Mark Lynas begins Seeds of Science: Why we got it so wrong on GMOs in a corn field in the dead of night, slashing and destroying the surrounding plant-life, followed by his frantic escape over barbed wire fences to avoid police capture. Hardly the typical image of a self-described “environmentalist.”
But to environmentalists like Lynas, the crops in that field weren’t the sort of thing they were interested in protecting; in fact, they believed they were protecting the environment FROM that corn. Its seeds weren’t produced through nature or more traditional agricultural methods, but through modern biotechnology, you see. In 2013, 14 years later, Lynas gave a speech apologizing for his actions.
It’s incredibly rare for someone to truly change their mind on a political issue. It’s even harder to find an activist who switches sides and becomes an advocate for the very thing they literally tried to destroy.
For Lynas, his shift on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), was not the first time he’d gone against the herd within the green movement. In 2005, he penned a piece in the New Statesman titled “Nuclear power: a convert”. Despite the green movement’s very identity being intrinsically linked to environmental protection, for one of its own to come out in favor of nuclear — an energy source with very low carbon emissions, something you’d think they’d be for — that individual risks virtual excommunication.
Such is also the case when it comes to towing the party line on GMOs, pesticides and of course, that dreaded M-word detested most by biotech critics: MONSANTO. But despite years helping to transform the UK’s burgeoning Anti-GMO Movement in the 1990s, Lynas reached his breaking point in the 2000s while attempting, paradoxically, to counter a criticism of his GMO position by a random internet user commenting on a piece he’d written.
According to Lynas, the green movement and organizations like Greenpeace aren’t as science-minded as they may appear on the surface. In fact, they tend to be dismissive of science, often carrying a cynical view. To them, technology is inseparable from the institutions of power that wield it and its very worst applications. For activist George Monbiot, for instance, it’s not GM technology itself he opposes but the existing power structures — be it corporate or otherwise — he fears will use it to exploit the weak. Monbiot himself is not particularly all that worried GMOs aren’t safe.
But, to those of us who have found ourselves in sudden and random debates with critics of GMOs or chemical pesticides in our daily lives, Monbiot’s focus on fairly reasonable concerns over how the technology could be misused seems almost quaint. Despite a scientific consensus that transgenic seeds developed by inserting the specific gene from one organism into another is almost wholly safe — a position maintained by The U.N. World Health Organization (WHO), The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), The European Food Safety Authority, The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, The U.S. Department of Agriculture, The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and Health Canada, among other agencies and organizations — GMO critics aren’t buying it. All those agencies are clearly bought off by the biotech industry.
As Lynas explains, the green movement has little respect for the institutions of science. And prominent figures in the scene like Vandana Shiva go as far as denying the objectivity of scientific facts themselves, writing it all off as just one of many subjective narratives, one deployed by the establishment to maintain their power.
Perhaps the one area where the green movement does acknowledge and even champion science is climate change. Environmentalists are greatly concerned about climate change with an almost religious conviction, as if it were a biblical apocalypse. It’s easy to see why this part of science would be embraced by those ideologically fearful technology will necessarily lead to destructive ends, as the climate crisis we face today is inescapably a product of the Industrial Revolution.
It was this willingness by the green movement to advertise scientific findings to bolster their case on climate change that sowed the seeds of Lynas’ eventual departure from their ranks. He dug deep into scientific research with the goal of besting climate deniers in debate and came out with a lasting respect for the scientific process.
After his writings on climate change won him accolades by the scientific community, he found he couldn’t escape the inconsistency of lauding science in one arena while rejecting it outright in another. When he found he couldn’t back up his own anti-GMO statements using the same high-quality scientific sources he’d grown accustomed to, he reached a point of crisis:
I decided to take the safe and trusted route of going back to the mainstream scientific consensus, by quoting statements from bodies like the Royal Society or the US National Academy of Sciences to bolster my case. But once again, I couldn’t find anything from these sources saying that GM crops were especially harmful. In fact, the august academic institutions I looked at all seemed concerned to say the opposite, that GM crops were most likely to be safe. I found this disconcerting. I remember sitting back in my seat and feeling uncomfortably hot all of a sudden. It was as if a crack had opened up in my worldview, and I didn’t know what I would find on the other side.
In the following years, Lynas traveled throughout the developing world — places he once believed would be hurt most by biotechnology like India, Tanzania, Bangladesh, Uganda, Ghana and Zimbabwe –and discovered it was the very efforts of activists opposing the technology that caused the most harm.
As a third of Tanzania’s children suffer malnutrition due to blights on subsistence crops like cassava, seeds resistant to the blight sit locked away in a nearby labs because of governmental “strict liability” policies, driven by the unfounded hysteria of false prophets from richer, Western countries.
Bt brinjal, in Bangladesh, is the world’s first GM crop made in the public sector for use by small farmers. Neither Monsanto nor any other big corporation was involved. This crop dramatically reduces chemical pesticide use, and yet activists stopped its cultivation for six years, until 2016.
Those same activists have been successful in also pushing the myth that India’s Bt cotton has driven the mass suicides of farmers when, in actuality, the suicide rates of farmers are on par with countries where there are no GM crops at all. Myths about the dangers of GMOs and chemical pesticides spread across Africa run the gamut from the technically possible (though completely unproven) to the outright ridiculous, such as that GMOs will increase homosexuality.
Contrary to the green movement’s stated intent to protect the developing world, Lynas found they’re doing the opposite in places like Uganda, where GMOs are needed to increase yields to pull the country out of abject poverty and adapt to climate change. And throughout central Africa, where staple crops are being devastated by disease, the fate of wilt-resistant bananas capable of staving off starvation hangs in the balance for no good reason. Kenya faces unwanted fallout from the quixotic efforts of Western GMO critics as it struggles to roll out its Bt cowpea, while Tanzania’s transgenic Water Efficient Maize finally sees success after strict liability was relaxed.
Lynas shows how the David versus Goliath narrative presented by the green movement is a sham, that big money interests exist on both sides of the conversation. Efforts by privileged biotech critics from the West to falsely speak on behalf of local farmers in the developing world are heavily funded by the Rockefellers, and various other big money sources.
Lynas has often been inaccurately credited with coining the pejorative term “frankenfood,” a common phrase among GM critics. They’re maybe unaware science was less the villain of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein than the frightened villagers reacting to it. But Lynas didn’t want to write a book attacking his former friends and fellow activists. Instead, he wisely reaches out to them and in so doing, he perhaps uncovers that at the center of this conflict lies the fundamental tension between Romanticism and Reason as well as a primal, almost indescribable sense of loss, as technology seems to continually push man’s further separation from nature.
That sense that nature is slipping away from us may be the seed from which the modern green movement flourishes. They’re certainly not wrong that powerful institutions have historically misused technology to the detriment of one underclass or another. But technology like drought-tolerant maize or disease-resistant bananas, developed by public sector projects in Africa, can also advance public good.
Indeed, many of the technologies we now think of as working for the public good are built on the backs of technology developed by institutions of war. Radar literally derived from attempts to develop a death ray. Modern Wi-Fi and GPS technologies were made possible by the frequency-hopping technology Hedy Lamarr invented to prevent torpedo signals from being jammed.
Seeds of Science: Why We Got it So Wrong on GMOs takes us through the early history of Monsanto as well as of the modern anti-GMO movement. Learning about the rapid expansion of anti-GMO sentiment in such a short time and the damage to the developing world it’s caused, the ideology itself may prove the most pernicious weed of all.