An environmental science writer takes a deep look at the ramifications of genetically modified organisms over the past four decades.
In the 1990s, Lynas (Nuclear 2.0: Why a Green Future Needs Nuclear Power, 2014, etc.) was not content to just march against GMOs; he would wade into test plots at night, swinging a machete at the Frankenplants. However, he admits that he didn’t really know a strand of DNA from a corn tassel, so he began intensive research on GMOs. Fortunately, by the late 1990s, there was a large body of work on GMOs, plenty of it suggesting a healthy side to their nature. In the 1980s, writes the author, “we were against the whole forward march of scientific research in the area of biotechnology and the idea of technological control over intimate life processes such as reproduction.” As Lynas dug deeper into the literature—from Greenpeace to the National Academy of Sciences, respected peer-reviewed journals to the “low-ranking journal called Environmental Sciences Europe”—he found compelling examples of GMOs doing good, especially regarding the diminished need for cropland and increased production with less insecticide intervention. The author moves back and forth through time, charting changes in attitude as the results came in. For example, in 1974, the NAS voiced “serious concern that these artificial recombinant-DNA could prove biologically hazardous.” Then in 1987, they claimed that the risks associated with GMOs were “the same as those associated with the introduction of unmodified organisms.” Lynas is aghast that biosafety laws have been stymied by anti–GMO advocates in famine-scorched lands. He is also wary of pesticide and herbicide use and the costs associated with GMOs for poor farmers. He understands patents as a spur for research, but he is appalled that nearly half the corn crop—monocultured, government-supported—goes to biofuels.
In this well-tempered, smoothly written book, Lynas calls for balance. Suspicion of all scientific discoveries will lead to further famine and global warming, while unscrutinized experimentation is prone to folly and corporate profit-gouging.