Mark Lynas on the complexity of disagreeing on GMOs

'I try to take people at face value in terms of what their objections are, and to not ascribe them with ill-intent'

Devang Mehta


University of Alberta

Mark Lynas is a British environmentalist and writer famous for having changed his views about GMOs very publicly in a 2013 speech. Lynas recently published a book, Seeds of Science (which I reviewed for Massive) about how and why he changed his mind. After reading the book, I talked to Lynas about his journey, his views on the differences between activism and science, the limits of genetic modification, and about how scientists can respond to ant-GM activists. Here's our conversation, condensed and edited for clarity.

Devang Mehta: Clearly you’ve changed your mind about GMOs a lot in the years since you destroyed field trials of GM maize in the UK. Why haven’t others in the environmental movement also changed their mind? Why are you alone?

Mark Lynas: Well, I’m pretty much alone in terms of anyone changing their minds about anything significant! It’s quite a rare thing to happen. And it only happened with me because of some quite specific circumstances, in that I changed careers from being an environmental activist to being a science writer and communicator, so the need to be truthful and honest about science was particularly important for my new career.

It is difficult to change views with just facts, but that doesn’t mean facts don’t matter. You know truth remains truth and science is the best way to determine what objective truth is about physical realities in the world around us. I think even environmental activists would grudgingly agree to that. The problem is when an issue becomes very politicized and very contested.

That’s obviously happened with GMOs, but it’s happened even longer with climate change and other issues that I’ve been personally involved in as well, such as nuclear power. And so when you get these political battles going on, the straightforward physical facts become contested too. And it’s very difficult then to make any kind of any kind of progress based on actual evidence.

When I talk to the public, I usually compare GMO technology with mutagenesis – using genetic mutations to breed new qualities – because it’s probably the closest non-GM breeding technology in terms of outcomes. You described in your book this whole process where the initial regulations about GMOs came about, and you talk about how mutagenesis was specifically excluded from the new regulations. Do you know anything about how this was ever approved of by activists like Greenpeace? Why did they think of mutagenesis as “different” from genetic engineering?

I don’t think they knew mutagenesis existed. Seriously!

You don’t object to the past things, you object to the new things which seem scary and risky. So there was no political pressure for anything to be done about mutagenesis, and it was just grandfathered into the regulations very specifically. But that did always raise the peculiar irony that the unintended genetic mutations (from mutagenesis) were not regulated and the intended and understood ones (from GM) were very strictly and strongly regulated.

One theme I got throughout the book was that the basic difference between activist and scientists is that activists are really concerned with the ends, but not the means, while scientists really care about the means to reach those ends, and the integrity of the scientific process. Would you agree?

Maybe, but it depends on what the ends are. I mean, the ends of environmental activists aren’t just to save the planet. By and large they’re to advance a certain set of values about humanity’s role in nature, about how society should be structured, and lots of other things primarily on the political left. So you’ll find on the GM issue that one of the most frequent objections, and obviously a central concern, is this issue of corporations, ownership of seeds, patenting, Monsanto, that kind of stuff. And this seems to be applied to food and seeds in a way that it isn’t to, say, communications technologies. You know, I’ve never seen an activist give up their iPhone. You can ask why that is, and again it’s because of the kind of cultural connotations and the politicization of certain issues more than others. It’s not about facts, it’s not about evidence, it’s not that science said that we should be concerned about Monsanto. So it’s an issue of world-views and values more than anything.

You talk about how there was all this propaganda in Africa about GMOs causing “sexual deformities” in children or in the next generation. This is a clear and outright lie and the activists saying these things probably know that it’s a lie, right? So how do they reconcile that with their mission or with the purity of their actions in that sense?

I’ve asked myself the same question. And particularly given that the funding for these activist groups promoting homophobic lies about GMOs comes from Europe and from very progressive sources who are, I’m sure, terribly concerned about LGBT rights, there would seem to be a contradiction there. But there are so many varied myths and lies that I think it’s like any kind of internet conspiracy theory. They gain currency because you have a tendency to believe conspiracist beliefs about this issue. So it doesn’t really matter what the supposed harm is, cancer or homosexuality or pig genes or something. They’ll believe anything because they’re already primed to a kind of conspiracist belief about GMOs. And this is without knowing much about what GMOs even are in the scientific sense.

You also say that your bet was that if Bt corn (insect-resistant corn) was the first product from Monsanto rather than RoundUp Ready (plants tolerant of the herbicide glyphosate) we would have seen a more positive reaction from the public. But don’t you think that’s a bit wishful? Because I don’t think that that opposition is primarily about by RoundUp Ready or about pesticides…

I disagree, because I think the opposition is always about pesticides. And you can see this in the anti-GMO memes. It’s always about chemicals. So the idea that there was some kind of artificial intrusion, some kind of adulteration being done to the authentic natural purity of our food is an environmentalist theme. But whether it’s chemicals or genes, it didn’t really matter. And there’s a long history of concern about pesticides or synthetic chemicals polluting our natural environment. Of course, there is sometimes good reasons for that.

