How a former anti-GMO activist saw the GMO light and is being amply rewarded for it
Here's an entertaining and incisive review by the academic Glenn Davis Stone of the pro-GMO lobbyist Mark Lynas's new book, Seeds of Science: Why We Got it So Wrong on GMOs.
The dubious virtue of apostasy
Glenn Davis Stone
The Common Reader, 13 Dec 2018
* How a former Greenpeace activist saw the GMO light and is being amply rewarded for it
-Seeds of Science: Why We Got it So Wrong on GMOs
-By Mark Lynas
-(2018, Bloomsbury Sigma) 304 pages, including index
“It’s three in the morning, and properly dark” and the black-clad activists are out for a bit of skullduggery. Their mission, we learn, is taking machetes to a cornfield because the plants were GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Even today, the location of the action can only be identified as “somewhere in eastern England”. Thus begins Seeds of Science: Why We Got it So Wrong on GMO’s, by English science-writer-turned-professional-GMO-promoter Mark Lynas. The reader who sticks with it will soon be treated to a purported insider’s account of the thinking behind that delusional European anti-GMO activism by “one of the original GM field wreckers” who is now biotech-woke.
My turn: it is 10 at night and I am with three other people in a location somewhere in eastern Canada. OK, it was a hotel bar in Halifax and I, an agricultural-anthropologist-turned-book-reviewer, am drinking beer with three other writers on GMOs. The man across from me, a biotech-industry-funded academic and frequent commentator on the benefits of GMOs, is pontificating on the delusional motivations in anti-GMO activism. The woman next to me, a sociologist of agriculture, had literally written the book on the history of anti-GMO activism, but she just sips her beer with a bemused smile as the industry talking points washed over us.
In the never-ending mêlée between GMO boosters and critics, a potent and popular maneuver is what we might call discursive ventriloquism–appropriating your opponents’ voice to cast their position in an unfavorable light. That is what our boothmate was up to, it is what is happening every time you hear GMO critics nutshelled as just thinking GMOs are unsafe (actually safety is only one of a list of concerns), it is what is happening when magazines run stories like, “Sorry Hipsters, That Organic Kale Is A GM Food” (conjuring an imaginary population of bearded imbeciles who are unaware of crop domestication) (Newland 2014), and it is what is happening in Robert Paarlberg’s Starved for Science (2008) when he sets himself up as palling around with “liberal environmentalists” and so he can comment knowingly on their ignorance of GMOs.
But of the many forms of discursive ventriloquism, few are as potentially potent as flipping an adversary who can then write a book that uses their special standing to comment on former comrades. Such books now form the small but distinctive genre of GMO turncoat literature. In describing a new embrace of GMOs, Lynas’ book joins Confessions of a Greenpeace Dropout by Patrick Moore (2011), who claims to have founded Greenpeace before he found GMOs. There are also two books by biotechnologists-turned-skeptics. In First Fruit (2001), molecular biologist Belinda Martineau gives an insider’s view of the testing of the world’s first GM food–Calgene’s Flavr Savr tomato–and recounts her growing objections to how corporate biotechnology operates. In Pandora’s Potatoes (2018), plant genetic engineer Caius Rommens disavows the GM potatoes he created for JR Simplot and exposes as much about their agronomic and biological problems as his non-disclosure agreement allows.
But Seeds of Science has enjoyed much more attention than anything else in this genre, due to the promotional muscle of a biotech industry delighted by the unflattering exposé of GMO critics. One reason for industry and its allies to be excited by this is that a positive case for GM crops is not that easy to make. Sixty years after Nobel laureate Edward Tatum predicted that one day genetic engineering would allow “improvement of all living organisms” (Tatum 1958), and 24 years after GM crops arrived on the market, the technology is still basically used to make industrial crops herbicide resistant. (A remarkable 88 percent of world’s GM acres today contain HT crops [ISAAA 2018].) The only other major application, using Bt genes for resistance to caterpillars (based largely on research at Washington University) has shown only modest success (Glover 2010). The actual impacts of other applications touted by industry are either minuscule (e.g., resistance to a virus in export-oriented papaya in Hawaii) or nonexistent (e.g., Golden Rice, which is still in development after 26 years [Stone and Glover 2016]). Industry may insist it has the key to feeding the planet, but the National Academy of Sciences could find no evidence that GM crops have affected the growth of food production (NAS Committee on Genetically Engineered Crops 2016).
