Few blokes in the streets of London or anywhere in the Western world can point East African villages like Namulongo and Mapinga on the map, not to mention pronouncing them with their precise local accent. Yet these are the datelines where British journalist Mark Lynas this week witnessed world-class science giving hope to the poor in Africa.
Fifteen years ago, Mark was an anti-GMO activist, quote, determined to ensure that biotechnology was never adopted.“During this time I personally destroyed GMO (genetically modified) crops in the fields with activist groups. I co-organised the first-ever occupation of Monsanto HQ in the UK. And I wrote in the media and in activist literature about the great threat that I thought GMOs posed to the environment,” Mark said at a public lecture in Dar es Salaam this week.
Call them confessions, if you like, but these were words of triumph over personal folly, thanks to the technology he once sought to demonise. Early this year, Mark stunned the world when he ‘confessed’ to wrongdoing in a speech to the Oxford Farmers Conference which went viral on the internet and has since faced an outpouring of questions over his change of mind.
“I got this wrong. I have already made my public apology so I will not make another one today. But the reason I am here is because I feel a weight of personal responsibility for the widespread misunderstandings about GMOs,” Mark said at a public lecture hosted by Tanzania’s chapter of the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB), which has a presence in six countries across Africa.
“In my view the controversy over GMOs represents one of the greatest science communications failures of the past half-century,” Mark said, arguing that millions, if not billions of people had come to believe a story about GMOs “which is not just wrong in parts but across the board is the precise opposite of the scientific truth.”
And, that’s precisely the ‘scientific truth’ he looked in the face at remote villages in East Africa over the past week – and still counting. At Namulongo in Uganda last Wednesday, a research scientist plucked two cassava leaves, one already yellowing from ‘disease’ and other robust and ‘immune’ from the disease. You guessed right: one of these leaves was from a non-GM parent and the other from a transgenic (GM) plant – and there aren’t any prizes for the right guess!
At Mapinga village, some 40km to the north-west of Dar es Salaam, Mark saw how Tanzania’s own presidential science laureate Dr Joseph Ndunguru is helping once obscure poor farmers change their lives by farming disease-free cassava – made possible by the latest advances in agricultural biotech. Yet the controversy holds.
“Some of the blame for this failure of global understanding lies with companies who made overblown claims about GMOs in the early years and failed to address public concerns adequately.
“Some of the blame also lies with scientists, who failed to inform society of the real benefits of their work, even when the scale of the challenge became clear.
“And I personally share some of the blame myself, for the years I spent as an anti-GMO activist. During this time I personally destroyed GMO crops in the fields with activist groups. I co-organised the first-ever occupation of Monsanto HQ in the UK. And I wrote in the media and in activist literature about the great threat that I thought GMOs posed to the environment,” Mark says.
In Tanzania, pseudoscience from anti-GM lobby groups and people parading as experts from western NGOs is still rampant and borders on myth and religion. Not surprisingly, people from the audience during this week’s public lecture peddled lots of myths about GMOs causing cancer or taking genes from fish and putting them in tomatos, or making seeds sterile or whatever.
To Mark, the time has now come for everyone with a commitment to the primacy of the scientific method and evidence-based policy-making to decisively reject the anti-GMO conspiracy theory and to work together to begin to undo the worldwide damage that it has caused over the last decade and a half.
This is more than just an academic concern, he says, and warns that biotechnology in itself isn’t the ultimate ‘silver bullet.’
“But it can help us address the colliding imperatives of population growth, ecological damage and climate change. If the activists succeed in banning GMO crops worldwide, then they will have denied our scientists a vital tool for promoting food security and sustainability in an era of accelerating crisis,” he said.
So how did he come to change his mind? First, he examined his own concerns. He felt that genetic engineering was crossing a line that should not be crossed, and was giving humanity too much power to mix genes between unrelated species. And, this is also what most Tanzanians still feel to date which gives many the reason to be ‘cautious’ about GMOs.
“But here is what I got wrong. I did not really understand that DNA is a universal code, and that is all it is. And all living things share this system, from flies, to trees to people. By the way, we share 30 percent of our genome with carrots and wheat, and 80% of our genome with mice,” he argued.
Of course, this doesn't make anyone part-carrot and part-mouse, it makes people fully human and entirely part of the great interconnected web of life on Earth. “And note that there is nothing carroty about carrot DNA and mousey about mouse DNA - DNA is just a system of four molecular building blocks whose sequence in the famous double helix determines what characteristics the organism will have,” he says.
At an individual level, he argued that most DNA sequences encode for specific proteins -- and that’s all they do. “So you can take the DNA sequence out of one organism and put it into another by genetic engineering, and all that will happen is that the protein that is encoded by the gene in the donor organism will now also be expressed also in the recipient.”
“Speaking of taking over the world, this brings me to the second main concern I had as an activist against GM in the 1990s. This was that the technology was somehow going to allow the big seed and chemical corporations like Monsanto to take over the world's food supply through patented crops which stopped farmers saving their seed.
“We were especially concerned about these so-called suicide seeds or terminator technology, which would make seeds non-reproducing.
“But the reality is that all GMO seeds on the market do in fact breed true, unless they are also hybrids of course. Terminator technology was never in fact developed, so this idea that somehow farmers are planting seeds that will not biologically reproduce because they are GMO is another myth.
“There is also a lot of hypocrisy in the anti-corporate argument. Many of those who protest about big corporations use phones made by Apple and computers with Microsoft operating systems to tweet and email their anti-corporate concerns,” he argued.
Likewise, it is also illogical that multinationals such Monsanto would try to stop African scientists fromm developing African crops for African farmers in the public sector -- crops which will be offered to farmers without patents or technology fees.
Today, Mark is unequivocal. “The science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe.
“The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society, and every other respected organization that has examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion: consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques,” he said
Was he bribed?
In Tanzania, you cannot do a decent job without people pointing fingers.
“I have of course never taken a penny in funding from a single biotechnology company, and I never will. “But I also don't like to be intimidated, and I don't like to think of myself as a coward who is afraid to face up to a controversy. So when I was invited to give a speech at the Oxford Farming Conference earlier this year I decided to put all my cards on the table and speak from the heart,” he asserted.
These are vital lessons for a country like our which is still so divided that our scientists literally have their hands tied behind their backs.