Science, Dogma, and Mark Lynas

January 11, 2013 | 4:06 pm
Doug Gurian-Sherman
Former contributor

UPDATE: I have appended at the bottom of this post an update addressing Mark Lynas’ response to this post on his own website.

I suppose it is hard for journalists to resist a good story: Mark Lynas, former green activist, has seen the light. The pronouncements of converted GM critic Lynas have garnered coverage from several respected media sources, despite often being misleading, wrong, or questionable scientifically.

Lynas’ main charge is that criticism of genetic engineering (GE) in agriculture is anti-science. His focus is on what he calls “the antis”—activists opposed to genetically engineered crops—but by setting up this straw man, and ignoring complex scientific concerns about GE while making summary judgments about its safety and value, he appears to be attempting to discourage real scientific debate.

What is especially disappointing, though, is the uncritical reception Lynas has received from several journalists like Andrew Revkin and Michael Spector. As University of Michigan ecologist John Vandermeer points out, Lynas’ pronouncements are sophomoric—they suggest a young student’s simplistic and sometimes incorrect understanding of science—and biased in their selectivity. That they have been received almost as gospel is surprising. The Economist called supportable criticism of Lynas, on GE and pesticide use, tendentious. Really? But dismissing debate is not?

Contrary to Lynas’ pronouncements, science does not proceed by fiat. His summary judgment on the debate about GE—that “it’s over”—is misinformed at best. One could pass this off as a rhetorical flourish, but the overall context of Lynas’ talk shows that he is quite serious. While there is broad consensus on climate science, there is anything but on many aspects of GE science. As anyone who has read my blogs or reports over the past several years knows, I have cited numerous solid peer-reviewed studies that question many aspects of the safety, impact, or sustainability of GE as it has been developed, and will probably continue to be developed.

I guess Lynas can be forgiven to some extent for asserting that the safety of GE for human health and the environment has been settled, since this is a common misconception, as I discussed in previous posts at some length. He seems to be echoing equally mistaken utterances from what should be reliable science sources, like the board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

A few specifics

Here are some of the incorrect or misleading points that Lynas makes about the science or development of GE. I have made most of these points elsewhere in reports or blog posts, so I am not going to elaborate on them here. More detailed discussion, including links to research papers, can be found at those sources.

Lynas argues that we need GE because other agricultural methods or technologies can’t address food production and sustainability challenges. GE may contribute, but as my reports and others have pointed out, breeding continues to outpace GE and likely will continue to do so, and agroecology is much better at addressing many of these issues, especially over-reliance on scarce resources and pesticides, and resilience in the face of climate change. He needs to read the work of Matt Liebman at Iowa State University or Jules Pretty at the University of Essex, to mention a few, or the internationally-endorsed report of the IAASTD, authored by several hundred scientists and other experts.

Rejoice, he sayeth, GE has reduced pesticide use. A recent study by Charles Benbrook shows that in the U.S., the biggest user of GE, pesticide use has gone up dramatically due to GE herbicide-resistant weeds, mismanagement, and the monoculture system that GE supports. Millions of acres of glyphosate-resistant weeds are causing real harm, such as increased tillage that increases soil erosion. And as Mortensen and colleagues have pointed out, the next GE crops, resistant to older herbicides often linked to harm to farmers and farmworkers, will probably increase herbicide use still further. Resistance to Bt by rootworm in the US, as Aaron Gassman has shown, is likely to lead to increased insecticide use, and more resistant insects are occurring elsewhere, notably stem borer in South Africa and bollworm in China. All this is a reflection of a bigger point about ecosystems science at the landscape level, which Lynas does not seem to acknowledge: that GE has been developed as an adjunct to monoculture agriculture, which is inherently vulnerable to pest damage and pest resistance, and is less resilient to climate change impacts.

Misguided regulations are stifling GE. Lynas incorrectly cites a recent report commissioned by the pesticide industry’s own trade group, saying that it documents costs of about $139 million to navigate regulations on GE. Instead, the report states that the large majority of those costs are for R&D and other expenses rather than regulatory compliance. Breeding, which continues to be more successful for all types of properties that Lynas mentions—drought tolerance, increased yield, nutrient enhancement, pest resistance, and more—costs about a million dollars per trait. Failure of GE traits, such as virus-resistant sweet potatoes in Africa, needs to be considered more seriously as one possible explanation for the dearth of available GE traits so far. For example, regulatory costs cannot explain the limited success at producing GE drought tolerance, or the lack of success in reducing demand for nitrogen fertilizer or increasing yield potential. These are of interest to huge companies with deep pockets, and make up potentially huge markets, so regulatory costs are not a sufficient barrier to explain their lack of development. Yet companies (and academics that would be glad to sell successful traits to those companies) have been working on them for many years.

Lynas claims that gene exchange between different organisms is common, and therefore use of genes from various sources in GE is not an issue. This is a great exaggeration, at best. Exchange between species, or horizontal gene transfer in the vernacular (HGT)—which Lynas mistakenly calls gene flow—is common between bacterial species, but this is irrelevant to GE food. It is also true, as Lynas mentions, that some viruses insert their genetic material into food plant genomes. But the range of genes involved is extremely limited compared to the ability to use and combine genes from any source with GE. Plant viruses typically have fewer than 10 genes, for a very limited number of functions, which is a far cry from the millions of different genes potentially available to genetic engineers. There are a few cases where plants have acquired a few genes from other organisms, but these have occurred over a period of millions of years, and are rare.

The main point is not whether I am right and Lynas is wrong about any specific bunch of data—there are many wrong turns as science plays out—but rather that debating data is an important part of the process of science that Lynas seems to want to derail, despite his rhetoric to the contrary. Science is as much a social process as it is the pile of data that seems to be the basis of Lynas’ conception of it. It is also about bigger issues that science is unavoidably enmeshed in. Issues involving political economy–social sciences, anyone?–allocation of scarce public science resources, environmental justice and so on. Trying to dismiss all of this and default to some narrowly defined vision is more akin to dogma than science.

UPDATE: Jan. 14, 2013

Mark Lynas, in his response to this blog post, actually reinforces my main points. Instead of debating or discussing the actual science, Lynas casts aspersions and resorts to relying on authority rather than data or research.

Lynas refers to a statement by the board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) to make his point that there is a consensus of scientists supporting GE, and that my criticism of several specific aspects of that board statement in blog posts is evidence that UCS is anti-science on GE (all linked in this post, above).

If Lynas was making arguments based on science, he would debate the specific criticisms that I and 21 academic scientists make about the board statement, rather than deferring to the authority of the AAAS board. And while the AAAS board has the authority to make such statements, there is no evidence that it reflects a consensus among AAAS members. There has been no referendum or survey on it, and as I note, several scientists have been vocal in their criticism.

Similarly, Lynas dismisses offhand specific criticism of scientific errors or misleading things he said in his speech. Instead of responding to these specific criticisms, he dismisses them as trivial and selective. Yes, my citations are limited, because this is a blog post, not a Ph.D thesis or journal article. But I provided several links that provide more detail, referred to several academic scientists that have published relevant work, linked my reports and referred to my numerous blog posts (which all provide links to science journal articles), which collectively provide hundreds of peer-reviewed citations.

Again, rhetoric is not the main tool of science, debate about the data and its interpretation is. Lynas fails this test in his response.

Finally, although Lynas says that we are anti-science, we are not even anti-GE. As anyone who reads our reports and other publications knows, we nowhere suggest banning GE. I encourage Mark and any readers to explore our positions and arguments, starting here.