The more effective strategy is to attack GMO critics, and ventriloquism feeds nicely into the commodified exasperation that pervades public discourse. Exasperation makes money, changes minds, and dislodges people from apathy. Exasperation is the Fox News product, and when viewers are tired of seething at the libtards they can watch Fox’s Greg Gutfield snarling at the “well fed-creeps who destroyed a field of Golden Rice”.
So Mr. Lynas’s gambit is perfect, with its account of a personal biotech Pentecost that makes for much livelier reading than the usual GMO talking points, and its combustible fuel for exasperation with GM critics (what’s wrong with you Greens, even your leaders admit your thinking is off the rails!). Add the fact that he is an engaging writer, and you have a potent weapon for the biotech industry and a ticket for many speaking invitations and a gig working for Cornell’s Gates-funded “Alliance for Science” GMO media project.
The book is worth discussing as a work of GMO turncoat literature, but less as a book about GM agriculture, on which its contributions are scant. Lynas even admits as much in one of the book’s moments of candor: he quotes high-profile professional GMO defender Nina Fedoroff as telling him “you’re not saying anything we haven’t been saying for years … but you’re getting a lot of attention–use it”. (53) He uses the attention mainly for ventriloquism, but pads the pages with a breezy account of the rise of genetic engineering and a “true history” of Monsanto, all of which lacks the rigor and objectivity of Dan Charles’s carefully researched and highly engaging Lords of the Harvest (from which he cribs liberally). Two chapters are devoted to the set of standard controversies in GMO debates, including Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser being sued by Monsanto, the “Terminator” technology, southern Africa’s supposed 2002 GMO famine, and Indian cotton farmer suicides–giving stock industry interpretations of each, often larded with disingenuity.
In India, for instance, Lynas disparages the activists who blame farmer suicides on Bt cotton; social scientists who actually conduct research on Indian cotton farmers (like me) have made the same point, albeit with less vitriol (Stone 2011a). But then he writes that we know Bt cotton delivered “real benefits” to farmers because Matin Qaim’s 2012 study showed a 24 percent rise in cotton yield (115). What Lynas does not tell you is that this yield gain was over 6 years—an average of just 4 percent rise per year. Compare this to Andhra Pradesh, where I have done long-term research: cotton yields there were rising by 12 percent/year before Bt cotton was widely adopted (Stone 2011b). Lynas also does not let on that Qaim had been proclaiming Bt cotton yield advantages in India since 2003, with the claimed advantages started out at 88 percent and then steadily dropped down to 4 percent, when Qaim quit while he was still ahead.
Lynas is quite concerned with the 2002 southern Africa drought and Zambia’s refusal to accept the United States’ offer of GM grain that had not been through the country’s own biosafety protocols. This case has been the cleanup hitter in the lineup of exasperation-producing stories: the humanitarian U.S. offering shiploads of food aid to starving continent, and misled African nations unconscionably rejecting it. Such was the narrative popularized by Robert Paarlberg in op-eds at the time (Paarlberg 2002) and later in a book (Paarlberg 2008); Lynas copies from the book but also injects himself into the story (although he had nothing to do with it). Europeans, the long-time burr under the biotech saddle, are the villains in Paarlberg’s narrative: first they spooked African nations about GM seeds, and then when famine loomed they did not offer as much food as the U.S. But actually there was no famine, as even Paarlberg eventually admitted (Paarlberg 2008: 155), and anyway, Europe was sending money while the U.S. was offering only surplus grain. Lynas derides activist misinformation campaigns that have influenced other African nations (some of which have indeed been irresponsible) but is not bothered by Paarlberg’s equally reckless misinformation.
