Science, Dogma, and Mark Lynas

, former senior scientist, Food and Environment | January 11, 2013, 4:06 pm EDT
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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.

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  • This passage is troublesome: “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”

    This is why:
    1. Benbrook uses pounds of herbicide as his toxic measure, and that is meaningless. Glyphosate is much less toxic than 2,4-D and completely and quickly breaks down in the environment. Let’s say for the past 16 years corn belt farmers used 2,4-D instead, would that have been better for the environment?
    2. You could not have minimum-till and no-till farming without biotech crops. So imagine for the past 16 years farmers used mold-board plowing to help control weeds, would that have been better for the environment?

    Benbrook misses the point and comes at it too late. If you want to learn about farming why don’t you read farm magazines, talk to old farmers or agronomists from an ag college. Check out back issues of Corn & Soybean Digest, Successful Farming, etc. They’ve been talking about glyphosate and Bt resistance for a long time now.

    • Doug Gurian-Sherman

      Thanks for the comment Donald. I disagree that the amount of pesticide used is meaningless. As a former risk assessor of GE crops at EPA, we used the typical formula of risk = hazard X exposure. Hazard can be thought of essentially as the toxicity of the herbicide, and exposure is dependent on use, including how much. So to get at risk, we need to know both the hazard and the amount used. Glyphosate displaced many different herbicides. On soy, mainly ALS inhibitor herbicides and pendamethalin, not mainly 2,4-D (probably some 2,4-D was displaced in corn). Overall, though, glyphosate has been considered generally less harmful than some other herbicides. However, since roundup was approved, newer research has pointed to possible harm that was not originally known, including to amphibians (important parts of the environment) and possible endocrine disruption in people (which can lead to serious illnesses). It also may shift the microbial balance in the soil in ways that encourage crop disease. None of these areas of research have been settled yet.

      But more ironic is that you mention 2,4-D. Just over the horizon are GE crops (soy, corn, etc.) resistant to 2,4-D and dicamba (a related herbicide). Weed scientists project dramatically increased use of these older and nastier herbicides to deal with glyphosate resistant weeds, which have been caused by mismanagement of roundup ready crops. Although not yet approved, 2,4-D resistant crops is what the industry is pushing for.

      And not only can you have conservation tillage, especially no-till, without GE crops, contrary to your point, the large majority of adoption of no-till occurred BEFORE GE crops came on the market (before 1996). USDA data (and data from CITC) are quite clear about this (e.g. see the USDA ERS publication AER 810). Roundup ready has made it easier, but so have no-till seed drills, and Farm Bill incentives that went into effect in 1986. If you actually look at the additional adoption of no-till after 1996, it is only a few percent in corn, almost nothing in cotton, and a little more in soy (maybe 5 to 10 percent of acres). So contrary to the widespread myth, the data do not support a major role of GE crops in the increase in no-till over the past few decades.

      Finally, many of us have been predicting glyphosate-resistant weeds since these crops were first discussed 20 plus years ago. Same with Bt resistant insects. You presume that Benbrook and other are “late” without really looking into what he and others have been saying for many years.

      All of us respect what farmers do, and know they have a lot on their plates and a tough row to hoe (puns intended). Since I am a plant pathologist trained at an ag program, I guess by your logic I will have to talk to myself. But seriously, we do talk to farmers, agronomists, weed scientists and others, as well as read the farm press. And I agree that we were not the only ones concerned about resistance for a long time. But that begs the question of why more was not done to prevent of reduce it.

  • Doug Gurian-Sherman

    Hi Karl, Horizontal gene transfer (HTG) is the usual definition for gene transfer between species that cannot mate, but when I saw your response, i thought that maybe my memory was failing me (certainly a possibility). Not having a genetics text at home, I have gone to the net for some definitions of gene flow. According the the Holmgren molecular biology lab at Northwestern U. ( ), gene flow is: “The movement of genes from one population to another by way of interbreeding of individuals in the two populations.” The term population used here is different groups within a species (or closely related species). That seems clear because part of the definition mandates “interbreeding”. Breeding occurs within a species, or between closely related species, essentially what I was referring to as the definition of gene flow. Or, see biology online ( ): “The movement of genes from different populations of species.” The wording is a little awkward, but if you go to their definition of population(s) you find:”A group of organisms of one species that interbreed and live in the same place at the same time (e.g. deer population).” In any case, all of this suggests that gene flow is gene transfers within a species, or between closely related species.

    And yes Karl, I know about crown gall, I am a plant pathologist, and it is a common plant disease. As you suggest for Lynas, I did not want to take the space to list every possible odd example. As I think you probably know, Agrobacterium naturally transfers only a couple genes to the gall.

