Curse of the Frankenfoods

15 September 2013. Source: ABC Radio National

Health and safety fears have restricted the growth of genetically modified foods for decades. But is a hungry world, a new generation of consumers, and the weight of scientific evidence loosening the grip of the Frankenfoods curse? Ian Walker set aside his long standing antipathy towards GM foods to investigate.

Frankenfood. It’s the meme that keeps giving…the brainchild of an English professor from Boston named Paul Lewis, whose timing was as impeccable as his rhetorical flourish was devastating.

‘Ever since Mary Shelley’s baron rolled his improved human flesh out of the lab,’ Lewis wrote, ‘scientists have been bringing such good things to life… If they [the GMO corporations] want to sell us Frankenfood, perhaps it’s time to gather the villagers, light some torches and head to the castle.’

It was 1992 and the first GM crops were coming online for approval by America’s Food and Drug Administration.  Lewis’ turn of phrase was fabulously alliterative, catchy as a car commercial, and conjured powerful notions of something amiss.  Fish genes in tomatoes.  Nature being tampered with.  Humans playing God.  Mad scientists in their labs cackling demonically as they tinkered with the very building blocks of life.

In reality, though, scientists have been tinkering with crops since the dawn of agriculture, making them more productive, resistant to disease…shorter, fatter, bigger, better.  The development of hybrid crops in the 1930s was a game-changing moment.  Then, in the 90s, ethical, environmental and food safety concerns collided with panic about mad-cow disease to produce a backlash against the notion of crop science gone too far.  Frankenfood provided the frightening metaphor that tilted the war of words wildly in favour of the anti-GM warriors.

‘It feeds into a very deep-seated and long-held fear of technology that people have,’ explains former anti-GM activist Mark Lynas.  ‘And that’s where the Frankenstein association is so powerful.  It’s something humans are doing which they shouldn’t do.  You even get this back in Genesis with the Tree of Knowledge.  So it’s a very strong myth that goes right through human culture.’

And, while scientists weren’t exactly being burnt at the stake, some took Lewis’ rallying cry to heart and found righteous cause to destroy important scientific experiments in the trial crop stages. Lynas excelled in this for nearly two decades, leading campaigns in the UK and Europe.

‘It was my life,’ he says. ‘We did all of these kinds of night-time actions against GM crops, going and chopping them down. We thought we were decontaminating the landscape. We thought what we were doing was environmentally responsible and important.’

What he didn’t realise at the time, Lynas says now, was that the real Frankenstein’s monster was not GM technology, but the reaction against it by people like him and his anti-GM cohorts.  Back in January 2013, his public apology to the Oxford Farming Conference for what he now describes as his ‘years of wrongheadedness’ made headlines around the world.  At the time, it was nerve-wracking and heartfelt.

‘I’d kind of had enough, and I just wanted to put all of my cards on the table and speak from the heart, really, and say, “I got this wrong”. I think everyone else in the anti-GM movement has got this wrong. We need to take stock of where we are and I for one am issuing an apology.’

Oxford was a fitting place for such a dramatic change of heart, being the same venue where Lynas had earned notoriety for throwing a cream pie in the face of Bjorn Lomborg, an outspoken critic of eco-apocalyptic agendas.  ‘Pies for lies,’ yelled Lynas as his underarm lob hit its target.

This time, he was asking for forgiveness from a gathering of farmers and scientists, soberly recanting ‘demonizing an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment…I could not have chosen a more counter-productive path.’  No-one preaches better than a convert.

Lynas is a respected environmentalist, and a strong campaigner on climate change who’s written award-winning books. What irked him was the slow realisation that his passionately held views on GM were inconsistent with his reliance on evidence-based science when arguing his position on human-induced climate change.  When it came to GM, he admits, he actively ignored the weight of evidence in favour of biotechnology.

The argument he puts is that an estimated three trillion meals containing food derived from GM-bred plants have been eaten in 29 countries over 15 years without one single substantiated case of harm. ‘You are more likely,’ he quips, ‘to get hit by an asteroid than to get hurt by GM food.’

Mark Lynas was a big fish in the anti-GM pond.  Within days of his conference appearance, the video of his speech went viral.  There are now versions in more than a dozen languages, translated by volunteers in different countries around the globe.

