While reading my way through Eating Promiscuosly and Clean Meat, I came across the book Seeds of Science, while scanning the New and Noted section at the Winnipeg Public Library. Seeds of Science: Why we got it so wrong on GMOs, is a book by Mark Lynas, a one time anti-GM food activist who, after investigating the views of the scientific community on the subject changed his position. He has since become an outspoken proponent of GM food. Seeds of Science tells the story of this journey, and offers a plea for people to look more carefully at what the evidence really says.
Lynas’s book starts with an account from his activist days when he and several others, crept into a facility growing genetically modified maize and proceeded to destroy as much of the crop as possible before the police arrive and drive them off. From there he goes back to recount his radicalization into the environmental movement, culminating with his pieing of Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish scientist whose views on global warming are outside the mainstream.
This event was in many ways the major turning point for Lynas as one result was that he decided that he should read more scientific information to support his claims against Lomborg. As he did this he discovered that there was a whole new world of sceintific work being done on the subject of global warming and that the problem was far more serious than he had realized.
From there the book proceeds into the history and development of genetic engineering, the modern application of which really has only place over the last fifty or so years. We are introduced to well known figures such as Crick and Watson, but also lesser know people such as Marc Van Montagu, Jozef Schell, Mary-Dell Chilton, among others. Chilton is a particularly interesting character as she started out intending to prove Van Montagu wrong, and ended up not only proving him correct, but exceeding the work he had already done.
Lynas then proceeds to show how in fact, there is very little to worry about as far as the question of GM food safety is concerned. All the testing that has been done over the last few years show that GM food is safe.
At it’s most basic, Seeds of Science, is a book about information vs disinformation. Lynas admits that as an activist he was never very careful about facts, doing very little research to back up any claims, no matter how outrageous, he made against companies he thought were engaged in insidious behaviour. This was very true in the way he and others wrote about Monsanto, the no longer existent behemoth of corporate genetic engineering.
Most importantly in this regard is that the disinformation campaigns, according to Lynas, have been hiding the fact that for the last 20 years or more, the scientific consensus is that GM foods are safe. This fact is largely acknowleged by the broader scientific community, and even some who oppose the production of GM foods, such as Carlo Petrini of Slow Food Nation fame, acknowledge that GM foods have indeed proved safe.
One of the strengths of the book is that it take some of the most controversial claims made by anti-GM activists and breaks down the stories behind them. For example, the question of the pesticide use and crop failures creating an inordinately high number of suicides among farmers in India. Lynas digs in behind the data, to demonstrate, that while there are a high number of suicides among farmers in India, the rate of suicide isn’t significantly different form the rate of suicide among farmers in the U.S..A. and Europe.
Lynas also digs into the GM-food battle front that exists on the continents of Asia and Africa. In Africa in particular we are introduced to anti-GM activists who are willing to use the most ridiculous arguments and propaganda to speak out against GM foods. For example, in Uganda, telling Muslims that the genes being spliced into the plants would be pig genes, thereby making them something that eating the plants would put them in violation of Muslim dietary laws and practices.
There is an interesting argument put forward in the book in regards to the question of colonialism. Both GM proponents and GM opponents postion themselves as trying to remove the bonds of colonialism that their predecessors have imposed on various African countries.
While he doesn’t side with the anti-GM activists in many things, Lynas does concede a number of points in their favour. In particular their opposition to the worrisome prospects of corporate concentration and unrestrained capitalism. In this regard, the story of the Flavr Savr(tm) is a good cautionary tale. It’s also the one place where I disagree with Lynas’s assessment of the effects of the activist community, and particularly Jeremy Rifkin, are off. I was also reading Belinda Martineau’s First Fruit: The Creation of the Flavr Savr(tm) Tomato and the Birth of Biotech Food, which would suggest that bad business planning and a product that didn’t deliver what it promised were more the causes of failure than opposition on the part of anti-GM activists.
In addition to this Lynas does think we should also be asking questions about what it means to be human when we discuss the production and consumption of GM foods. He takes the tack that there may be aspects of our existence that can’t simply be discussed away by science. Here he draws on the work of Jonathan Haidt, author of the Righteous Mind. Haidt’s contention being that people will find ways to rationalize their irrational decisions, and also have a tendency to believe that if they only give their opponents enough correct information then they will be able to change their minds.
One thing that is clear through the book is that Lynas doesn’t want to discourage those who are pursuing organic, or small-holding farmer. Or that he doesn’t think that we should encourage a move towards to a vegan lifestyle. Rather, he sees the size and the scope of the problem facing us in our ablility to feed ourselves requires that we look at all the options available to us including and especially GM food.
This book won’t likely convince anyone who is dead set against GM food. However, if you want to learn more about the subject, and the science behind it, it’s a good place to start.