    The rarity of HGT is in fact quite relevant for a few reasons. The few genes that may have been transferred by natural HGT had been incorporated, maybe with some rare exceptions, into crop plant genomes very long ago (actually, in their progenitors, mostly likely). So essentially, they have always been in the food supply. So for health reasons, or environmental impact, they are the baseline. So unless you want to claim that the foods we eat are inherently dangerous, these rare genes are irrelevant in the context of our dicussion.

    Second, the quantity and speed of GE, compared to natural HTG, means that MANY more new genes may be introduced into our food through GE compared to natural HGT, even if some occurred since agriculture began.

    So in the context of safety, which is what Lynas was talking about, I think, there are very important differences between rare natural HGT and GE.

    You are guessing about what is important to people or what some people think about gene transfer. You are entitled to your speculation, but it is just that. To me what is more important is the validity of the science arguments. And since Lynas touts himself as an authority on the science, and appeals to the science to settle these issues, that seems more relevant in the context of this discussion.

    As for the point about about Lynas saying that the debate is over, it is my interpretation that he means that pertains to essentially everything that he talks about in his speech, not just the safety of GE. You have a point that he uses this sentence as the first sentence in a paragraph about safety, but the entire tone of his speech is dismissive, so I think he means this more generally. Anyone can go back to Lynas’ speech and determine whether they agree with me or not. But even if Lynas was saying the debate is over only about the food safety of GE, my point still applies. It is still summary dismissal of debate on an important issue about GE. He also said in that paragraph that harm from GE is less likely than being hit by an asteroid. That is exactly what I mean by exaggeration and summary judgment that is present throughout his speech. So I have no problem suggesting that he is dismissing debate.

    • Doug, you are describing the main and historical use of the term gene flow, which was defined before horizontal gene transfer was discovered. Likewise, as we have come to understand how important it is in the history of life on this planet, usage changes along with the literature. Here is a short list of links demonstrating the usage of “gene flow” in the peer-reviewed literature for horizontal gene transfer: (combines terms as “horizontal gene flow”) (Discusses history of perspectives on horizontal gene flow) Calls Gene Flow between species a cornerstone of evolution
      To find the current usage of a term, I suggest searching the scientific literature rather than Google.
      “So essentially, they have always been in the food supply. So for health reasons, or environmental impact, they are the baseline.”
      This sounds a lot like the people who claim that GE crops are safe because people have been eating them for a decade and a half. I’m surprised to see you say that if it is in the genome of a crop species that it is inherently safe. It is also completely wrong. There are alleles, and indeed even completely new genes that are present in crop species but have not been eaten by people, or by very many people. There are combinations of genes in currently eaten crop varieties that if you brought them together they would make the crop plant dangerous – such has already happened. I do wish you would read those National Academy of Sciences reports more closely. It seems that this is a basic stumbling block that you keep running into – the assumption that a gene in the crop species before X date is safe, and that anything added through a particular method is assumed unsafe until proven safe. That’s not a scientifically consistent view and I think you should re-examine it.

      As for the rarity of an event determining its relative safety, there is only one Doug Gurian-Sherman genotype, which makes you even rarer than GMOs, and I don’t think you look very dangerous.

      “You are guessing about what is important to people or what some people think about gene transfer.”
      No, I read what people think about horizontal gene transfer. Many anti-GE groups and prominent people espouse this view, I’m surprised you never noticed. Likewise you were not guessing about what Lynas was saying about insecticides – you were completely misrepresenting it as being a statement about all pesticides. I always try to accurately find out and represent what people say, and when I am wrong I apologize and don’t dig my heels. That is, if the comment thread on a blog post is still open!

      • Doug Gurian-Sherman

        Thanks for the links. It looks like the definition of gene flow may be “evolving,” by broadening it. I appreciate the update. However, there is also a need to be able to distinguish gene exchange between different types of taxonomic groups, so HGT is still the most relevant term for exchange between species that cannot mate. That also seems clear from the links you provided. Also, your historical perspective is questionable. HGT has been known to be very important for evolution for decades. Perhaps the single biggest jump in evolution was caused by HTG–the evolution of eukaryotes. And widespread HTG in bacteria has been known to be important for evolution, e.g. through broad host-range plasmids, for even longer (and of practical importance in the development of antibiotic resistance). If you actually read the chapter on gene flow in Hedrick, you would find deliberate attempts to define it as horizontal in 1987, well after HGT had begun to be understood as important to evolution. The recent insights from the papers you linked are really just additional valuable examples. But it does seem likely (although it is not clear from use in papers that a new definition has been accepted or settled in the biology community), that Lynas use of the term gene flow was not incorrect.

