Reflecting on science, society and GMOs

By David De Pue and Moritz Gallei

June 4, 2018

In the mid-1970s, Belgian molecular biologists Marc Van Montagu and Jeff Schell discovered a piece of circular DNA outside the chromosome of Agrobacterium tumefaciens that was responsible for inducing tumors in plants. They called it “Ti plasmid” and went on to uncover the mechanism behind the transfer of DNA from Agrobacterium to the infected plant. From the very beginning, Van Montagu and Schell believed that this gene transfer mechanism could be applied to engineer crops.

At roughly the same time as Mary-Dell Chilton and Monsanto, who were working in the United States, they were able to create the first genetically modified plant. Inspired by the many biotech start-ups they witnessed in the US, they decided to found their own Ghent-based company, Plant Genetic Systems, where they pioneered, among other applications, the insect-resistance Bt-trait in tobacco plants by incorporating the gene of the Bacillus thuringiensis toxin into the tobacco genome.  Bt-crops are still one of the most widely applied genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the world. Although no GMOs are currently cultivated in Belgium, due to controversies surrounding the technique in Europe, Ghent remains one of the world centers of plant research.

Van Montagu, now officially retired from Ghent University as professor emeritus, remains very committed to the science. He currently chairs International Plant Biotechnology Outreach (IPBO), which aims to inform the public on the GM products and technologies and organizes training sessions for students from developing countries.

David De Pue and Moritz Gallei, PhD students at Ghent University’s faculty of bioscience engineering, recently met with this respected GM pioneer and conducted a conversation that covered the controversies surrounding the use of agricultural biotechnology and stretched much further, towards the limits of rationality and the role of science in society.

The GM controversy

Beyond rejecting GM technology based on unfounded health risks, there are hefty concerns about the power concentration in the biotechnology market, best exemplified by the antipathy towards companies like Monsanto and Bayer. Despite strong public demands to act upon monopolistic market structures, leading political parties often defend and support powerful multinationals. Van Montagu, among others, argues that it is the lack of alternative narratives that leads to this contradiction:

“Multinationals have the physical and financial power. Why are so many people from liberal and conservative parties supporting multinationals? Because they believe that you cannot do it otherwise. They believe that you need some ‘industry captain’: some sort of dictator leading the corporation. Nevertheless, I do believe that you need persons with initiative, not inhibited by the fear of the unknown.”

Van Montagu emphasizes that it is worthwhile to question economic ideologies with profit maximization as its ultimate goal. However, the common confusion of technologies and their potential on the one hand, and the market structures they are embedded in on the other, seems to block much-needed diffusion of technologies that have the potential to sustainably intensify agriculture and thereby reduce the use of chemicals and minimize pressure on ecosystems and biodiversity.

All these pesticides change the composition in the soil, thereby possibly harming the soil microbiome. There are certainly arguments to use less chemicals in agriculture. It’s better to harness the defense mechanisms of the plant itself.

Another common criticism is the idea that GM technologies are driving monocultures in agricultural systems. Van Montagu rejects this idea without being less critical of the dominant role of monocultures:

There were monocultures in agriculture a long time before GMOs appeared. Monocultures are always negative. Agrobiodiversity, cultivating a lot of different crops and varieties, is obviously important. If you see how plant diseases evolve, how plants defend themselves to diseases, the more varieties, the more resilience to pathogens. It’s the economy that drives monocultures. It’s overpopulation that drives monocultures.”

Marc Van Montagu and the late Jeff Schell in 1993

Looking towards the future regarding public opinion on GM crops in Europe, Van Montagu stresses the role of success stories that will lead to a more widespread appreciation of the technology:

If you can demonstrate that high-yielding GMOs are useful in other parts of the world, it would also improve its acceptance in Europe. We can make disease-resistant potatoes for Rwanda and Burundi, if we do something to improve food security in Africa, people will appreciate it. Europe will follow one day.”