The Lynas conversion was a revelation for journalist Jon Entine, who wrote up the story for Forbes magazine. Entine saw it as the potential dynamite it was for the ongoing GM debate. But, he says, it also pointed to a turning point in our thinking about the interface between technology and the natural world.

‘Every once in a while our society faces major inflection points when certain technologies come into play,’ Entine explains. ‘We saw it in the 1800s with the railroad, we’ve seen it with nuclear technology, we’ve seen it with computer technology. And I really think that we’re in this kind of inflection period with biotechnology.’

‘It is literally changing the way we can think about nature.  And I mean in a good sense. I don’t believe we’re violating God’s way, or any kind of natural order of things, but it is a profound experience, which is why it’s scary to many people.’

As Entine pointed out in his article, Lynas took a somewhat slow-road to Damascus. It happened over a number of years of realising that, while he was backing the claims in his various books about climate change with scientific evidence, he was doing the opposite when it came to GM.  He actively ignored the weight of the evidence in favour.  Finally, Lynas says, he had to admit his own cherished beliefs about GM turned out to be little more than ‘green urban myths’.

‘There were so many myths,’ he recounts. ‘Probably first off was this idea that somehow there’s a unique property that genes have when they belong in different species, so that there’s something carroty about carrot genes or fishy about fish genes. So I don’t think I realised that DNA is this universal code, and it’s just a number…you know, four sequences of letters, basically, is how we interpret it, and you can chop and change it between different species with actually very little impact.’

As a new convert, Lynas has joined the likes of Jon Entine, as a champion of the potential benefits of biotechnology.  His conversion has coincided, or highlighted, a new urgency to feed a hungry world, a new generation of consumers, more scrutiny of anti-GM activism, plus the weight of scientific evidence showing it is safe.

Lynas makes the case strongly that it’s time for scientists to speak out about the benefits of biotechnology.  For too long, he says, they’ve been cowed by the strident fear campaigns around Frankenfood.  And, it seems, some are fighting back and talking up a new phase of the technology.  Like Australia’s Professor James Dale.

‘We’re just starting to see the revolution,’ says Dale, the Director of the QUT’s Centre for Tropical Crops and Biocommodities.  ‘Virtually all of the really big crop genomes have been sequenced, we’re now starting to identify what genes in those genomes are going to be really useful.’

The prospects and potential of what’s to come has been dubbed ‘Biotech Version 2.0’.  And, Dale is convinced, it’s likely to further sway the debate.

‘A lot of it is going to be targetted towards the things that we’re really concerned about, with climate change, with drought, with flooding, submersion. So we’re starting to see those traits coming through and the next generation of GM crops are going to be of much greater benefit to humanity than round one.’

Dale’s Banana 21 Project is a case in point. It’s funded by the Gates Foundation and is tackling Vitamin A deficiency in some of the poorest parts of Africa by enriching a staple food—in this case, bananas for Uganda—via GM. 

It might help save the 670-thousand or so kids who die from micronutrient malnutrition every year, and half as many again who go blind.  These genetically-modified ‘golden bananas’ have been developed in Australia and Professor Dale claims the results so far are very promising.

‘We have provitamin A Cavendish bananas with double our target level of provitamin A, so that’s fabulous. We now know which genes to use and which promoters to use. We transferred that technology to Uganda, and they now have their bananas in the field. Just very recently they identified a line which also has double the target level of provitamin A.  It’s really exciting, so we’re now moving into development phase.’

The project’s on track to produce enriched bananas ready for human eating trials by next year.  But not if some of the NGOs in Uganda have their way.  Lynas has just returned from a visit there with some hair-raising tales of treachery by anti GM activists.

He says he’s heard stories from local MPs who have had activists going into their Muslim constituencies telling people that the scientists are putting pig genes into bananas—the bio-fortified and the bacteria-resistant bananas—which you wouldn’t be allowed to eat as a Muslim.

‘Literally, people have been going crazy about this,’ Lynas reports.  ‘There’s almost been violence breaking out. So, the anti-GM activists have stooped so low as to cause religious violence in order to stop this technology.’