        That said, it was a minor point, a parenthetical on my part. The substantive point was about the relevance to food or environmental safety. On that, you seem to be confusing my point about baseline. And you seriously misrepresent my position on both the safety of conventional foods and GE foods. I have said many times, and it should also be clear from my citations of the National Research Council (such as the post on the AAAS board statement linked in this post) that conventional breeding can introduce harmful substances into foods, as occurred with potato, celery, and cucurbits (examples from NRC reports). The baseline of current foods is that they are essentially safe, widely accepted, and our default for safety, not that they cannot under some circumstances be harmful. In this, I am using a definition of safety that is normative, not one that suggests that food, or anything else is completely risk free. As one example, there are many people allergic to some proteins in many foods, and for some of them, those foods are not safe. So it would be silly to presume that current foods present no risk. That is not what a baseline means anyway. And I have not said that GE foods should be presumed to be harmful unless shown otherwise. Rather, I have said generally we do not know one way or the other whether a particular new GE food may be harmful, but (as the NRC says) SOME GE foods or crops may be harmful to health or the environment, and therefore should be adequately tested. That is a very different position than what you described.

        I have read the NRC reports quite carefully. I also know several of the authors of each of the reports and have discussed these issues with several of them over the years. You wish (presume) what I have or have not done, and wish that I would agree with you. I, on the other hand, wish that you would stop presuming things about me. I doubt that either of us is going to get our wish! So clearly, as I have said before, there are possible combinations of gene or alleles that can be harmful from breeding. But as for ancient genes transferred by HGT, the topic of Lynas’ point, as opposed to breeding–which is essentially your point–those genes are already essentially accounted for in the safe (not risk free) history of use of our food crops.

        The NRC has acknowledged that GE can introduce harmful genes into
        foods, and has acknowledged that regulation of GE is justifiable. All of the reports have also made recommendations that would strengthen or improve regulations, and the 2002 report was pretty critical of USDA’s oversight of possible environmental risks.

        The typical discussion among scientists is what the proper level of regulation should be. Some scientists think that because breeding can cause harm, and is not regulated, GE should not be regulated. The NRC in 2000 said that EPA should regulate GE crops (pesticidal GE crops in that report), and suggested the opposite of what scientists opposed to regulation have advocated–that some kind of oversight of conventional crop risk should be considered. My position, as I have expressed to you before, is that I believe that the much greater range of new genes, and new processes like iRNA, affords GE compared to breeding, makes it inherently somewhat more risky than breeding. I readily acknowledge that there are scientists that disagree with
        that perspective, and that is fine. In general, very little of my
        work is about the human health safety of GE foods. I think it is a relevant issue, but in the scheme of things, less important than many other issues relevant to GE. Any even cursory review of my work would reveal that. And most of the points made even in this blog post support that.

        On the chemical issue, Lynas said two things in the relevant
        paragraph. One was a sentence about chemicals broadly, the other was focusing on insecticides. I actually briefly touched on insecticides, as well as herbicides. You seem to assume that because he talked about insecticides, that is what he meant by chemicals. It is also possible that he forgot about or does not recognize herbicides as relevant, or was intentionally leaving them out to spin his case. I don’t know the answer. What I do know is what is explicit in the opening sentence,and that is that chemicals includes more than insecticides. So I fundamentally disagree with you about the relevance of discussing chemicals broadly vs. only insecticides. You do not seem to accept ambiguity in the use of language, as I really think is the case here. Sorry Karl, it is not about digging in of heels. I, like anyone, have made errors, as I admitted above, and also about an interpretation of some things the NRC has written on your own web site. So I don’t think your point holds water in a general sense, or in this particular case.

  • I have a quick comment, prior to a more lengthy response to both John Vandermeer and Doug Gurian-Sherman. Both have taken a tone that tries to say that they know what they are talking about and that Mark Lynas does not. Perhaps Doug took the “go back to school” tone from Vandermeer, but I was shocked when I read this paragraph of Doug’s:

    “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.”

    Gene flow is the movement of genes between populations – no matter what those populations are. It can be two populations of the same species, two related species – or two distantly-related species. So Mark Lynas is in fact completely correct in describing the movement of genes between species as being “gene flow” – and Doug is instead the one who is mistaken in his terminology. In the lingo of the intertubes – that would be a #fail.