But then why did Monsanto get this special target painted on their back because they invested in genetic engineering while Syngenta or Bayer did not? Monsanto makes only a fraction of the chemicals compared to the other big agricultural companies.

Yes, that’s true. Monsanto have recently gone into Dicamba (a new herbicide). But previous to that, glyphosate’s been pretty much their only chemical product. But they have a history of having produced Agent Orange and PCBs and other things. And if you are in the business of demonizing Monsanto you don’t take too much trouble to distinguish. As I say in the book, Syngenta – or Ciba-Geigy, as it was known at the time – seems to have made a specific decision not to go into herbicide-tolerance as a trait early on precisely because they could see that the public reaction of having a pesticide-dependent GM crop as the first product would be a big risk. Monsanto just went blundering forward for what I think were just very commercial reasons.

And you know, just speaking as a campaigner now, I find it much easier to sell a Bt crop to an audience by saying “this is going to reduce chemical use, isn’t that great!” than herbicide-tolerant crops where you’ve got to explain about weed control. It’s just much more complicated.

I’m still not convinced that anti-GM opposition is truly coming from a genuine concern about the environment rather than a more basic, Luddite, anti-genetic modification belief. Though you seem to disagree?

I try to take people at face value in terms of what their objections are, and to not ascribe them with ill-intent. So I think it’s important not to put words in people’s mouths and to have some respect for what they say they are concerned about. I mean who are you, or who am I, to say that Greenpeace doesn’t care about the environment?

Sure, of course.

This has been one of their central campaigns. So you might think that there’s sort of knee-jerk Luddism underlying it, but that’s very subjective. I would prefer to think that they genuinely do believe that GM crops are a real threat to the environment. I might disagree with that now, and I’ve got my reasons, and I point them out and try and back them up with peer-reviewed science. And I would challenge them to do the same, and they pretty quickly discover that there isn’t much very good science to back up what they say!

Right – there isn’t any peer-reviewed science to support that there are environmental or health risks with the current slate of GMO crops. But why then is the demand always for a blanket ban on the technology rather than looking at individual applications? This is where I start to disbelieve opponents' claims about being only concerned by the environment rather than genetic modification intrinsically.

I think they say that genetic modification is always going to be a bad thing. I think it is a fundamentalist position. In fact, Peter Melchett from Greenpeace UK (now Policy Director for the Soil Association, UK) at the time said, I think, that it is a fundamental opposition and always will be irrespective of any new evidence. So they’ve been quite clear about that.

Doesn’t that fundamentalist view indicate less of a concern of the environment than for messing around with genetics or or with nature?

I think they think that messing around with nature and messing around with genetics will inevitably be bad for the environment. So I don’t think that they would see any separation between the two.

You know, I think this is the only sentence in the book that I really disagreed with: “It is not shameful to reject scientific evidence when it conflicts with a moral case. So long as this was done explicitly.”

I don’t mean “deny” scientific evidence. I mean reject it as not meaningful, or as not being something which is going to change your moral position on something. I’d rather that we all agreed on what the science said, but you can reject it anyway because you have a moral concern about genetic engineering. Denis Gonsalves, the inventor of the Rainbow Papaya (virus resistant GM papaya grown in Hawaii), puts it quite well when he says that, if you say you have an ethical objection to putting a gene from a virus into a papaya, then I can understand that, and I can respect it. If you say that putting the viral gene into a papaya makes it poisonous, then that’s a question science can answer. Those are two different things. And I think sciencey people often get them mixed up just as activists do.

Yeah, I guess we tend to to follow the science all the way to the ethics.

You think you do. But actually sciencey people have their own ideology and are just better at using science to defend it. And it becomes a kind of a tribal group mentality as much as anything else. You know, the sciencey types also have to change their minds because, remember, nothing’s immutable.

I found it really interesting that you discussed the Glowing Plant project (a failed attempt at producing fluorescing plants and trees). I agree with with all of your opinions of their project; I think that it was ill-conceived and frivolous. But when we start talking about individual applications as moral or immoral, aren’t we limiting choice or restricting choice by saying that, say, glowing trees aren’t a useful application of this technology compared to others?

I don’t want to see a world where genes are just being thrown around willy-nilly without any thought whether it’s for frivolous reasons or commercial ones or anything else. I do want to see what’s truly natural in terms of our planet’s biological evolutionary heritage preserved. And so I have concerns even about the genetically engineered chestnut. Whereas I don’t really have much concern about genetic engineering in cultivated species which are human creations anyway in a very human created environments – namely, farms. So there’s a kind of continuum there, but you know that’s an ethical and a moral issue. And I talk about pristine wilderness, these kinds of concepts. I mean, you can challenge them all, but they do clearly have value to a lot of people, and I think that’s not something that should be just dismissed. And sciencey types are perhaps a bit too ready to dismiss the ethical and moral concerns.

