likely to lose less crops to pests.  This is a sustainable farming technique that leads to less use of chemical insecticides.  Lynas appropriately observes that a general consumer does not and cannot really understand the difference between RoundUp Ready Crops and Bt crops—they think they are all bad and this is because the anti-GMO activists exploited the confusing nature of the technology to the general audience.

Lynas tellingly recounts the activities of anti-GMO activists, particularly in African countries, to deprive poor communities of the possibility of improved farming techniques.  A large body of research demonstrates that decision-making processes are complicated and that emotion can be used to impact how people assign risk.  Exploiting these processes, anti-GMO activists and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) told numerous African governments and their citizens that eating GMOs would make people gay, or they would get cancer.  In many of these countries, being gay is unacceptable and getting cancer is scary.  Thus, anti-GMO activists and NGOs linked these dreaded feelings with crops from GMOs.  They did this while families were starving because entire crops were destroyed by insects or viruses.  Not surprisingly, the scientists in many of these African countries supported crops from GMOs so that the citizenry could eat.  At the same time, the anti-GMO movement gained strong footing in Europe and European pressure kept numerous African countries from employing Bt crops to feed their nations.  Lynas laments that while many of the activists thought they were helping these African countries to be free from Monsanto’s corporate control, they were really employing classical colonizing behavior and keeping these countries poor and hungry.  If many of these countries would utilize Bt crops, they could potentially have a harvest not only to feed their families but to sell to others.  The Alliance for Science, for which Lynas was a fellow, advocates for the use of genetically engineered crops in African countries to alleviate hunger.  The work of Alliance for Science is supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a not surprising benefactor given Bill Gates’s history of using technology to solve problems.

But, the crux of the book, according to Lynas, really comes down to different world views.  Lynas argues that even if the anti-GMO activists understood the science that it would not change their minds.  In other words, the science does not actually matter to these activists.  Instead, their world view is that we should have a return to nature and reject the corporate takeover, including some of the most basic activities such as farming.  According to Lynas, the corporate backing (whether Monsanto, Dow, Bayer, etc.) is the problem.  The anti-GMO activists see large unknown risks somewhere out there in the future.  Understanding the science will not change their minds, according to Lynas.

Strikingly, although not immune to the inaccuracies of decision making, scientists have a different and evidence-based world view.  Genetic engineering of crops, according to scientists, is a more precise way of accomplishing what we have been doing for thousands of years.  Humans used hybridization and mass mutagenic techniques to obtain the domestic crops that we safely eat.  Genetic engineering allows scientists to direct these changes without the need for mass mutations.  And, importantly, they can do so in already highly selected backgrounds of the crop.  An example of this is the virus-resistant papayas in Hawaii.  Without genetic engineering, Hawaii would no longer have a papaya industry.  Hawaii is now advocating against GMOs; the irony of this scenario is not lost on Lynas.

A critique of Lynas’s point is that the science actually changed his mind.  That is, he was anti-GMO, anti-Monsanto, anti-big corporate take-over of the world.  But, when he actually read the science, he could no longer support his own world view.  In other words, the science mattered.

Lynas’s book begs larger questions: how do we communicate information in a way that allows consumers to appropriately assign risk?  How do we communicate information in a way that does not utilize the same deficiencies in decision making that anti-GMO activists have used?  For example, research by Paul Slovic and colleagues demonstrates that emotion, or more appropriately affect, impacts decision making.  Should we communicate to consumers that people will die if we do not use technology to solve problems—that is, many more people in Africa will die of starvation if we do not solve the food supply problem?  Do we communicate that genetic engineering is needed to improve crops so that we use less pesticides, less water, and less resources so we can improve our climate?  In other words, humans may eventually cease to exist if we do not address climate change.  But, is this the same fear-mongering that is used by others?  Or, do we really need people to be emotional about solving agricultural problems, especially as it relates to malnutrition and climate change?  If the science might not matter, what does?

In the United States, this controversy is playing out in a variety of ways, including labeling laws.  The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is tasked with implementing mandatory labeling of bioengineered food.  But, this begs the question about what it is that consumers need to know, and what they think the label tells them.  A recent study found that respondents associated food labeled organic to be more healthy, safe, and environmentally friendly compared to those foods labeled GMO.  The result was not surprising given the controversy.  But, the associations are not supported by the science.  A recent report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering & Medicine concluded that genetically engineered food is as safe, healthy, and environmentally friendly as other food in the marketplace.  The movement for labeling appears to be a proxy for different world views, economic interests, or something else—a conclusion with which Lynas might agree.

Lynas’s book is thoroughly provocative.  His writing is easy to read and keeps the consumer engaged in the high drama and high stakes that is the subject matter of the book.  Lynas not only reflects on his own role in this area, but opines on the pathway forward and the dire need to employ this technology in a socially responsible manner.

Full Citation: Mark Lynas, Seeds of Science: Why we got it so wrong on GMOs (2018).

Reviewed By: Joanna K. Sax, PhD JD, E. Donald Shapiro Professor of Law, California Western School of Law.  Professor Sax is nationally recognized for her research on the regulation of genetically engineered food and dietary supplements.  In addition, she studies consumer decision making, especially as it relates to biotechnology.