    Gene transfer can be mediated by viruses – that is one known route, but the genes that are transferred in that case are not limited to only the genes that the virus uses to reproduce. Other genes can tag along for the ride. There are numerous other methods of transferring genes, including through grafts and between roots of different plant species that live in the same habitat:
    And it goes without saying that considering that the life cycle of agrobacterium involves inserting genes into plants that this is happening all the time in plants around the world. Ever seen crown gall on an oak? If Mark was supposed to list all of these methods just to satisfy Doug, then it would have been a cumbersome and dull speech. Consider the format before taking only what was mentioned as the end-all of his understanding of the subject.

    Doug is correct in saying that individual horizontal gene transfer events are rare on a human timescale, however, rarity does not itself present an argument against it. The rarity of an event does not describe its effects. I took Mark Lynas’s statement about gene transfer to be a response to the oft-repeated claim that genetic engineering is different because such gene transfer cannot happen in nature – which is clearly false. Some people actually believe this, so you have to consider who the audience is before interpreting their words. So in this line of reasoning, it doesn’t matter how rare an event is – only that it is possible and it does happen.

    Finally, I would like to caution Doug against (again) reading between people’s words and suggesting that they said things that they did not. The pesticide-insecticide example that Rachael pointed out above is the latest instance of misrepresenting the words of others. Please, just stop doing that.

    • Karl, I missed your reference about Rachael’s point about pesticide/chemicals. Lynas said he was talking about chemicals. Do chemicals refer only to insecticides? No, I don’t think they do. In fact I know that they do not. The fact that he then talked only about insecticides does not change the fact that his broader statement was about chemicals, not just insecticides. If he wanted to limit his meaning, he should have said something like “some types of chemicals” in the first sentence. At the very least, his statement was ambiguous, given the contradictory uses in the paragraph. And more importantly, if one is actually considering the relevance of his statement on the farm, it does not make much sense to restrict oneself only to insecticides. The farmer or the farm worker is not restricted to exposure only to insecticides, neither is the environment.

      • Lynas made a factual statement about insecticides, and you represented it as being a statement about all pesticides. His statement about “chemical use” was about the common assumption – one which your description does not faithfully represent. This is what I mean about digging your heels.

    • Doug Gurian-Sherman

      oh, I was wrong, Karl. I do have one of my genetics texts at home. In case you don’t like the definition of gene flow as being among interbreeding groups (in other words, closely related), from a molecular biologist like Holmgren, see the whole chapter on gene flow in “Genetics of Populations, third Edition” by the respected population geneticist, Philip Hedrick.

      • I had anticipated that you would still go looking for a genetics text, and I would like to point out that while textbooks are awesome for grasping the fundamentals, there is a significant lag time between expanding research fields and their elaboration in textbooks. The edition that you speak of, if I read Google Books correctly, was published in 2005. The vast majority of research in this area has happened since then, in fact all of the links I provided above are dated from 2005 and forward. So while the scientists are still working on the terminology, it looks like “gene flow” is being expanded into “vertical” and “horizontal” gene flow by scientists who are actively researching and publishing in the field. While I think it is better to describe movement of genes between species horizontally as Horizontal Gene Transfer (HGT), Mark Lynas is not mistaken to refer to this as a form of gene flow.

    • Declan

      Hi Karl, Doug,

      I don’t mean to derail or intrude upon your discussion but one remark of yours Karl I found particularly galling – you said “I would like to caution Doug against (again) reading between people’s words and suggesting that they said things that they did not. The pesticide-insecticide example that Rachael pointed out above is the latest instance of misrepresenting the words of others. Please, just stop doing that.”

      Whatever about the truth or otherwise of this accusation, given the blatant error (lie?) in Lynas’ piece – he claimed in an obvious attempt at unjust smearing that the GM blight-resistant potato trial in Ireland was blocked by the Irish Green Party when in fact it actually went ahead last summer – will you demand publicly the same of him? I really think you should, especially when you consider it was not the Green Party that attempted to take legal action but a group of NGOs & concerned individuals, & that not only did the trial go ahead, it went ahead before a three-month judicial review period had elapsed. The information is easily & freely available all over the web.

      The Irish Times – Friday, September 7, 2012
      Controversial GM potato trial to yield results in weeks
      “A CONTROVERSIAL study into the environmental impact of genetically modified (GM) potatoes in Oak Park, Co Carlow, is expected to start showing results within weeks.

      Almost two weeks ago, the agricultural development body Teagasc planted 24 GM potato plants that have improved resistance to late potato blight alongside conventional potato plants.”

