Mark Lynas on GMOs, science denialism, evidence-based policy, and saving the planet

Op-eds Opinions

January 2013, amid a chorus of controversy, Mark Lynas—high profile environmental writer, activist, and researcher—publicly renounced and apologized for his anti-GMO (genetically modified organism) position, at the Oxford Farming Conference. Though Lynas reversed course and has been an advocate for biotechnology since 2010, after this 2013 event a small media storm occurred, with Lynas profiles in Slate, the Guardian, and Forbes. Predictably, anti-GM activists tried to cast his involvement with their movement into doubt; some continue to suggest that Lynas was bought off by the biotechnology industry—a claim that remains unsupported. Lynas cites increased familiarity with scientific discourse as the key driver for changing his mind on the topic of GMOs. Lynas discussed the basic science and politics underpinning GMO application in our telephone interview.

What changes in genetically modified organisms (GMOs) at a cellular level?

Mark Lynas: Well, it’s actually more complicated than people think, because defining exactly what constitutes a GMO anymore is no longer a simple task. Classically, it means the introduction of foreign DNA through the use of recombinant DNA. Typically a bacterium called agrobacterium [bacteria with the ability to transfer genes between itself and plants] is used to splice foreign DNA into the genome [organism’s hereditary information] of a target crop. To give one example, the Bt trait is used worldwide now, in corn and cotton and other things, for insect-resistance. That comes from a soil bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis [bacterium commonly used as a biological pesticide]. The genes, which are spliced into the target crops, allow the plants to express a particular protein, which is toxic to certain insect pests. This then enables farmers not to have to spray insecticides in such quantities. That’s one example, but of course there are many others. If you use conventional breeding, you have obviously a very limited source of germplasm [basic genetic information found in a seed]. So, depending on the traits you’re looking for, you may not be able to breed them in conventionally, particularly things like disease resistance. Maybe to give a better example, golden rice: there are no genes in any known rice varieties which could enable the rice to express beta-carotene [an organic compound that the body converts to vitamin A] in the seed. It has to be introduced from elsewhere, from a different plant.

Is there an appreciable difference between a transgenic organism and a crop that’s a product of selective breeding?

Lynas: At a molecular level, they’re both genetically modified. Modification has come about through conventional breeding or through recombinant DNA techniques used by biologists using mutagenesis [process whereby genetic information is changed, resulting in a mutation] induced by gamma radiation, which through random mutations produces new traits, which are selected for. All of these are genetically modified, and, in fact, there’s not really any good reason why only the recombinant DNA techniques are highlighted for such controversy and, indeed, for such strict regulatory oversight, given that the genes that have been taken across are well understood. Their impacts are extensively studied through toxicology, compositional analysis, and so on and so forth—much of that testing, of course, isn’t done for conventional crop breeding or, indeed, for mutagenesis. I think the scientific community is pretty clear that there’s no cause for concern over and above what they would have for any other type of crop breeding.

Most long-term studies indicate an absence of adverse health outcomes associated with GMOs. So, why should we accept these studies over statements by GMO opponents such as Vandana Shiva [environmentalist and anti-globalization activist] or Judy Carman [adjunct associate professor in Biochemistry at Flinders University in Australia]?

Lynas: I think it’s generally a good idea not to accept the rantings of ideologues versus what’s been published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. That’s something I’ve learned over the last 20 years looking at some of the discourse on climate change or many other areas. You’ve got ideologues who believe that vaccinations cause autism or any number of other wild theories. I can’t sit here and say that they’re all wrong necessarily. But, the only way we have of telling is through a lot of empirical work, which needs to be evaluated through proper scientific methodologies, which is certainly not the case with anything Vandana Shiva has said or done in recent years.

She seems to reject science as an enterprise.

Lynas: Exactly. Her whole career has been to reject the Enlightenment, essentially, and empiricism, in general, as a form of production of knowledge that is illegitimate and is a kind of a colonial imposition on indigenous ways of knowing and other such vague ideas. It’s just a different worldview. I think her worldview is religious in nature, really. It’s not about objective evidence-gathering.

What about the study Judy Carman conducted on the so-called harms of GMOs on pigs? Is it more problematic because it appropriates scientific method to advance what is clearly a political agenda?

Lynas: It’s important to understand that doing animal experiments actually isn’t a very good way to answer whether there are concerns about novel proteins or anything else in GMOs. Animals are complex beings. The actual chemical differences between a genetically modified plant and a conventional plant are so minute—it might even just be a sequence of DNA with no protein expressed; you’re almost certain to not find anything, given all the other confounding factors about how animals are fed and kept, and even just random variability. Given the animal welfare implications of these experiments, I think there’s probably no base for carrying them out in the first place. That would go for Séralini’s rats as well as Carman’s pigs. If you look at the data, the pigs were in extremely poor health, and more than 50 per cent of them had pneumonia and stomach inflammations due to poor diet and husbandry standards. My conclusion was that anti-GMO activists should be discouraged from abusing animals in the service of their ideology.

GMO opponents seem to rely on a very rigid interpretation of and adherence to the precautionary principle. Is this behaviour truly consistent with science, or more an expression of environmental dogma?

