See our interview with the author here.
In the mid-1990s, UK newspapers picked up on a controversial issue that had been slowly gathering steam – genetically modified organisms. The media soon could talk about little else. Headlines screamed that this technological advance could pose serious health risks, that our food was already GM-rich and yet we didn't even realise. How could this be? Of course there was science and statistics to back up these bold claims … or was there?
Twenty years on, the dust has settled. Scientists are working hard to devise new farming methods that will meet the world's food requirements while causing the minimum amount of ecological harm. We're now discovering that the environmentalist mainstream might have misjudged the GM issue completely, and as a consequence we have forfeited two decades' worth of scientific progress in perhaps the most vital area of human need: food.
No one is more aware of this fact than the author of Seeds of Science, Mark Lynas. Starting out as one of the leading activists in the fight against GM – from destroying experimental crop fields to leading the charge in the press – in 2013 Lynas famously admitted that he had got it all wrong. Seeds of Science tells the story of how and why so many people were confused by genetic engineering. Lynas takes us back to the origins of the technology, and examines the histories of the people and companies who pioneered it. He explains what led him to question his assumptions on GM, and what he is doing now to further research in this field, making a difference in tackling poverty by using science to encourage better harvests.
Seeds of Science lifts the lid on the whole controversial GM story, from the perspective of someone who has fought prominently on both sides. It provides an explanation of the research that has enabled this technology – something that was sorely missing from the media in the late '90s, which led to countless misconceptions about the field, one that could provide perhaps the only solution to a planet with a population of ten billion people.
"Partly a level-headed look at the benefits as well as the downsides of genetic modification, and partly a personal account of how Mark came to believe that the scientific method was, on the whole, not a bad way of analysing questions of crop production and farming. I found it riveting, largely because he writes so well and so open-mindedly, and I warmly recommend it."
– Philip Pullman
"Mark Lynas tells the remarkable story of a mass delusion fuelled by primitive folk-science intuitions, sacred values, and disinformation from some of our most sainted organizations. His exposé is an important contribution to an issue with enormous potential for benefiting humanity, and a gripping account of the tensions that can surround technological progress."
– Steven Pinker, Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and the author of The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now
"A gripping story of how a passionate troublemaker became an equally passionate campaigner for the facts. Seeds of Science is not only a compellingly-researched argument, it is the tale of how Mark Lynas's life changed. Reading it may change your life, too."
– Tim Harford, author of Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy and presenter of More or Less
"Mark Lynas is a courageous writer whose evidence-based turnaround on GMOs should be a lesson to all environmentalists. A must-read for anyone who cares about our future."
– Simon Singh, popular science writer and author of The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets
"In short, Mark Lynas is a saint."
– Dominic Lawson, Sunday Times
As a biologist, the opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) baffles me. Like the "debate" around climate change or creationism, the dialogue has become toxic and polarised. This book, then, has a very interesting premise. A book arguing why we got it wrong by on GMOs, written by a former anti-GMO activist. Although he is not the first activist to come around, Mark Lynas is, or rather has become, a public figure. His admission and apology at the 2013 Oxford Farming Conference went viral and it is a presentation I recommend you watch.
Seeds of Science starts off with some of the antics he got up to during his time as activist, highlighting his part in getting this movement going and getting an anti-GMO attitude embedded in the public consciousness. It was while writing several books on climate change that Lynas started appreciating the value of doing background research, and found himself trying to reason science with climate change deniers. Accepting the scientific consensus on climate change made him realise he could not accept the science on one topic, but refuse it on another. And so he did what a lot of people seem to be afraid, uneasy, unwilling, or unable to do. He admitted he was wrong and changed his mind.
After giving the reader a short history of genetic engineering (part-based on personal interviews with some of the pioneering researchers) and of biotech company Monsanto (a name which has become synonymous with GMOs), the rest of this book explores the opposition to GMOs, the misinformation that has been spread, and the devastating consequences this is having. Without playing cheerleader for Monsanto, Lynas sticks his head above the proverbial parapet to point out that some of the things they are accused of are simply not true or have been grossly distorted and misrepresented.
Over the years, Lynas has visited countries around Africa and Asia where plant breeders are trying to create crops that need less pesticides or artificial fertiliser, are more drought tolerant, or provide much-needed nutritional benefits (Golden Rice with extra vitamin A being a notable example). These are people literally dying to combat malnutrition, hunger, and the impacts of a changing climate on agriculture. And everywhere, Lynas recounts, he encountered the same story. Influenced by Western NGOs, governments have banned research and development into GMOs. The situation in Europe is much the same. Plenty of crops with useful modifications are ready but are being held up behind bureaucratic red tape. Anti-GMO campaigners in Africa have created hysteria with claims of GMOs causing sterility or homosexuality. In effect, farmers have lost the right to choose how to grow their crops (see also Paarlberg's Starved for Science) .
The irony of all this opposition to GMOs and the resultant regulations is that the only parties who can afford to develop GMOs are large biotech companies. Public sector and open-source initiatives simply can't take off in this climate. So the very business monopolies that environmental activists oppose are being brought about by their opposition to GMOs. Lynas dedicates the last chapter to the rather hypocriticak report Greenpeace published in November 2015 entitled Twenty Years of Failure: Why GM Crops Have Failed to Deliver on Their Promises. Gosh, could it be, I wonder, because you ceaselessly campaigned against them?
The only thing I found lacking in this book is a dedicated section debunking the false claims of the anti-GMO movement, and correcting the many factual misunderstandings. Granted, a lot of this is woven throughout the text, but for a book subtitled "why we got it so wrong on GMOs", I would have liked to see this. Instead, Lynas has had enough of the trench warfare that he has found himself embroiled in. In his 2018 presentation at the same Oxford Farming Conference (another presentation I recommend you watch) he outlines a proverbial peace treaty. And in this book, he opens chapter 8 mentioning he had planned such debunking, but decided that enough angry, one-sided books have already been written. So instead, chapter 8 is called "What anti-GMO activists Got Right". Here, he seeks out some of the people he fell out with since his change of heart, including Paul Kingsnorth and George Monbiot, to talk more in-depth about their disagreements. And I'll be honest with you, I think this is a chapter well spent. Even though he disagrees with them on some points, his willingness to open up and talk shows enormous bravery and maturity.
Finally, it is worth pointing out that Lynas provides a very balanced account with this book. He is not blindly pro-GMO, openly admitting they are not a silver bullet to solving the world's food problems, but a small piece of a puzzle. He is not a "Monsanto shill", and sees many reasons why you would want to oppose their business practices. Has it ever occurred to anyone in this debate that you can be both pro-GMO (the tool), but anti-Monsanto (the wielder of that tool)? And despite harshly criticizing Greenpeace, he supports them on many other issues. Furthermore, Lynas agrees that there are many reasons to have a discussion around GMOs (ethical, political, moral etc.), but he insists that the misinformation campaign stops. The health debate is a closed case. Instead, he wants people – whether farmers or consumers – to be allowed a choice, but wants this choice to be based on sound reasoning, rational thinking, and factual information.
Seeds of Science is thus an incredibly powerful statement that is all the more convincing coming from a former anti-GMO activist. I wish more people would have Lynas's courage and moral compass to admit their own failings and change their mind. The book also brilliantly exposes how this is not a scientific but an ideological debate. Whether you are pro- or anti-GMO, I urge you to read this book. With billions of people to feed and food production (conventional or organic) having an enormous environmental impact, there is simply too much at stake.
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 and was made into a National Geographic documentary. 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.