      • Hi Declan,
        Short answer: Yes. Lynas implies in his speech that the trial did not go ahead, when in fact it did. I would have to read more to check on the details of exactly who sued, but this statement about the trial not happening is a mistake. I have no problem pointing out when someone I agree with in general says something that is wrong. I also think there are other things he said which I don’t agree with. But I will venture a guess that when challenged and presented with the facts, Mark will more than likely correct this mistake. His story is one of changing his mind when reading the science – that was a main point of his talk. In contrast, with some partisans it is like pulling teeth.
        Declan, what do you think about John Vandermeer’s statement (linked to in Doug’s post above) that insecticide use has gone up instead of down? The very report linked to by Doug points out that this is wrong – that insecticide use has gone down, yet, Doug makes no mention of this in his post. What do you think about that?

    • Nate


      Lynas is being incredibly disingenuous (and, at best, misleading) with his chemicals/insecticide claim. That may not have been his “intent,” but that’s certainly the way it reads. That being said, he’ll probably prove to be wrong in that respect, as well. From a Tom Philpott article, where he discusses the same Benbrook study that Dr. Gurian-Sherman cites:

      “Benbrook found that the Bt trait indeed led to a reduction in insecticide use of 123 million pounds between 1996 and 2011. But that figure is dwarfed by the 527 million pound, GMO-driven increase in herbicide use over the same period. In other words, GMOs have added more than four pounds of herbicides to US farm fields for every pound of insecticide they’ve taken away. Overall, Benbrook found, GMOs have lead to a net increase in pesticide use (meaning herbicides plus insecticides) of 404 million pounds, a 7 percent gain.

      And just as weeds developed resistance to year-after-year applications of Roundup, corn’s number-one insect pest, the rootworm, is quickly evolving to be able to withstand Bt-engineered corn, as I’ve reported before. Benbrook told me that in areas of the Midwest where farmers have been planting Bt corn year after year—an increasingly popular practice, since the explosion in ethanol production that started in 2006—ag university extension experts are suggesting that farmers spray other insecticides to supplement the failing Bt trait in their corn. ‘The goal of this technology was to make it possible not have to spray these corn insecticides, and now we have to spray them again to bail out this technology,’ Benbrook told me.”

      You get that? “Experts are suggesting that farmers spray other insecticides to supplement the failing Bt trait in their corn.” The future is already calling for more insecticides, and it’ll only get worse as the “pests” continue to evolve resistance. Further, Lynas’s exact words were, “I’d assumed that it would increase the use of chemicals.” That fact is true. The use of chemicals increased. The fact that insecticide use itself decreased (for a time, at least) doesn’t negate that point. Chemical use increased.

  • Mark Lynas? Never heard of him.

  • jessethebuilder

    How long until intelligent progressives cast off this nonsense about global warm… err, I mean climate change?

    This is what you are going to get, because these global warming people are all fakers. That is their business. Of course they are going to turn on real environmental issues.

  • Ian Snelgrove

    My main problem with this is that Mark Lynas appears to be as ‘ideological’ as those he criticizes. In comments he made about Dr. Ananda Shiva he spoke about ‘freedom’. But this freedom appears to be freedom for seed companies to make a profit, not the freedom of seed-saving farmers. Not only does he appear to be ‘ideological’ but also politically ideological. I’ve said before that this ‘freedom’ sounds like ‘FreedomWorks’ freedom to me. Given his unconvincing, and at times absurd response I do wonder what brought about the turnabout in his appraisal. Is he just amazingly naive about business politics? I don’t know. Its all very puzzling. But, as stated above, the science will continue. My fear is for the farmers, forced into deals where they cannot save their seeds, and so on. This is a catastrophe.

