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A peace plan for resolving GMO conflict

By Mark Lynas

Mark Lynas, forefront, visits a banana field trial in Uganda with three Global Leadership Fellows. Photo by Joan Conrow

Five years ago, environmentalist Mark Lynas stood before the Oxford Farming Conference and offered a public apology for his earlier anti-GMO activism. In the years since, he’s devoted himself pretty much full time to the GMO issue, visiting numerous countries in Africa and Asia and meeting farmers, scientists, activists and others on both sides of this very contentious debate. Today he’s offering an olive branch, mapping out the contours of a potential peace treaty in a post that first appeared on his personal blog

I think the time for trench warfare has passed. Extremists aside, most people on opposing sides of this debate have too much in common to allow ourselves to be polarized into perpetually warring tribes.

For starters, pretty much everyone agrees that the current farming system is not sustainable and that we urgently need to improve it. Hands up anyone who doesn’t care about their soils or wants to keep spraying chemicals at the current high quantities indefinitely?

Everyone also seems to agree that the situation is not black and white, that there are no silver bullet solutions and that we need to be more open-minded in looking at all the options.

I’ve visited numerous plant breeding labs in the last five years and spoken to a lot of plant scientists. I have yet to meet a single one, including those using the various techniques of genetic engineering, who claim that GMOs are going to feed the world or magically solve all our agricultural problems.

There is also a high degree of consensus that we need to address climate change, both in terms of its impact on food production and farming’s significant role in causing it.

I also see a lot of agreement that we need to address dietary and nutritional failings – both in terms undernutrition in many developing countries and the consumption of too many calories in the industrialized world.

In 2013 there were 775 million undernourished people in the world. Today that number has actually risen, to 815 million. Although this has fallen from over a billion the 1990s, clearly we are not getting to grips with this problem.

On the other hand the prevalence of obesity has increased relentlessly. In North America and Europe more than a quarter of the adult population is classed as obese. This is not just a first-world problem – rates have been rising rapidly in Africa and Asia too.

Although the area of arable land required to support a person has declined by half since the 1960s, we have not reached peak farmland as some predicted back in 2013. More land is still being brought into production each year, causing deforestation, soil erosion and biodiversity loss.

World fertilizer production has also increased relentlessly, contributing to runoff pollution and eutrophication of both freshwater and marine ecosystems.

Agriculture, forestry and land use combined are responsible for a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. These include the vast majority of nitrous oxide and methane emissions.

So let’s be clear – no one is saying that everything is hunky dory with world farming.

But over the last five years I’ve become increasingly convinced that genetic engineering can at least help mitigate these problems.

It is very clear, for instance, that insect-resistant crops have helped reduce applications of insecticide. Indeed this is precisely why farmers have been so keen to adopt them.

Although they have yet to be proven at scale, nitrogen-efficient crops, from oilseed rape to rice, could help reduce fertilizer applications. Perhaps one day we’ll even see staple non-leguminous crops that fix their own nitrogen.

Although I don’t want to get into the glyphosate debate here, it is also clear that the adoption of herbicide-tolerant crops has helped shift farming away from more toxic herbicides and facilitated no-till and conservation agriculture.

But as a contribution to global sustainability these improvements have been marginal, trivial even. Genetic modification has not yet reduced fertilizer use, contributed significantly to higher yields, or done anything to address world hunger.

Part of this is because genetic engineering has been blocked precisely where it could do the most good, in developing countries. I’ve sadly seen this at first hand too.

In Uganda, anti-GMO activists spread myths that genetically modified bananas include genes from snakes and pigs, or cause cancer. In reality, the GM bananas were just intended to address a bacterial disease that is harming food security.

In Tanzania I was heckled by anti-GMO activists a couple of years ago. They were saying that GMOs spread gay genes, causing homosexuality in African children as part of a sinister plot to reduce the population.

In Bangladesh, I visited farmers who have adopted Bt brinjal, a genetically modified eggplant that produces the Bt protein to protect it against a devastating insect pest. This enables farmers to dramatically reduce the use of toxic insecticides, which are mostly sprayed by hand.

A brinjal farmer in Bangladesh. Alliance for Science photo

Instead of welcoming the reduction in pesticide use, Bangladesh-based anti-GMO groups, who are all funded by the way from sources right here in Europe, travelled around telling these same farmers that their children would become paralyzed if they ate the GM aubergines (eggplant), and that they should instead go back to spraying insecticides.