I got into a debate recently about Arctic apples, and the question I got was, "What’s the use of having these apples? Won’t they lead to more plastic consumption?" My point is that it becomes a bit hard to defend all the uses of GM technology but also to try to point out the nuances within the different applications. More so when there are people out there who want to ban the technology as such.

But that’s the problem when you’re trying to combat simplistic assertions with a nuanced perspective. So every time you get some simplistic assertion, you have to come back with something which says, no, it’s complicated, and actually you need to have a more sophisticated understanding of the issue in order to make a judgment. And that’s a very difficult thing to communicate about. So it’s a big comms challenge as much as anything. And on the Arctic apple, I agree that apples already have their own packaging, which is called the skin, that’s served us pretty well, and having them sliced up in plastic without going brown – I don’t see it as being much of a benefit. But I don’t give a toss about whether they use gene-editing to do that. I just think that’s daft in general. But I’m very happy to see the same company working on GM salmon, for example, which I think is a great innovation, and I’m desperate to try it. Especially raw and sashimi’d with some nice Japanese rice.

I think many times this criticism of a specific application is kind of cover for larger criticism of that technology. So I had this conversation and then it ended up being about banning GM. This is where it becomes really hard to kind of have to defend every single application of technology while trying to defend the use of the technology in general. Technology shouldn't be regulated because of one application that we don’t like.

I’m not suggesting the Arctic apple should be banned. I’m just not going to ride out now and defend them. And it’s not about the technology; it’s just about the final product. But the problem is, you’re already being defensive when you have these conversations. I think the best strategy is to attack, and to say, “How dare you deprive farmers in poorer countries from having drought-tolerant crops? What possible justification do you have for that? Oh, it’s because of a superstitious opposition to genetic engineering. Really? Is that why you want to keep the poor hungry.” They’re now on the defensive, and then you can have a different kind of conversation.

Do you think it’s useful or helpful for scientists to interact more with people who would disagree with them or with their science?

I think it is helpful, and I’ve tried to make the same case to climate skeptics. Having a kind of "circling the wagons" mentality makes it more likely that you’ll engage in groupthink and that you’ll miss actually useful critiques. Because even when people are poking holes in your work for what you see as malevolent reasons, they still sometimes find things that you’ve done wrong. If you want science to be self-correcting, you have to allow criticism. I do think we need to engage with critics even even when it’s unpleasant. 

I think it becomes difficult, though, when you’ve got such hostility, and you’ve got accusations that scientists are in the pay of Monsanto, or in the case of climate change you’ve got skeptics accusing scientists again of being in pay of the UN or somebody. Or you know when you get attacks where people’s careers are being destroyed and people’s lives are being made a misery – I think you can’t really engage in good faith with the people who are doing that. So you have to know where to draw the line.

But sometimes it feels like activists and scientists are speaking different languages.

Well you’re dealing with a complete collision of worldviews, so the extent to which you can share any language, or share any common concerns or narrative it’s useful to try and find what those things are.

Are you optimistic about the future of genetic engineering?

Not particularly, no. I think when these issues become very politicized and polarized it is difficult to resolve them. I’m a bit more optimistic about some of the new gene editing stuff, like when the USDA said they weren’t going to regulate CRISPR. I think that’s definitely the right decision, just to try and park some of the stuff, leave it behind and let science move forward in other ways which haven’t yet become so contested.

So much of this debate is purely down to misinformation and “fake news.” How do scientists combat this?

I don’t like to use the term fake news. Let’s just talk about lies and fear and misinformation or myths. Why do myths work? Why do they have emotional power? It’s because they reinforce the narrative that’s already there. The narrative is “big business exploiting poor farmers” or “malevolent scientists intruding in nature and poisoning our food,” or something like that. The only way to combat them isn’t to repeat the myth and say it’s wrong. Oftentimes, that just reinforces it.

The thing to do is to push a different narrative which is based on the truth of the situation, which is that justice demands that poor farmers should have better crops to feed their hungry children, and the environment needs more sustainable farming to feed a growing world population with fewer chemicals. We need these genetic tools to do that.

Now, maybe those are more difficult narratives. I don’t know. But maybe there’s a broader narrative about progress itself that scientists should be allowed to come up with innovations and tools which can make our lives better, and deal with problems. And that those who resist that, particularly for the wrong reasons, are standing in the way of a better world for all of us. So those are the things to think about. Let’s not get too wrapped up in specifics and let’s not be always on the defensive.