  • I studied Environmental Biology firsthand on a number of farms, labs, and a couple of years at Essex Uni too. I even ran my own lab for a while and still do some oil immersion microscopy with my own equipment at home for interests’ sake and some cool photography.
    I’ve long warned about Roundup-ready hardiness and have found that on some forums people are just wedded to the principle that GM is great and is gonna save the world, and to hell with the odd flock of sheep killed by eating RR crop remains that they always ate traditionally before with no ill effects. I find such people dogmatic in the extreme, and have generally bought into the whole Monsanto Myth (Other GM producers are available!)
    I’ve done a lot of research into how much DNA, RNA and fragments thereof can cross the gut/blood barrier, which when you think about it is necessarily porus to proteins, lipids and various complex organic molecules. You only have to look at the transmission of prion proteins during the BSE debacle to realize that contamination vectors are handily already built into out gut. That Monsanto refuses to test, and those few tests that are done and selectively massaged unerringly show the same predictable rubbish the Pro-GM lobby cling to are totally and utterly irrelevant.
    I remember the “accidental” dumping of thousands of tons of South African Maize into the human food chain making a mockery of the edicts of food purity of many African nations virtually overnight. Soya is so mixed up I won’t even buy “GM Free” soya as it’s very likely got some American GM contamination in it anyway.
    I think it’s well worth remembering the old edict “You are what you eat” and if you choose to play russian roulette with your diet, well why not just eat out of dumpsters as the contents of the food therein are likely to carry the same or similar risks you can get from good hearty GM mystery products.
    Pfizer are pretty quiet about GM thesedays it seems.
    Oh, and the arguements about labelling! (They’re un-necessary, they’ll confuse consumers, there isn’t room) I’ve heard it all, time after time. It’s like garlic to a vampire…Mention GM labelling and they run howling to their lawyers, their MP’s. They scrabble around for examples of GM products already inflicted on an unknowing test population somewhere in Africa. The one thing they hate the most is people (rightly) don’t trust this stuff and so if you label anything GM nobody buys it, most sensibly in my opinion. A whole slew of GM products have bitten the dust going right back to the festering boil of the Flavr Saver Tomato fiasco, remember that?
    They try to say it’s precision bioengineering – it’s not, that’s crap. They fire DNA particles on platinum shot out of a compressed air cannon and hope for the best. They can’t even tell you how many copies were taken up or where in the genome they went. It’s farcical. Poor old Mendel, I wonder what he’d have made of all this.

    Regards Louis “Prof.” Brodigan

  • I was involved in the anti-GM movement at the time when Lynas claims to have been our ‘leader’. He was at that time involved with a grandiose ‘One World’ project and was nowhere in evidence as any kind of leader. His current attempt at self-aggrandisement and alignment with the trans-national ‘forces of darkness’ look like a double-misfire.

  • Thank you. My film Genetic Chile is available for instant view on netflix. I dig into the IAASTD and ask many of these same questions. The movie certainly is culling the ire of the corporate scientists. I’d like to ask you, do scientists doing this work that inevitably leads to more homogenization and more privatization, do they ever consider other consequences, or are they so caught in that lab, so removed from the actual world, that they never ask themselves what the real point of engineering a corn is? Feeding the world? The reality says otherwise. Must we lie to ourselves to justify our work? Half of all food produced by the corporate agriculture industry is wasted. Some large percentage of green house gases come as a result of the industrial food model. This is all predictable. And yet I’m supposed to shut my mouth about GE foods and their real world impact on the poor (outlined in the IAASTD), because, you know, scientists have the best intentions and their lab work says its all gonna be peaches and cream. Please. The reductionist worldview is killing us all, literally (Fukushima, climate change, dying fish stocks, etc.., etc.., etc..,) and you know whose blind to that fact? All you guys pushing the industrial food model, making the destruction more efficient with every self-righteous step you take.

  • This is the exact kind of post about GE that has prevented me from supporting the UCS monetarily. I will point out one place where you have definitely misunderstood what Lynas believes that makes it hard for me to believe that the UCS is interested in a fair discussion. Here you write: “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.”

    However, if you actually go back to his speech he says: “I’d assumed that it would increase the use of chemicals. It turned out that pest-resistant cotton and maize needed less insecticide.” The only mention of herbicides is specifically to call out over-the-top chemical fear (specifically of glyphosate, as it is far safer than many other commonly used herbicides) which says nothing about whether he thinks herbicide tolerance traits are sustainable. Moreover, in the Q&A he specifically expresses skepticism about Roundup Ready and herbicide tolerance generally! Since that is what Benbrook’s work is about, it hardly seems a valid way to counter Lynas’ actual statements about pesticides and GE crops. Moreover, nothing in his speech suggests he would think it silly to better manage Bt trait to reduce the likelihood of tolerance developing (though interestingly some farmers in the US are finding they can plant non-traited corn because pest pressure has been reduced after years of using Bt traits!)

    There’s other things I think are misleading or unfair about this criticism of Lynas’ speech but I’ll stick with this one. You should really consider clarifying this post.

    • Doug Gurian-Sherman

      Rachael, As you note yourself, Lynas questions whether there have been increases in chemical use (” “I’d assumed that it would increase the use of chemicals.”), but then goes on to limit the discussion to insecticide use. I took him at his word that he was talking about pesticides, not artificially limiting the discussion to insecticides. And I would hardly call Lynas’ very brief comment in the Q&A as skepticism about roundup ready. He says that he does not see roundup ready as an enormously important environmental innovation. I would hardly call this skepticism, or more importantly, a recognition of the problems with that technology, from resistant weeds, to the follow-on herbicide resistant crops in the wings that relay on 2,4-D and other problematic herbicides that roundup ready is leading to. No discussion or concern about any of that, at least not in this speech.