So it seems a bit rich for Greenpeace to claim, as it did in a recent report, that GMOs have been met with Twenty Years of Failure. As I’ve seen in the field, this failure has not been due to any inherent limitations in the science, but has come about precisely because of the success of groups like Greenpeace in campaigning against it.

In my view you can’t campaign both against problems and against solutions and expect to be taken seriously. This has got to change.

But if Greenpeace has got a lot wrong, so have the GMO promoters. I’ve spent some time researching the deeper history of this issue and I’ve become convinced that the launch of genetic engineering was badly mishandled.

Monsanto was particularly at fault, back in the mid 1990s when it chose to push forward its Roundup Ready seeds despite the obvious risk of a backlash. I can’t prove it, but I bet that if genetic engineering had been launched primarily as a way to reduce pesticides, we in the environmental movement would not have opposed it in the way we did.

This was especially the case given Monsanto’s unsavory corporate history. In retrospect was it really a good idea for the company that helped supply Agent Orange to the US military in Vietnam to ask for our trust in launching a potentially risky and scary-sounding food technology in order to help it sell more weedkiller?

It was also in my view a huge mistake for Monsanto to go anywhere near so-called Terminator Technology, and for it to ask farmers to sign an overly restrictive technology agreement that curtailed seed-saving and the perceived independence of farmers.

Most of the current myths about Monsanto that circulate endlessly on the internet can trace their origins back to these bad decisions made at corporate HQ two decades ago in St Louis, Missouri.

So while we can blame the anti-GMO activists of today for repeating untruths and damaging science, we should also ask those who botched the launch of genetic engineering to shoulder their share of the blame.

What we surely need to do now is try to make sure we don’t get permanently trapped in a debate that was framed over 20 years ago. Things have changed, and we need to change too.

So what might a peace treaty look like? What might be the give and take on both sides of this enduringly fractious controversy? Here’s my seven-point plan:

Number one. The activists need to face up to the fact that the GMO safety debate is over. There is a worldwide scientific consensus that genetic engineering is no more risky than any other way of breeding crops, just as there is a worldwide scientific consensus that climate change is real and caused by humans.

So stop with the fear-mongering and the Franken-mumbojumbo. Don’t worry; you don’t have to apologize. We can all pretend not to notice. But please move on. It makes me cringe when I see environmentalists adopting the same tactics as climate change deniers. This ideologically selective acceptance of the science undermines everything else the green movement says and does.

In return the scientific community needs to be much more careful in not over-hyping the potential of this technology. It is a small part of a small part of a solution to an enormous global problem. It won’t always work, and sometimes it may even make things worse. Scientists need to recognize that the political context within which their innovations are used is a real issue.

On this note I think it was a mistake for some very eminent Nobel laureate scientists to sign a statement accusing Greenpeace and others of “crimes against humanity” for their campaign against Golden Rice. You can’t morally equate a disagreement about forms of crop breeding with wars and genocides. To do so is degrading to all of us, contributes to unnecessary polarization and detracts from the claims of those promoting it to scientific accuracy.

Number two. Activists must stop agitating for bans and prohibitions. It is surely wrong to constrain scientific innovation in the absence of any demonstrated risk after twenty years of safe use. Bans are undemocratic because they remove choice completely, especially where a vocal minority blocks an innovation that could have benefited a majority.

I think to a large extent the GMO issue could be resolved by people freely exercising choice in the marketplace like any other. Give farmers a choice of what to grow and consumers a choice of what to eat. If you don’t want to eat it, don’t buy it. You don’t have to force everyone else to conform to your beliefs with bans and moratoria.

Accordingly, Europe’s anti-GMO stance is a global embarrassment and needs to be seen for what it is – a shameful political concession to misinformation and public hysteria. That also goes for the devolved administrations in the UK – the SNP’s “clean and green” excuse for its genetic engineering ban is a bad joke that just betrays the party’s ideological shallowness and preference for image over reality.

In return for this concession, the agricultural community must embrace full traceability. Choice is removed by bans but it is also removed if people can’t tell what they are buying or eating. In other words, people must be able to freely choose in shops and restaurants whether they consume genetically engineered foods or not. This means you need labeling and traceability throughout the production chain even if this costs more for everyone.

