John Deben

Food for Thought

Seeds of Science: Why We Got It So Wrong on GMOs

By

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Mark Lynas has written a rattling good account of his conversion from student activist to respected science writer, from his days ripping up genetically modified organism (GMO) trial plots to now, campaigning for biotechnology to feed the poorest in Africa. This is serious stuff, enlivened by all the elements of a popular thriller, in which powerful business tycoons wrestle with passionate environmentalists – both sides sticking at nothing, convinced they are saving the world.

It’s also a salutary warning for the immediate future at a time when we struggle with false information, Brexit and Donald Trump. Lynas describes the triumph of emotion over science and the failure of some of the richest corporations to win an important battle, even though the facts were on their side. And he charts the ways in which they too got it wrong from the start.

In the late 1990s, I was taken round Monsanto’s St Louis headquarters by a senior member of the company. He proudly told me of the vast number of PhDs the corporation employed and then said definitively, ‘That’s why we know we’re right.’ It was at just the time that the GM battle had begun to rage in Europe. I had already tried to get him to understand how his company’s attitudes were destroying any hope of introducing GMOs, how those of us who supported the new technology were fighting a losing battle because of what seemed like bully-boy tactics, and how much of the rest of the industry saw Monsanto’s approach as disastrous. He was unimpressed: ‘We contributed a lot to Clinton’s campaign and we’ll simply call him and he’ll tell Tony Blair to stop all this nonsense and allow GM food into Britain.’ My explanations about parliamentary majorities, the EU and the fact that the label ‘Frankenstein Foods’ had caught on didn’t move him. As far as he was concerned, Monsanto was going to win.

But, as Lynas describes, the company was battling with the legacy of the Vietnam War and a reputation for heavy-handedly getting the better of its competitors to seize their technology, as well as for being exceedingly tough opponents. It was therefore not difficult to characterise Monsanto as the archetypal US multinational, bent on world domination. Although in many ways this was untrue, it was indeed the company’s arrogance that ensured its downfall in 1999–2000. Success with farmers and lawmakers in the USA led its executives to underestimate the campaigning power of NGOs in Europe. They did not realise that both the organic movement and Greenpeace had been enlisted by a small band of enthusiasts. They missed the fact that there was now a full-blown campaign against GMOs that had the power to influence governments and the European Commission and attract significant funding from rich benefactors. One by one, the supermarkets and food companies vowed to be GM-free. Regulatory demands became increasingly stringent and even the Prince of Wales joined in the attack on people who were trying to ‘take mankind into realms that belong to God and God alone’.

It is here that Lynas begins to balance out the story, drawing on the testimony of corporate officers and scientists who genuinely saw GMOs as a real weapon in the battle to reduce pesticides and increase fertility. He quotes the later chapters of Rachel Carson’s game-changing book Silent Spring to show how environmentalists might be able to see biotechnology as a way of feeding the world while reducing the damage done by intensive agriculture.

He then moves on to Africa specifically to consider the devastation caused by disease and pests – devastation that could have been countered by the use of genetically modified plants. Lynas recounts the story of how heavily financed NGOs from rich countries persuaded African governments to ban the very seeds that could have saved their populations from hunger. He highlights the misinformation and downright lies that they spread and the way they used fear to advance their cause. By now we begin to see how both sides gave rise to mistrust: big business competing with ideological determination.

How on earth did this happen? The anti-GM campaigners are good people, seriously concerned with combating injustice and poverty. Equally, the scientists and many of the businessmen involved on the other side really believe that they have the ability to make the world a better place. Yet both groups have become locked in a fight to the death. Lynas faces this issue and tries hard to explain the motivation of the environmentalists. He asks how they can demand that we follow the science on climate change while denying the science on genetic modification. He revisits friends from his days of youthful activism and unpicks the reasons for their continuing opposition in the face of the facts. Their answers may not convince, but they strike important chords. Activists worry that a world in which three huge companies control seed production is one that is even more biased in favour of the rich. The cost and complexity of biotechnology give an advantage to the big, established and deep-pocketed behemoths. Where is the democratic control? Are there no limits? Should we be placing the whole of our future in a few unaccountable hands?

Yet without biotechnology we shall continue to lay waste to our soils, drench them with chemicals and still not feed our increasing population. Climate change makes the problem even more pressing as it limits the land and water available for agriculture. That’s the point Lynas seeks to make in his last chapter, where he takes Greenpeace directly to task. Flat-footed Monsanto may have destroyed its own prospects, but the environmental campaigners have a real responsibility for denying the poorest the crops that could have satisfied their hunger and improved their nutrition. It’s not only the great corporations that wield enormous power. It’s also the well-meaning campaigners – and not always for the better.

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