      The safety of roundup is not so clear. As Vandermeer points out in his blog post (which I linked), there is evidence that Roundup harms amphibians at doses that could occur in the environment, although experiments showing actual impact have not yet been done to my knowledge. There are a number of other possibly troubling aspects of roundup that have not been resolved at this point. And even with Bt, there are big issues, such as emerging resistance, secondary pest insect increases, and so on, as well as the substitution of neonicotinoid insecticide seed treatments, which are likely harming bees and other beneficial insects, for previous sprayed insecticides in the U.S. on corn (not strictly caused by GE, but not prevented by it either)

      But that is the bigger point that I was trying to make isn’t it: that Lynas considers debate about the overall value and wisdom of using GE to be over. Your points about the relative safety of roundup vs. other herbicides is a legitimate issue for debate and exploration, along with many others, but Lynas said explicitly that the safety of GE is settled (I assume he includes the environment), and that is the problem, and why I consider his statement more akin to dogma than science.

      • In context, it seems clear to me the “debate is over” rhetoric refers to the commonly claim that we don’t know GE food is safe to eat to block approvals. Perhaps that tactic is more common in Europe than it is here?

    • Lary

      Rachel, as a farmer in North America I can assure you that herbicide use has increased and become less effective since the introduction of herbicide resistant crops. Similarly BT crops have done their part to cause resistance in targeted pests and often call for a more toxic tank mix for pesticide application.

  • One of the weapons used against even moderate attempts to bring the GM debate into the open is to leap to the fringes and to identify any kind of criticism as some extremist attack.
    This was much in evidence in the recent struggle for passing Prop 37 in California which was only about affixing a label and no more. But the attack on the proposition immediately jumped into discussing bans, and worldwide efficacy and especially the argument over the dangers of eating GM foods.
    I regret to say that some of the advocates for 37 took the bait and rose to address the dangers as well. It seems to be difficult to get people to focus on issues, such as labels, or scientific studies. First comes information, such as studies and labels provide. Once people have information, they can make up their minds in myriad ways. Such as by not eating those foods. Or gene transference or monoculture. Or preferring GM foods. But why can’t we simply stick to the simple subjects, like a label. Politically, that seems to me to be the winning strategy.

  • David

    Mark Lynas does not have the power to discourage real scientific debate, and fortunately neither do you. Tests will continue to be done, results checked, published and independently verified, with potential new technologies submitted to regulators for further assessment. Old ones will be re-assessed periodically.

    The ‘debate’ he refers to is the one being waged in the public sphere where emotionalism and misinformation are the main tools used in attempts to turn people against what is frankly a very beneficial technology – simply because it stirs primal fears about changing ‘nature’. All the hysterical foretellings of mass death and runaway mutation that once surrounded this ‘Pandora’s Box’ have been shown to be patently false; but rather than moderate their position, the groups that oppose GM have simply switched argument, always focussing on an apparent complexity that is in effect a triviality. At the same time other sources of potential public danger are neglected or even championed by the self-same organisations, simply because they appear to be more ‘natural’.

    Mark’s claim that those anti-GM are anti-science refers precisely to this nature myth – but by extension would apply to anybody whose superstitions or ‘spiritual’ beliefs meant that they could only see evidence which supports their existing world view. His conversion on GM is truly admirable as it means that (with great personal difficulty no doubt) he has been able to set aside precisely those prejudices.

    To be blunt Doug, none of the points you set down here make the case for banning GM, even if they were true. At most they would suggest the need for extra precautions, research or a change in practise. So why exactly did you write this essentially personal attack? It certainly doesn’t feed into that scientific debate you claim to be so worried about. It comes across more like jealousy. Is an ‘uncritical reception’ by the media supposed to be exclusively reserved for pronouncements made by the UCS? Well, I’m sure you’ll get your turn.

    • David, Thanks for the response, and i agree that neither Mark Lynas nor me should be able to settle the debates about genetic engineering. That’s exactly the point! My complaint is that misinformation (on all sides), in this case, from Lynas, has often been the focus of the media rather than real debates about the science–including the inevitable interface between science, technology, and the broader society. My complaint about Lynas is that instead of engaging in this more important debate, which is occurring mostly outside the mainstream media, he focuses on the fringes. How GE is developed, by whom, and for who’s benefit. how it is regulated (what is the proper level of regulation), what are the implications for public investment in GE vs. other (more effective, in my view) agricultural technologies are all important and difficult issues, which are rarely addressed well in the media.

