Seeds of Science: Why We Got It So Wrong on GMOs

How does a person with strong convictions reverse himself? Mark Lynas was passionate about two issues—climate change and GMOs. He still proclaims that climate change is “a growing threat to society.” His perspective on GMOs underwent a dramatic re-evaluation. Lynas was a leading activist against genetic engineering. In the 1990s he was working nights in experimental plots slashing down GMO corn plants. It was a comment in response to an article he wrote for The Guardian website that made him rethink his position. The comment was not vitriolic. It was more patronizing. The commenter suggested that Lynas was only an activist. He lacked an understanding of or appreciation for the underlying science.

This comment began to gnaw on his idealism. Was he defying scientific knowledge for the sake of a misplaced opinion? Lynas delved into the scientific literature. His goal was to try to understand the scientific basis of genetic modification of plants. The deeper he dug into the literature, the more he began to understand. Scientific knowledge supported GMOs. The case against them was weak. After years of in-depth study, he changed sides. Not only did he alter his perspective. He became as passionate a defender of GMOs as he was an opponent in his earlier days.

Monsanto is the #1 villain in anti-GMO circles. Lynas gives us a more nuanced view of this dreaded company. Monsanto started out in St. Louis in 1901 as a manufacturer of saccharine. Small companies in America either grow or die. After some hard times, Monsanto re-invented itself. It introduced a new vision of food and agricultural chemistry. The company specialized in herbicides including the dreaded Agent Orange. It also produced PCBs. But the greatest damage to its reputation came from its leadership in producing GMOs. What was its early motivation for an entrance into biotechnology? Reduce dependence on pesticides and other agricultural chemicals! Oops!

Monsanto’s plan to move away from chemicals and into gene modification hit a roadblock. Its first successful technology was built-in resistance to a potent herbicide, glyphosate. Glyphosate, renamed Roundup, was a miracle herbicide. It killed all the weeds, and the soybeans thrived. But Roundup was a chemical and a PR disaster. Their next product, Bt corn, achieved the original goal of reducing pesticide use. Rachel Carson hinted at this technology at the end of Silent Spring. News of Roundup-ready soybeans overwhelmed the promise of Bt corn. Potential dangers of glyphosate outshone the company’s effort to reduce agricultural chemicals.

Lynas goes through many of the charges leveled at Monsanto over the years. He presents a more nuanced view of the company. He does not exonerate Monsanto. He claims that opponents presented a distorted view of its technologies. Many of these stories were outright fabrications. The author traces the rise and fall of Monsanto’s involvement in biotechnology. He concludes that the company’s products led to a net decrease in the use of agricultural chemicals. What an ironic legacy for such a hated company!

Africa plays a central role in the narrative of Seeds of Science. Nowhere in the world has the animosity against GMOs done more damage than in African nations. Europe dominates trade with Africa. As such, European governments dictate GMO policy across the African continent, stifling its adoption. NGOs from other parts of the world also oppose use of the technology on the continent. The result is a reliance on subsistence farming for many of the world’s poorest countries. Africa can’t provide adequate food for its population without access to modern technology. I will return to this topic in greater depth next week.

Golden Rice was the topic of discussion among the Ag faculty in the graduation line at UGA. We were almost ready to march into the stadium to honor the Spring graduates. One scientist stated “If we had only introduced Golden Rice first! The transition into GMOs would have been so much easier than with Roundup.” I could not resist interrupting the conversation. “There are some serious consumer issues with the Golden Rice.” I mean, who could resist a product promising to end vitamin A deficiency in the Third World? At the time genetic engineers had all the answers. They did not consult with scientists from other fields. After all, rice is rice, right? No, we did experiments among students from different Asian countries. For example, students from India preferred jasmine rice, but Korean students did not (1). And that was only from a flavor standpoint. The carotenoids in Golden Rice introduce an off-flavor as perceived by Asian populations. Yellow rice is not acceptable. Rice should be white or brown!

The jury is still out on the benefits of Golden Rice. It. has failed to meet the hype advocates proclaimed. The issue is a real one. Hundreds of thousands of children lose their sight each year due to vitamin A deficiency. Many of those children die as a result. After decades of opposition by Greenpeace, the Philippine government has approved Golden Rice. Greenpeace argues that children should eat kale and other greens. Such arguments are not credible for rice-eating populations. Whether parents and children will accept this strange looking rice is not clear (2).

package of roasted pine nut hummus that is GMO free
Non-GMO hummus shows the power of anti-GMO advocates

The triumph of anti-GMO activists is undeniable! These dedicated souls have out-advocated and out-marketed the large corporations that sell GMOs. We now view GMOs as alien organisms that invaded our natural world. Activists are not anti-science or anti-technology. These advocates are more against the current uses of biotechnology. GMOs are a convenient way of spreading the industrialization of agriculture. Genetic technology favors corporate powers over local enterprises. It is not the seeds themselves but the infrastructure needed to support the seeds and how we use them. Once a genie is out of the lantern it becomes difficult to decompress it and force it back to where it came from. Advanced technologies created the printing press, the automobile, and the internet. Each one brought both advances and tragedies in society. Will the benefits of GMOs ever outweigh the risks they pose to us?

20 years of failure have plagued the genetic engineers. I arrived at the University of Georgia in the early 80s. Two Colleges hired scientists with a research emphasis in basic and applied plant genetics. I joined the resulting Center for Plant Cellular and Molecular Biology. Not a gene jockey, my emphasis was on cellular biochemistry. Georgia became an international leader in molecular biology. I was only a minor cog in that research machine. During my career I toured commercial GMO facilities in Delaware. I consulted with gene company scientists in California pursuing the perfect garden tomato. My lab received funding to unite sensory science and genetics to improve tomato flavor. I was on the edge of a wave that never reached its potential. My sensory work never linked up with my collaborator’s biotechnology.

Will we ever embrace gene technology? The jury is still out. GMOs have always had great promise. Can they deliver where needed without accompanying over-industrialization? Anti-GMO activists failed to keep the genie out of corporate America. Genetic engineers failed to save the world from hunger with biotechnology. Is that the best our society can do? As a scientist it seems strange to me that opponents of GMOs embrace mRNA vaccines. Opponents of these advanced vaccines turn now to welcome monoclonal antibodies. It’s all gene technology. The genie is out. What are our three wishes? Let us find wisdom in making our choices!

Next week: Please Lord, don’t turn GMOs into boutique superfoods!


(1) Deveriya, M. 2007. Consumer acceptability of aromatic and non-aromatic rice. University of Georgia MS thesis.

(2) Albaugh, J.N., 2016. Golden rice: Effectiveness and safety, a literature review. Honors Research Projects, University of Akron.

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