Mark Lynas was one of the original GM field wreckers. Back in the 1990s – working undercover with his colleagues in the environmental movement – he would descend on trial sites of genetically modified crops at night and hack them to pieces. Two decades later, many people around the world – from New York to China – still think that Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) foods are bad for their health or are likely to damage the environment. But Mark has changed his mind. His new book Seeds of Science explains why.

We asked Mark a few questions about his journey with GMOs so far…

 Seeds of Science is now available to buy from Bloomsbury Sigma

Why did you change your mind on genetically modified organisms?

Winston Churchill famously said, as seen in the recent film Darkest Hour, “A man who never changes his mind never changes anything.” However, someone changing their mind publicly on an issue of importance is so rare that it seems to spark great interest! This is odd really: how many of us, either as individuals or organisations, should expect to be infallible? My change of mind on GMOs was also a change of heart. In short, I gradually realised that I had got the science wrong. After my time as an anti-GMO activist, I started writing books on climate change, and I spent a lot of time and effort making sure what I said was in accordance with the scientific consensus on human-caused global warming. Yet, as late as 2008, I was still writing articles that went completely against the mainstream scientific position on GMOs, where every major science institution in the world was saying that the technology was safe and effective. So, in order to be consistent with the scientific position on both climate and GMOs, I had to change my mind. I could not be a science promoter on climate and a science denier on GMOs. Remarkably, this is still the position of many of the mainstream environmental groups, who refuse to admit that there is even a consensus on GMO safety, putting them in the same (but opposite) camp as climate deniers!

In your book, you suggest that, as a society, we made the wrong decision about GMOs. Why do you think that was?

We got it wrong on GMOs because the politics drowned out the science. In retrospect, there was no rational reason why this was the case. Why was there no opposition to the use of radiation mutagenesis in the past to breed better crops, given that this would be expected to have much greater unintended genetic impacts than the much more precise use of genetic engineering? Because no-one cared: Greenpeace did not run a campaign on it, and to this day mutagenic crops can be grown and labelled as ‘organic’. What happened with GMOs is that various concerns about food systems, corporate control, patenting, chemicals in farming, genes crossing species ‘barriers’, etc., became conflated entirely with genetic engineering because of the perfect storm surrounding Monsanto. There is no safety case to be made against GMOs as a class, and yet we see them banned in numerous countries, demonised in many more, and subjected to over-zealous regulations that only permit the biggest corporate players to participate everywhere else. It’s the worst of all possible results – it has harmed the interests of the environment and the poor, and the environmental movement is largely to blame. 

What made you want to write a book about your change of heart on GMOs?

I find you end up writing a book when you have exhausted all possible options for not doing so. I was campaigning on this issue – on both sides – for a long time, and I tried to avoid sitting down and writing a book for as long as possible. I even tried to persuade others to do it – I was begging people to write a readable, non-technical account of the GMO controversy! In the end I ended up attempting it myself, partly because I felt I owed the world a longer explanation than I was able to give in my 2013 Oxford Farming Conference speech when I first apologised publicly for my earlier anti-GMO activism. When I got going I realised that I needed to do some serious myth-busting, so I included a whole chapter about the invention of genetic engineering in plants, and also covered the real story of Monsanto. 

In your opinion, what are the benefits of GMOs?

Actually, it is best to avoid generalisations. GMOs don’t exist as a meaningful concept scientifically ­– it’s really a shorthand for the debate. Everything is a GMO – your pet dog is a GMO, otherwise it would be a wolf, and you wouldn’t let it anywhere near your children. But if we are going to talk about the main transgenic crops, which are corn, cotton and soy, the impact of their use has meant a wide scale reduction in pesticide use (about 40%), an improvement of yield and more income for farmers, particularly in developing countries. That’s pretty much the opposite that you will hear from the anti-GMO supporters, but it is what the science says! There are many more GMOs that could have happened, and should have happened, but they were blocked and stopped by misinformed campaigning. We have a lot of work to do to set this right!

You can buy Seeds of Science from Quote SEEDS at the checkout for a 30% discount.

The issue of GM also took centre stage at the British Science Association’s 2017 Huxley Summit where a panel of business leaders, scientists and policy-makers discussed the challenges of creating innovations which are accepted by the public. You can watch the debate here.

About the author

Mark Lynas is the author of three major popular science environmental books: High Tide (2004), Six Degrees (2008) and The God Species (2011), as well as the Kindle Single ebook Nuclear 2.0 (2012). Six Degrees won the Royal Society prize – the world's number on popular science prize – and was made into a documentary film, voiced by Alec Baldwin and aired on the National Geographic channel. Lynas was advisor to the President of the Maldives on climate change from 2009 until the coup in 2012. He has contributed extensively to global media, writing for the Guardian, New York Times, Washington Post, Bangkok Post and numerous others. He is a visiting fellow at the Cornell Alliance for Science, Cornell University, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.