      Many of us have never felt that GE was going to cause mass deaths or destroy the environment, that again is really a straw man compared to the real science issues. I suppose the GE industry and people like Lynas would like nothing better than to keep the debate about fringe issues that can be easily dismissed.

      As to your last points, my arguments are not intended to suggest that GE should be banned. That is not our position, and I never wrote that it was. I urge you to take the time to read our more detailed work on this issue. Here is an overview of our positions on GE: .

      Although we are highly critical of several aspects of GE, we have also said that it has provided some benefits. Additional precaution, better regulations, changing research priorities is exactly what we advocate. Please see the recommendations at the end of our reports, and you will find exactly that–nothing about banning GE. Our assessment is that the benefits of GE are relatively minor, and are offset to a significant degree by the predominant development of GE as an extension of monoculture agriculture, which while productive is also highly destructive of the environment and rural society, and has lead to problems like millions of acres of herbicide resistant weeds and so on. There are also opportunity costs in heavily investing in GE rather than more effective technologies like breeding and agroecology. These are areas for legitimate debate, but I do not see Lynas acknowledging the validity of discussion about any of these things–which is a large part of the reason for my blog post.

  • Declan

    Many thanks for this rebuttal Doug. There’s another simplistic but blatant error (lie?) in Lynas’ piece – he claimed in an obvious attempt at unjust smearing that the GM blight-resistant potato trial in Ireland was blocked by the Irish Green Party. The trial actually went ahead last summer, & it was an NGO called No2GM, not the Greens, that tried unsuccessfully to block it!

    The Irish Times – Friday, September 7, 2012
    Controversial GM potato trial to yield results in weeks
    “A CONTROVERSIAL study into the environmental impact of genetically modified (GM) potatoes in Oak Park, Co Carlow, is expected to start showing results within weeks.

    Almost two weeks ago, the agricultural development body Teagasc planted 24 GM potato plants that have improved resistance to late potato blight alongside conventional potato plants.”

    Also, I thought you’d like to know he’s just published another disgraceful puff-piece on his website attacking you. He holds “the UCS responsible for a significant proportion of modern-day global warming, thanks to its fiercely-held anti-nuclear ideology,” & claims that “Any scientists working for the UCS leave their credentials at the door”. You can read the rest of his rubbish (he doesn’t actually address one specific criticism of yours in any kind of a meaningful way) here:

    Interesting to note he hasn’t opened it up to comments!

    Best wishes,

    • Mary

      Are you suggesting the Irish Green party supported the potato? I’d love to see evidence of that.

      But I did remember seeing that they were working with other groups to stop it:
      “The Green Party has been invited to work alongside other national groups such as the Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association (IOFGA).”

      The No2GM site isn’t entirely clear on who they worked with. Are you sure there was no Green Party involvement? No coordination at all?

      In any case, I’m hearing good things on those potato trials, so that could save a lot of spray eventually.

      I will admit that Mark was wrong on the Amish. They do use GMOs if they want to.

      • Declan

        Mark was incorrect or lied when he stated that the potato trial didn’t go ahead. It’s as simple as that. I wonder how many more mistakes or lies are in his polemic?

        And then consider this – not only did the trial go ahead, it went ahead before a three-month judicial review period had elapsed. But breaking scientific & regulatory rules is a common tactic with biotech:

        “Unfortunately, it is impossible to verify that genetically modified crops perform as advertised. That is because agritech companies have given themselves veto power over the work of independent researchers.”

        “Under the threat of litigation, scientists cannot test a seed to explore the different conditions under which it thrives or fails. They cannot compare seeds from one company against those from another company. And perhaps most important, they cannot examine whether the genetically modified crops lead to unintended environmental side effects.”

        EFSA criticised by European Court of Auditors over conflicts of interest

        EFSA’s revolving door to biotech industry unacceptable

        EU food safety chief forced to quit GM lobby role
        “Questions raised over why European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) chair Diana Banati failed to make clear her connections to International Life Science Institute (ILSI), which advises biotech giants like Monsanto, Bayer and BASF”

        Of course the Greens didn’t support it, but NO2GM took out the injunction. Just how many things can Mark Lynas & his supporters get wrong?

  • Lisa Trimble

    Spot on Doug and thank you for reminding us that there are rational scientists who can see the difference between scientific data and ideology. Spend a few days debating the pro-GM ones and you start to wonder why so many of them are unpleasant and aggressive, as well as unwilling to address the evidence put forward to them.

  • Kim Williams-Guillen

    Great post Doug — pithy and to the point.

  • Jamie Ross

    If you have to read a lable on your food, you’re not eating healthy…..