Lynas: In the way that it’s argued now against GMOs, it’s a way of shifting the burden of proof to an impossible level. It’s already understood that you can’t prove a negative, and what anti-GMO people are asking us to do is prove a negative decades in advance. They say that the uncertainty aspects, where some unknown impacts might happen at some stage in the future, is sufficiently risky, that we shouldn’t be able to access any of the known benefits of genetically-modified plants or, indeed, animals. This is a very peculiar way to balance scales of risk-and-benefit analysis.

It disproportionately puts all the weight on risk?

Lynas: Yes, but they can’t even speculatively suggest any plausible source of risk. If you can’t even think of any mechanism whereby risk is being introduced that is plausible—given what we know about genetics and epigenetics and proteomics [respectively: the study of genes and heredity in living organisms; the study of hereditary traits in genetic activity not caused by changes in DNA sequencing; and the study of proteomes, the complete sets of proteins expressed by genes, cells, or tissues], then you really don’t have any business seeking to ban an entire technology in terms of its current usage—usages which are very well studied, for which the benefits are very well-quantified and understood.

To what extent do science denialists rely on emotional imagery to advance their causes?

Lynas: Well, the problem is that we’re all human, that we all employ motivated reasoning. We start with conclusions, then work back to try and generate supporting evidence. Emotional impulses are the way that we make decisions on a constant basis. That’s the way we are, that’s the way our brains have evolved, which is fine when it comes to trivial issues in your daily life in terms of making choices. Even non-trivial issues like who to marry. You can’t base these things rationally. But, when it comes to matters of public policy, mass use of emotive imagery is not going to be a way to make an optimal decision for society. There, you do need to look at objective, empirically derived data. That’s what we’ve got from the Enlightenment in the 18th century and thereafter; the invention of empiricism and science was to confound our evolved emotional impulses. That’s why we stopped burning witches. Many people’s impulses generate a lot of unscientific thinking. Fear, I think, is so easy and quick to generate in people, particularly when it comes to issues like food—to some extent not surprising, but that doesn’t mean to say it’s right.

You mentioned the need for objective empirical analysis at policy level. What led to the European Union’s decisions on regulation of GMOs? Was it predicated more on politics, or the best available data?

Lynas: In Europe, there’s no scientific basis at all to the regulatory system. It’s entirely political. The scientific authorities have dozens of times stated their opinion that GMO applications currently within the system are all safe. However, the political system and votes from anti-GMO countries like France and Austria and Italy have stopped any approvals for 15 years or so. The system is entirely non-functional because of cultural prejudice by certain countries in the European Union. It’s a bit different in different countries, but the European model is essentially what’s been imported into Africa. So, there’s no African GMOs either being grown commercially, with the single exception of Bt cotton in Burkina Faso and some corn in South Africa. Entire continents have been locked out of the biotechnology revolution because of unscientific, prejudiced thinking at the policy level, unfortunately.

Is this fear entirely based around GMOs in agricultural biotechnology, or does it have more to do with the associated legal implications of farmers trying to grow their own crops?

Lynas: I think both those elements are intertwined. Fear is a good selling mechanism. If you can Photoshop an image of a deformed baby and a GMO together, that’s a way to get moms concerned across America, for example. That’s kind of the tactic employed by the anti-vaccination movement. I think the politics are more deep-seated with GMOs, and essentially rooted in an opposition to modern agriculture in general, and the use of industrialized farming or what’s often called monoculture. The early identification of GMOs with herbicide tolerance—the Roundup Ready phase—I think that’s what really did it for the technology in the early years and caused such a storm of opposition, particularly focused around Monsanto. [Roundup Ready crops are genetically modified with an alternative pathway for producing some amino acids; when the native pathway is inhibited by herbicide, they will survive, while unmodified plants will perish.] So, for a large number of people, GMOs were seen as something symbolic, and something the environmental movement in particular was very concerned about. Those concerns are not all unfounded, by any means, but the focus on GMOs certainly was not only a distraction but, actually, it turned out in the long-term [to be] counterproductive.

Does “green orthodoxy” ultimately hinder environmental progress?

Lynas: I think any kind of orthodoxy hinders progress, because the only sensible way to make decisions is on a case-by-case basis with a minimum of ideological baggage. I think I would apply that in every area, but in particular the environmental field, where science is the way we know environmental problems even exist to start with. That may be contested with something like climate change, but ultimately it really comes [down] to policy. I think climate deniers don’t believe in global warming because they object to the policies put forward to deal with it. You can’t use science as a battering ram to insist on particular policy outcomes.  That’s also clear. We need to have a more open and non-ideological debate, I think, in all of these different areas.

Many people seem to have difficulty responding to the science of GMOs; how would you suggest resolving that?

Lynas: People have a difficult time relating to science that they feel uncomfortable about. But, actually, in general, I think people do trust science and do trust scientists, when it comes to healthcare for example. Yes, there’s a natural-health movement where a small minority of people will take herbal remedies for cancer and die more quickly than the rest, but I think those movements exist really only at the margins. The problem with climate denialism has been to arrest the progress of entire countries like the United States. That’s had an enormous impact at the international level, and is preventing humanity from getting on and dealing with the problem before it’s too late. On the political flipside, with biotechnology, humanity really may be prevented—forcibly prevented by fear, by misinformation—from using a technology which can feed a growing human population and make agriculture much more sustainable, which is essentially what we need to do to arrest the decline in biodiversity and species diversity. All this isn’t just a battle for empiricism on principle; it’s about—for lack of a better phrase—saving the planet