Seeds of Science: Why we got it so wrong on GMOs, by Mark Lynas

This is a book that I’ve had wanted to read for a long time. I do not remember when I read about it, but the outline of the book—an early anti-GMO activist explaining how the movement started and how he changed his mind—was very compelling. The opposition of GMOs by certain parts of the left has always been puzzling to me. I wanted to understand why a technology with so much potential to help farmers especially in developing countries was being attacked so ferociously.

I first became aware of the existence of a movement against genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) some years ago when reading about Golden Rice. This rice is genetically-modified to provide higher levels of Vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiency is a grave problem in South-East Asian and Sub-Saharan Africa, especially among very young kids. Golden Rice could very cheaply provide a source of Vitamin A for these populations. Yet, Greenpeace and other activist organisations are opposed to this product, and actively lobby to get governments to ban it.

The book explains the origins of the anti-GMO movement very well, which is not surprising since the author was part of it in the 90s. It also highlights the dangers of activism and its disconnection from evidence: when part of your identity becomes fighting against GMOs because of their health risks, how do you change your mind once the evidence is in? The cases described, especially in Africa, are striking: there’s a case of a UK organisation paying for radio ads claiming—against all evidence—the GMOs cause cancer and infertility. This in a region where so many people struggle to get food on the table. And this from the people that claim to care about them.

Nevertheless, there is a chapter that I found quite disappointing. It is a chapter trying to understand the psychological reasons for anti-GMO advocates not to change their minds when presented with evidence. This, of course, relates to how ethics and morality are formed. And when I was expecting a discussion on how one has to reason rather than follow their gut-feeling when deciding what is ethical and what is not, he basically does the opposite.

He explains how he heard about a project to create trees that could provide natural lighting. His reaction was disgust: humans should not be tempering with the essence of other organisms. He admits he has no rational motives for his reaction: even worse, he claims that the evidence-based pros and cons for this project are “besides the point“. He says: “But what are our ethics if not intuitive, emotion-driven responses to the challenges of the world around us?” What? I understand that someone’s morals are driven by the type of responses that he describes. But the point is that, when doing policy—for instance, when deciding whether to forbid the development of GMOs—one has to use reasons, not emotion.

The fact that Mark Lynas spends half a book discussing all the pros of GMOs and then, when asked about a project to create trees that provide natural light, he says “I don’t know why, but that is just wrong”, well, it is disappointing. You are an anti-GMO activist. It is true that at least you do not make up fake stories about it you say you don’t know. But still, it does feel like he is not learning from his past experience. Why aren’t the anti-GMO activists allow to do the same? “Look, I don’t know why, but we shouldn’t allow GMOs, it’s just, you know, wrong, we are playing God… my gut tells me so”.

The fact that Mark Lynas spends half a book discussing all the pros of GMOs and then, when asked about a project to create trees that provide natural light, he says “I don’t know why, but that is just wrong”, well, it is disappointing. You are an anti-GMO activist. It is true that at least you do not make up fake stories about it you say you don’t know. But still, it does feel like he is not learning from his past experience.

Anyhow, the book is very interesting. I’ve learned a lot. It did not change my mind about GMOs, as my opinion was already informed by evidence. It helps not to be very invested in the topic. “Hold your identity lightly” is really a great advise.

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