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Why Science Canít Break the GMO Stalemate 

Tess Doezema

The debate won’t be settled technocratically because it’s about technocracy itself

The debate on genetically modified organisms has become stuck, with participants entrenched in two opposing and immovable camps. By its title, Mark Lynas’s new book, Seeds of Science: Why We Got It So Wrong on GMOs, hints that it might offer some fresh insight as to how or why we got stuck in this impasse, and perhaps also how we might find a way out.

Alas, this hope is dashed. While purporting to provide a clear-eyed, science-based perspective on the topic, Lynas instead rehashes familiar arguments from the last two decades of debate. His rambling narrative is peppered with a selective history of key scientific breakthroughs, some soul-searching about the nature of technology, an affirmation of the value of the natural environment, and ultimately a plea for Greenpeace and other anti-GMO activists to stop spreading “post-truth.”

Since a key selling point for Lynas is that he is a convert — a former GMO opponent who saw the light — the book remains useful as a case study. What has gone wrong with the debate such that even someone who has occupied both sides has no new insight into why the two continue to talk past each other?

The central problem that plagues Lynas’s argument is the same one that plagues the GMO debate in general: The conceit that the battle will be won by establishing a unitary scientific Truth about whether genetically modified organisms are good or bad. This view from nowhere is impossible to achieve for an issue bound up with so many questions of social and cultural meaning, from humanity’s relation to nature, to the significance of life, to the role of markets in creating, shaping, and producing it.

What ought to be genetically engineered, when, and to what ends — these are questions far broader than biologists can answer. Lynas’s book reveals how damaging the effort to pretend otherwise has been.

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Tess Doezema is a graduate research associate at Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society and the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Science Policy & Governance.

Tess Doezema, "Why Science Can’t Break the GMO Stalemate," The New Atlantis, Number 58, Spring 2019, pp. 28-36.