Confession of an Anti-GMO Activist

June 22, 2018

In a now-famous segment of his talk show, Jimmy Kimmel sent a reporter out to a West Coast farmers market in 2014 to ask food-conscious shoppers what they thought of GMOs. All the interviewees declared their horrified avoidance of GMOs—and then, predictably, failed to come up with an explanation for what the letters “G.M.O.” stand for.

The answer, of course, is “genetically modified organism.” First launched commercially on a wide scale in U.S. agriculture in 1996, GMOs are typically plants or animals whose genomes have been modified by the addition of one or more genes from another species. From the outset they were met with controversy and resistance, dubbed “Frankenfoods” and subject to boycotts and protests that continue to this day in many countries.

Opposition was largely inspired and led by environmentalists, who asserted that genetically modified crops and foods would cause a range of harms. They argued that GMOs would damage the environment, because some were bred to withstand weed killers, which would then be used to excess.

They claimed that GMOs were especially bad for the developing world, tying farmers to expensive new seeds that would not reproduce, thus destroying traditional agriculture. Some campaigners dubbed GMOs “suicide seeds,” pointing to cases of farmers in India who, trapped in debt, took their own lives. Perhaps most crucially, many opponents claimed that genetically modified foods were a threat to human health, causing a higher incidence of everything from cancer and autism to diabetes and obesity.

This wide-ranging indictment took its toll. In a matter of years, the main developer and proponent of GMO seeds, the Missouri-based agrochemical and biotech company Monsanto, became a byword for corporate evil in much of the world.

I am a science writer by profession, and I know these arguments well because, in those early years of GMO development, I was also an outspoken activist against the new technology. Along with green-minded British colleagues, I trespassed to destroy test fields of GMO crops, lobbied to have foods containing genetically modified ingredients banned in supermarkets, helped to organize the world’s first campaign targeting Monsanto, and even participated in an unsuccessful attempt to steal the world’s first cloned farm animal, Dolly the Sheep.

I have since reversed my views on GMOs, as the evidence debunking almost all of these claims has accumulated over the years, but there’s no denying the remarkable world-wide success of our campaign.

Numerous countries, from Peru to Russia, now entirely ban genetically modified crops from being cultivated. Only one GMO food crop, an insect-resistant corn, has ever been approved for use in Europe, and most European countries ban it anyway. Only a handful of African countries permit any GMOs at all. China and India allow their farmers to grow genetically modified cotton but little else.

Early research on genetically engineered wheat, potato and rice was shelved due to worries from food processors and retailers, and strict regulations were introduced making it extremely difficult and expensive to get genetically engineered crops approved anywhere in the world.

In the U.S., the anti-GMO movement initially saw only a limited impact as farmers rapidly and overwhelmingly adopted genetically modified soy, corn and cotton. More recently, laws passed in several states and by Congress have mandated labeling for GMO foods. Though transparency in these matters is a good thing, it is often paired with campaigns of disinformation against GMOs, such as the claim that they might transfer allergenic proteins (they don’t). Meanwhile, the voluntary butterfly emblem of the Non-GMO Project has proliferated on products across grocery shelves, proudly displayed as a banner of supposed purity.

The problem isn’t just that almost all of the alarms about GMOs were false. It’s that the anti-GMO campaign has deprived much of the world of a crucial, life-improving technology—and has shown the readiness of many environmentalists to ignore science when it contradicts their prejudices. That’s not the example we need just now as the planet faces the very real threat of climate change.

Contrary to our initial fears, the overall impact of genetically modified crops has been to dramatically reduce the amount and toxicity of pesticides sprayed by farmers. Crops such as Bt corn, so called because it incorporates proteins toxic to insects from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, have enabled farmers to rely less on sprayed insecticides. A meta-analysis, combining the results of nearly 150 peer-reviewed studies, was published in 2014 in the highly regarded journal PLOS One. It concluded that GMO crops used 37% less chemical pesticide (that is, both insecticide and herbicide) than conventional versions of the same crops, thanks largely to the new crops’ internal biological protection against insects.

Pesticide reductions have been especially notable in developing countries. In Bangladesh, for instance, I have seen firsthand how smallholder farmers have benefited from Bt varieties of eggplant. In the past, they often sprayed their crop with toxic chemicals as many as 100 times in a season to fight off pests. The GMO eggplant has enabled them to dramatically reduce insecticide spraying, in some places almost to zero.

And the GMO seeds reproduce perfectly well. Those Bangladeshi farmers save and share their new Bt eggplant seeds, helping their neighbors and extended families also to reduce pesticide spraying. Many crops now in development in African countries, such as drought-tolerant corn and disease-resistant banana and cassava, will be sold royalty-free by local seed companies in an effort to improve the livelihoods of subsistence farmers and reduce poverty.