While claiming to be concerned for Africa unlike his former Green chums, Lynas’s real focus seems to be on burnishing his identity in the GMO wars. He makes sure we know he has himself been to Africa, as when he was sent by the “Alliance for Science” to do public relations for a GM project in Tanzania. Once there, he gazed at a plot of GM corn and pondered his having come “full circle” (159). But perhaps a genuine concern for Africa would have produced a more balanced account of status of GM crops’ decidedly uneven performance there (Dowd-Uribe and Bingen 2011). Unmentioned here is Florence Wambugu’s GM sweet potatoes once claimed to be feeding Kenya (Cook 2002) (actually they never worked and have been dropped) and the GM cotton planted for a few years in Burkina Faso (to much fanfare) before it was abandoned (Dowd-Uribe and Schnurr 2016).
The point of this amateurish rehash of common industry talking points by someone whose only credential is the claim to having once been a Green is unclear, but it is not the main event anyway. The juicy stuff is Lynas’s shallow, sarcastic, derogatory portrait of the movement he is said to have led. His black-clad comrades on the nighttime raid are revealed to have been grungy moochers who resented him because he had an actual job instead of “valiantly subsisting on a combination of state benefits and scavenging” like them (p. 20). Those Greens will go anywhere for a free bus ride and will fecklessly disrobe to reveal the “naked truth” about Monsanto even though they do not know what DNA stands for (or at least Lynas did not) (248). The portrait expands to environmentalists in general, who are said to revel in repressive and exclusionary groupthink (p. 249). He is revealing “mass delusion fueled by primitive folk-science intuitions … and disinformation,” as a beaming Steven Pinker blurbs on the dust jacket. But beyond the gratuitous caricature of “Greens”—a conceptually sloppy category that subsumes lots of people with a range of issues—it is striking how little one learns about the anti-GMO movements and sentiments. His chapter on the anti-GMO movement comprises 30 pages, only 24 of which are actually about anti-GMO movements, and 16 of which are about the one activist named Jeremy Rifkin. Other chapters are scattered with rebuttals to GMO critiques by journalists and activists such as Vandana Shiva and George Monbiot.
We do not even learn much about how Lynas careened from one side to the other, although such reprogramming is an interesting phenomenon in general and obviously a core concern in the GMO turncoat literature. Martineau, for instance, carefully retraces her journey from being enthusiastic about Calgene’s GM tomato (in part because of the earnest regulatory science she was conducting on it) to being appalled when assessments of one crop with one specific genetic change were held up as proof of the safety of GM crops in general. Lynas offers no such analysis; he admits to having had a superficial knee-jerk affinity for the anti-GMO movement and having dashed off an anti-GMO op-ed for The Guardian when asked, but all it took was a peek at the online comments below his piece to his give him doubts about everything he had said.(41) (Now that is a first.) Then he went out and read some stuff on biotech and looked at official positions taken by major scientific bodies and it came to him that “not just Greenpeace, but pretty much the entire environmental movement, and indeed polite progressive liberal society in general, had got the GMO issue flat-out wrong”.(43) Without even having to eat the red pill he realized that almost all of the Green arguments, which he did not really know very well anyway, were wrong, and all the pro-GMO talking points were right.
Lynas does not exclusively go after anti-GMO activists. He also calls out the aforementioned Patrick Moore, who travels the Earth with a big yellow banner blaming Greenpeace for 8 million deaths because the organization opposes Golden Rice. This is a sly move for Lynas, simultaneously earning himself some “honest broker” points for parting with another GMO promoter, while distancing himself from his comical competitor on the turncoat circuit. And Moore is an easy target who does climate change denial for hire and who became an internet meme for claiming that Monsanto’s Roundup was safe to drink and then fleeing the TV studio when offered a glassful. And his claims about Golden Rice are patently untrue wherever you stand on GMOs. Lynas also calls the letter from 110 Nobel laureates making a similar claim inaccurate, which took a bit more guts, but this is still a far cry from honest brokerage.