I would also advise this approach for new breeding technologies like Crispr. Rather than arguing endlessly how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, i.e. whether gene edited crops are GMOs or not, just stick the plant breeding method on the label. If people want to do more research, facilitate that for them. But most importantly let them make a choice. The way to build trust and dispel fear is to give people options, not to remove their choices because you don’t trust them to make the right decision.

Number three. Let’s drop the Monsanto mania. There’s even a name for this – Monsanto Derangement Syndrome. People, it’s just another company, which has done good things and bad things as I said earlier. It isn’t running black helicopters from a fortified hideout in the Alps like some kind of agricultural Bond villain.

Nor is Monsanto as much of a global colossus as many seem to fondly imagine. In turnover it’s about the same as the US chain Whole Foods, now owned of course by Amazon.

However, in return let’s get serious about getting crop protection chemicals out of farming. This is clearly what the public wants, as the success of the organic movement demonstrates. I’m not worried about pesticide residues and human health – the science shows that’s trivial. What I’m worried about is ecological effects and biodiversity loss, particularly the reduction in the number of insects.

This isn’t just about neonics and bees, it’s across the board – there’s been a massive decline in insect prevalence, affecting the rest of the food chain too. I’ve been lobbying Monsanto for years to get out of chemicals, but instead they have done the opposite, pushing forward with a new range of crops tolerant to the herbicide Dicamba, which has had a disastrous rollout in the US.

And why the move to Dicamba at all? In order to deal with the weeds that have now become resistant to Roundup, following many years of monocultural overuse of that technology. This is the same chemical treadmill that Greenpeace and others like the Soil Association have long warned about. Like antibiotics, these technologies are too valuable to be capriciously wasted on a quick buck.

One of the reasons I changed my mind about GMOs was because I could see how they could help move world agriculture from the age of chemistry to the age of biology. However I don’t see much sign that this is happening. And why should it, so long as those selling genetically modified seeds are also selling crop protection chemicals?

This is an industry in dire need of disruption. Instead, we’re seeing consolidation, a wave of mega-mergers that is only going to make all these problems worse.

Fourth, and as a response to the last point, let’s agree to support public sector, non-corporate uses of genetic engineering where appropriate, and not conflate every GMO with Monsanto.

Perhaps we can all agree that we need to see more public sector investment in genetic engineering, and less use of patents and commercial protections. I support the Gates Foundation’s efforts to make drought-tolerant maize available to African farmers because the seeds will not be privately owned and farmers will not have to pay any additional royalities.

Similarly in Bangladesh, Bt brinjal is owned by the state plant breeding agencies, and distributed to farmers at cost. So let’s make a clearer distinction, and give support to the non-commercial and open-source applications of this technology where it is used in the public interest, particularly in developing countries.

Fifth, let’s all support all varieties of farming where they clearly aim towards greater sustainability. So let’s drop the snide attacks on organic and agro-ecological approaches generally. I know many organic farmers, and all of them are hard-working and motivated by a desire to produce good food and look after the environment.

On the other hand, organic proponents need to also respect other approaches. I haven’t seen any genetic engineers going out in the night to uproot organic maize plants. The organic industry also needs to become science-based rather than focused on the false categories of natural vs unnatural. Organic can tolerate innovation, as we saw in the recent decision to allow hydroponics to be classed as organic, but what innovations it accepts seems to be arbitrary.

For example on Radio 4’s Farming Today I recently asked a spokesperson from the Soil Association to explain why crops developed using chemical or radiation mutagenesis should be considered organic, whereas those using precise gene editing should be outlawed as GMOs. Answer came there none, I think I can report to those who weren’t up early enough to hear it at the time.

To my mind this is the equivalent of allowing brain surgeons to use a blunderbuss but not a scalpel. Organic standards are riddled with these sorts of contradictions, and I think it is time the industry made a serious attempt to address them.

My penultimate point is that we need to be more respectful in terms of what we call each other. So the deal is I won’t call you anti-science if you don’t call me a Monsanto shill. Let’s respect where each person is coming from and understand that views are sincerely held and mostly for the best reasons.