Nor is there any truth to the charge that GMO crops have driven Indian farmers to suicide. The Bt cotton introduced to India in 2002 has turned out to be a boon. It now accounts for over 90% of Indian cotton acreage, with 800 different competing Bt cotton varieties on the domestic market. Farmer suicide in India, while undoubtedly tragic in each individual case, occurs at a rate similar to that of such countries as Scotland or France, which don’t use GMOs. The German researcher Matin Qaim estimates that the reduced use of insecticides by Indian farmers, thanks to GMO cotton, may have avoided as many as 2.4 million cases of poisoning a year.

Perhaps the most egregious and now-exploded myth is that GMO foods are somehow bad for human health. Doctored graphs showing purported correlations between rates of autism and GMO crop adoption, or suggested links between genetic engineering and cancer rates, have become widespread internet memes. A 2015 study by the Pew Research Center found that only 37% of U.S. adults in the general public believe that it is safe to eat genetically modified foods, as compared with 88% of American scientists.

The reason for this gap is clear enough: Anti-GMO activists have peddled a great deal of misinformation to the general public, while the scientific community, in the U.S. and elsewhere, has known for years that there is no basis for the health concerns that have long bedeviled GMOs.

A massive 2016 report by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences concluded that “the data do not support the assertion that cancer rates have increased because of consumption of products of [genetically engineered] crops.” Moreover, “patterns of change in cancer incidence in the U.S. are generally similar to those in the United Kingdom and Europe, where diets contain much lower amounts of food derived from [these] crops.” The NAS reached the same conclusion for obesity, diabetes, celiac disease, various allergies and autism, pointing to no evidence of higher rates in countries that use GMOs.

The view that GMO foods have no discernible impact on health is now the well-established consensus across the international scientific community. It includes not just the NAS but the American Medical Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the U.K.’s Royal Society, the French Academy of Science, the African Academy of Sciences and numerous others.

Even the usually GMO-skeptic European Commission admitted in a 2010 report: “The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than … conventional plant breeding technologies.”

Particularly striking to me was the strongly worded statement issued in 2012 by the board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It declared, “The science is quite clear: Crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe.“ This language was almost identical in form to the 2007 statement by the AAAS on climate change, which stated: “The scientific evidence is clear: Global climate change caused by human activities is occurring now, and it is a growing threat to society.”

Indeed, it was this issue that forced me to publicly change my mind on GMOs. After my years of anti-GMO activism in the late 1990s, I moved on to write books on the topic of climate change, and I put a great deal of effort into trying to get the science right. I spent years poring through peer-reviewed journals and debating the issue in the media, insisting that the scientific consensus on climate change should be taken seriously.

But how could I so forcefully endorse the scientific consensus on climate change while simultaneously denying the scientific consensus on GMOs? I came to see that my refusal to accept the science on GMOs put me on the same side, ironically, as those I would contemptuously term “deniers” for their refusal to accept the mainstream scientific view on human-caused climate change.

There are now encouraging signs that the more science-friendly environmental groups are recognizing this contradiction and beginning to shift their positions. Recently, the Environmental Defense Fund, one of the earliest groups opposing GMOs, revised its view on biotechnology after lengthy internal debate. EDF, to its credit, now “recognizes the use of biotechnology as a legitimate deployment of science in the search for effective solutions.”

I have often been attacked, especially by my onetime activist friends, for changing my mind on GMOs. But what was the alternative? To stick to a position that I knew to be false in order to avoid losing reputation? Environmentalism, perhaps more than any other philosophy, requires science. And science means that you must change your mind when the evidence changes, however inconvenient that might be.

So what is it about GMOs that made environmentalists so wary in the first place? The real objection, I suspect, has always been a deeper philosophical one, about human beings “messing with nature” in new and uncertain ways. The idea of technological hubris has long been a concern of the Green movement, also evident in the longstanding and equally misguided campaign against nuclear power.

These reflexes explain why environmentalism is often not the progressive force that it claims to be. Holding a progressive worldview means believing in the possibility of positive change, recognizing past improvements and seeing the potential of scientific and technological innovation to solve humanity’s most pressing problems. In their campaign against GMOs, environmentalists have flirted with reactionary politics, aiming to block innovation and to protect traditional agricultural methods in the service of often-romanticized notions of vanished rural idylls.

The coming world of 10 billion people demands a more clear-headed and genuinely progressive approach. The great challenge will be to produce enough food for this tremendous surge in population while also protecting enough wilderness areas to maintain some measure of the planet’s fast-depleting biodiversity. We simply cannot feed the high-consuming population of the future using the low-productivity methods of the past.

Science has already helped humanity to nearly abolish the specter of famine. If it is not to reappear in decades to come, in tandem with ecological collapse, we must allow scientists to keep doing their jobs. They shouldn’t be hindered by those who, having already filled their bellies, have the luxury to indulge in righteous, ill-informed campaigns against promising new food technologies.

This essay is adapted from Mr. Lynas’s new book, “Seeds of Science: Why We Got It So Wrong on GMOs,” which will be published on June 26 by Bloomsbury Sigma. He is a visiting fellow at the Cornell Alliance for Science.