But in the end, the specifics of Lynas’ critiques are not what matters. The book’s real goal is to keep the focus on activists, be they black-clad ignoramuses or misguided environmentalists who have not been to Africa; the point is to promote the conceit that the GMO wars pit scientists against activists. The book’s real propaganda value is to whisk from view the enormous body of critical peer-reviewed natural-science and social-science literature on the topic. With the book’s fixation on the likes of Jeremy Rifkin, readers would never know of the roster of knowledgeable and credentialed scientists who have pointed out serious issues with GM agriculture from the perspectives of nutrition (e.g., Marion Nestle), risk analysis (e.g., Nassim Taleb), ecology (e.g., Alison Snow, Elena R. Alvarez-Buylla), weed science (e.g., Carol Mallory-Smith), molecular biology (e.g., Jack Heinemann), plant biology (e.g., Martha Crouch), crop genetic engineering (e.g., Caius Rommens), regulatory bioscience (e.g., Belinda Martineau), agroecology (Andrew Gutierrez, Miguel Altieri), and entomology (e.g., World Food Prize laureate Hans Herren). And given the book’s focus on agriculture in the global south, we might also note the many social scientists whose peer-reviewed research has aired problems with GM crops there (for many examples see Stone 2010).
The mirage of GM criticism being a purely activist affair is especially effective because it can bleed into popular culture. Thus comedian Aasif Mandvi, as a correspondent on The Daily Show, goes out to find out just how dangerous GM potatoes are, and after interviewing activist Jeffrey Smith (but no critical scientists) finds that GM critics “are really the assholes” (Zimmerman and Eddens 2018).
In the one discussion of scientific research critical of GM agriculture, Lynas is duplicitous. The scientist is Giles-Eric Seralini, who is introduced not as author of over 150 scientific articles but only as author of one “infamous paper” that was retracted after other scientists “panned” its statistics. This is pure misdirection; the paper was retracted, under industry pressure, not for any statistical error but on the grounds of being “inconclusive.” As inconclusiveness has never been grounds for retraction, this was a chilling moment in the history of scientific publication.
So if there is not much new on GM agriculture or even on the dynamics of defection, we are not left with much except a deceptive broadside against anti-GMO activism, authenticated only by Lynas’s special standing. His attack could not stand on its own without this standing and it does not have to; his views are always billed as the fruits of a Pentecost, as in the book’s subtitle (“how WE got it wrong”) and dust jacket (“Mark Lynas was one of the original field wreckers”) and in his other pieces (e.g., “What the Green Movement Got Wrong: A turncoat explains”; “How I Got Converted to G.M.O. Food”). This special standing has been pumped as pro-GMO writers have billed him as a leader of, a godfather of, and finally a founder of the European anti-GMO movement.
That he actually was a player in any anti-GMO movement was news to me, and also to my companion in the Halifax bar—the patient one, not Dr. Talking Points—who I will now identify as Rachel Schurman, professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota and co-author (with William Munro) of Fighting for the Future of Food: Activists versus Agribusiness in the Struggle over Biotechnology. Lynas actually cites this book and calls it brilliant, although he misidentifies Rachel as a cultural historian.(174) But his own history of activism focuses on the flamboyant characters in the GMO resistance rather than the converging “seed control” and “social/ethical issues” movements analyzed in Schurman and Munro’s more thoughtful account. Lynas never came up in her research and she had not heard of him when she wrote the book. The interesting thing is that Lynas admits that the claims about his exalted role are untrue(48), but says he did not try to correct the record because “no denials would convince my detractors”.(48) He admits that the statements from Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace dismissing his role in the movement were accurate, but conveniently finds that “there didn’t seem to be much I could do about it”.(48)
Nothing except keep playing the green card.