About twenty-two years ago, Mark Lynas did not know what “DNA" stood for but he was still enraged by the new science of genetic engineering. Around this time, when he first heard the word Monsanto, he thought it had an evil ring to it, as though Satan himself had started the company. Scientists were saying that genetically modified crops can survive weeds, diseases and even natural calamity, and they can be more nutritious and cheaper than conventional crops, and they will need far less pesticides. But Lynas, who lived in Britain, saw evil in people like scientists and corporate executives, who were far more successful than him. He was a volunteer for the multinational activist organization Greenpeace. Even though his knowledge of genetics was rudimentary, he began to write alarmist articles about human beings in a lab altering the genetic structure of plant species (“These are dangerous times ahead..."). He wrote press releases for Greenpeace, and articles in the news media that quoted the press releases he himself had written.
To put it very simply, Lynas was among the key activists who created and contributed to the fear that would become the global hysteria against genetically modified organisms (GMOs). If you are someone who hates GMOs but cannot hold a conversation beyond 30 seconds on the subject, you are in the sway of what Lynas and his friends began to do about two decades ago.
One day he tried to steal the first cloned animal, Dolly the sheep, but the plan failed because Dolly was with other sheep and they all looked alike. There were more successful operations—one night he and his friends slunk into a trial field of lush genetically modified corn, and he hacked down plants. Another day, he threw a cheap supermarket sponge cake at Bjørn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, a popular book that questioned the many assumptions of environmentalists.
For this act of facile self-righteousness, Lynas became popular among people with “inner beauty", but something about his humiliation of Lomborg bothered him, and eventually led to a startling event in 2013. At the Oxford Farming Conference where a few senior ministers were among the speakers, and Prince Charles, too, through a video uplink, Lynas began his speech by recanting his stand on GMOs, and apologizing for destroying their image. “I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid 1990s.... As an environmentalist, and someone who believes that everyone in this world has a right to healthy and nutritious diet of their choosing, I could not have chosen a more counter-productive path. I now regret it completely."
His book, Seeds Of Science, which released a few weeks ago, is about how activists like him used ignorant ideals and deceit to achieve the successful defamation of GMOs.
When he threw the sponge cake, he did not know why Lomborg was wrong; only that he was. It was a matter of faith. Lynas began to study scientific material to seek evidence that supported his convictions regarding the environment and appeared to find it. The process of studying scientific literature made him realize that he actually enjoyed seeking knowledge to support his blind faith. But when he began to search for evidence that GMOs were poison, he was confused. He realized that there was no concrete scientific evidence. In time, he began to see that it was a wronged science. Of course, some of his former friends and thousands in the anti-GMO camp had a different view—that his soul had been bought over by Monsanto.
As a defence of GMOs, Seeds Of Science does not have any new startling facts. His arguments are widely known, and, in fact, not disputed even by scientists who are suspicious of GMOs: When humans began to domesticate plants and animals thousands of years ago, they began to genetically modify life. Every grain and vegetable and fruit we consume today has been altered from its wild ancestors. In fact, we will not be able to consume the “real" banana. “Changing genes via laboratory molecular techniques, the main subject of this book, is not much different from conventional selective breeding," Lynas writes.
In the early 1970s, the formative years of the science of laboratory genetic engineering, the first concerns were not raised by activists, but by scientists. They said that we did not have a grasp on the effects of GMOs on nature, and on humans. In 1981, James Watson, the co-discoverer of the DNA double helix, said, “Might some of the new genetic combinations that we would create in the test-tube rise up like the genie from Aladdin’s lamp and multiply without control, eventually replacing preexisting plants and animals...?" Such scientific concerns were not very different from the fears surrounding nuclear technology, or the more recent fears about radiation from cellphone towers, and the colliders where high-energy particles are smashed to see what comes out of the collision. Eventually, the scientific community began to accept that there was reasonable evidence to suggest GMOs were safe for humans and for earth’s natural vegetation, and everything that depended on it. Watson himself was assured. “My position is that I don’t read recombinant DNA as a major or plausible pubic health hazard...." But activists stayed with the fear because they are in the business of fear.
In 2012, the American Association for the Advancement of Science board issued a statement: “The science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe." In mid-2016, in an extraordinary letter that was eventually signed by 131 Nobel laureates, or one-third of all living laureates (more than 100 of them had won the Nobel for sciences), said the propaganda against GMOs by organizations like Greenpeace is “a crime against humanity". The triumph of activism is that these days scientists cannot profess love for science without attributing it to some grand noble cause. Not surprising, then, that the Nobel laureates had special interest in a theoretical but plausible type of GMO rice that would spawn beta-carotene, a hydrocarbon that is a progenitor of vitamin A, a crucial nutrient hundreds of millions among the world’s poor are deficient in because of their inefficient grain diet.
But nothing scientists can say can abolish the fear that activists have seeded across the world, including the myth that GMOs are carcinogenic. Activists have, as Lynas shows in his book, continued to terrify people by saying that the crops will give them cancer, and that everyone who is supportive of GMOs has been bought over by Monsanto. Across the world, the educated middle class is generally against GMOs. The fear is primarily a belief that pretends to have a scientific explanation.
It is the good fortune of mobile technology and the Large Hadron Collider that activists did not find the right circumstances to create influential movements against them. Actually, in its early days, they could have got the cellphone banned on the premise that we do not know the effect of radiation emanating from cellphone towers. Also, there were people who worried that the Large Hadron Collider could reduce Earth to a black hole, but somehow they didn’t escalate the alarm.
Once people form an opinion, especially when the opinion becomes publicly professed hatred, it is almost impossible to get them to change. That is why I feel most evangelical writing is pointless. The success of prose today lies in confirming the biases of people, not in changing them.
What the successful defamation of GMOs should teach us is that ultimately the battle is never between truth and lies, or science and religion, but always between storytellers. A powerful story is always about you. Activists often tell good stories because they talk about how you will be affected, which is more influential than how you will not be affected. Scientists get caught in facts and concepts, and they should learn an important lesson from the cesspool of activism—never try to tell a popular story without first creating a villain.
Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous.
He tweets at @manujosephsan