By the way I don’t extend this peace offering to the extremists — the cancer quacks, snake oil salesmen and anti-vaxxers who are proliferating on the internet, many of whom also fund or promote anti-GMO causes, or those who spread myths about gay genes in Africa.

To give you an example of the harm that can be done by this kind of thing, I recently had the good fortune to meet Riko Muranaka, the winner of the John Maddox prize for Standing up for Science. She told me about the dire situation in Japan, where anti-vaccination campaigners have reduced the use of HPV vaccine down to less than 1 percent from previously 70 percent or so.

This will cost thousands of women’s lives in future who will die from largely avoidable cervical cancer. In my view there can be no accommodation or compromise with those who would significantly damage public health due to the misinformation they spread.

We desperately need to make sure we don’t end up in the same type of situation in the food debate, and that means ignoring the extremists, the conspiracists and the just plain crazy.

However this doesn’t mean science and technology run amok. I think all of us agree, even the most fervent proponents of genetic engineering, that there should be limits to human genetic intrusion into the biosphere. I’ve not met a single scientist anywhere who supports eugenics, which was the big fear of many of the original anti-GMO activists back in the 1970s.

One of these original activists, perhaps the man with the greatest real claim to being the founder of the anti-GMO movement overall, was the American writer and campaigner Jeremy Rifkin. Demanding a global moratorium, Rifkin said the following in a speech way back in 1979: “Genetic research is going to bring us one step closer to genetic engineering. That’s where they tell us to produce ideal children and the last time that happened they had blue eyes, blond hair, and Aryan genes.”

The best rebuttal to that kind of slippery slope, Manichean thinking came from the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould. In a searing review of Rifkin’s book which accused humankind of playing God, Gould argued the following: “I do not see why we should reject all genetic engineering because its technology might, one day, permit such perversion of decency in the hands of some latter-day Hitler – you may as well outlaw printing because the same machine that composes Shakespeare can also set Mein Kampf … The domino theory does not apply to all human achievements.”

Those lines were written in 1985, over 30 years ago. But I believe they ring just as true today. Gould argued that rejecting all genetic engineering was extremist and anti-intellectual, and indeed he identified many similarities between those campaigning against genetics and those Creationists who opposed the theory of Darwinian evolution. But Gould also acknowledged that the technology should not be abused and that its use should be limited by ethical considerations.

This leads to the seventh and final point in the peace plan. I think we should recognize that this is first and foremost an ethical debate, arising from the fact that many people feel that moving genes between species is just plain wrong. I think scientists should accept this and indeed many do.

I remember Dr. Dennis Gonsalves, the inventor of the genetically engineered virus resistant papaya now being grown extensively by family farmers in Hawaii, saying: “If you are telling me that you think it is wrong to move a gene between species, that is your belief and I respect that. If you are telling me that it is dangerous, that is a question that can be resolved by science.”

So my final proposal here is that we have a debate about different uses of genetic engineering on an ethical level instead of trying to couch it in pseudo-scientific terms. This might also enable us to properly recognize tradeoffs.

Michael Kamiya picks transgenic papaya on his family's farm in Hawaii. Photo by Robert Hazen

To go back to the Hawaii example, if you don’t think it is ethically right to put a gene from papaya ringspot virus into a papaya, then you need to understand that you will be eating a lot of virus-contaminated papayas in future, or that farmers may no longer be able to grow them at all as the disease proliferates.

You may likewise think it is wrong for scientists to take genes for synthesizing omega 3 fatty acids from marine algae and put them into oil-producing brassica vegetables. If that is your belief, like Dr. Gonsalves I respect that. But you do need to suggest where else we can get omega 3s from, if we are not to strip the oceans bare due to overfishing.

So that’s my peace plan.

Let’s also continue to work together to build a shared vision for where we want food and farming to be in the 21st century. To me, this vision would include feeding the 800 million people who are hungry. Tolerating this situation is a moral outrage that surely dwarfs all others in this debate.

This vision also includes tackling climate change, and moving towards a sustainable farming that eschews chemicals and protects the soil. But we also need to continue improving yields so that we can feed a growing population while peaking and reducing farmland use. Spared land can be protected for its biodiversity value and where possible devoted to re-wilding.

So let’s stop fighting, and let’s start uniting. To borrow words from Jo Cox, we have far more in common than that which divides us.

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