The limits of rationality

The GM debate is a typical example of a problem where scientific, socio-economic, and moral arguments are intertwined. Van Montagu emphasizes that science, society and daily life are three different things. The first deals with our physical world, the second is about establishing rules to make sure that all people can live together, an the last is about what makes our individual lives interesting — what we love, what gives us pleasure. We cannot ask all people to learn science. According to Van Montagu, that would be a silly rationalist idea. Furthermore, the people that do have a scientific vocation have to be modest:

“I believe that we still don’t know the most of our physical world. All that we know now pales in comparison to what we still have to discover.”

Even when we establish certain concepts by scientific analysis and rational thinking, sticking to our theories, concepts or ideas is not without danger:

“A lot of horrors were committed in the name of rational thinking. When you have an idea, which you consider to be logic, you always end up with the dictatorship of that idea, because you’re not flexible enough to challenge it. In the 1920s, genetics became eugenics because that was something society could understand: that there’s something genetic that discerns good from bad. If that is true, you could distinguish superior people from inferior people. People were doing this pseudoscientific eugenics research in Sweden, the United States and later, in the thirties, in Nazi Germany.”

People often assign moral attributes to nature that are simply not there, which is another pitfall to avoid:

“We feel what is good and what is bad, influenced by religion, society, political parties. This is very different from what nature is, from the real facts. Nature doesn’t know good or bad, that’s a concept that we created by living in society. Nature is there, you can observe it, and you can use knowledge of our natural world to create tools. The limited things you can really call bad are what threaten the society.”

Van Montagu stresses it’s important to avoid quick moral judgments. Moreover, we should all be critical of ourselves, constantly questioning our beliefs, prejudices, and ideas.

“We are all tricked by our own attitudes, we all have our biases. We are all imperfect: that is something crucial to realize.”

Although we have to be rational when we analyze things, it doesn’t mean that we can be rational all the time. Intuition has a great value:

“What gives us pleasure? What makes our lives qualitative? People enjoy their beliefs. People love science fiction. They love horror stories. You can enjoy all kinds of stories and still be rational. People should enjoy arts and stories, with all their fantasies. To some extent, the negation of science is amusing, as a story. We express ourselves with words that can be interpreted in so many ways. In society, there’s no black and white. Artists feel that two opposite things can be true at the same time. Some people say that artists are not social. Actually, they are very social. They know that there’s no black and white; they feel all nuances of life, almost like a shaman. Just with music and rhythm, people can enter a state of trance. We all have it in us.”

Role of science in society

In order to further build on the considerable advancements science has made to our everyday life, Van Montagu indicates the importance of flexibility in science:

“The ethics of science are different from the ethics of everyday life. See that you do everything correctly, stress the facts, be ready to change your ideas if needed, if observations or other work point in another direction.”

When it comes to the interaction between science and the broader society, Van Montagu sees a more active role by scientists as desirable. He stresses that the way in which scientists communicate is crucial, especially when it comes to sensitive topics like the environment, where both emotions and private interests can play a significant role:

“Talk about it, try to find the right words. People who are destroying natural ecosystems make money with doing so. You have to name this: these people are exploiting nature. If you can phrase it in a way that people pay attention, you can make a difference. However, you should avoid power arguments: ‘I know better, so I decide.’ Even if you find a very inconvenient truth.”

Further elaborating on the limited diffusion of promising innovations, Van Montagu underlines the importance of a more frequent and intense exchange between social and natural sciences:

“There’s an enormous need for sociological research on how to bring innovations to industry, and how the industry should deal with it. What people call ‘laws of economy’ are not like laws of nature. They are things that are constructed through ideology.”

Beyond his call for interdisciplinarity, Van Montagu emphasizes the need to broaden the curriculum of natural science students with aspects from social sciences:

“Something immensely important for universities is that one should also teach exact science students about society. What is society? What is sociology? What is economics? This is important to understand how decisions are made in the world.”

Finally, in an academic world where knowledge is highly available and accessible through university libraries, online courses, etc., Van Montagu highlights the critical need for instructors to shift from their traditional focus on knowledge transfer and instead promote reflection. The call for more debates and discussion around existing knowledge, and the way our societies deal with it, appears essential in an era where we see miseducation, misinformation and populism on a steep rise.

Suggested reading:

“It is a long way to GM agriculture,” the scientific story of Van Montagu, written by himself

Lack of scientific foundation for significant hazards of GM crops

Cultivated sweet potato, a “natural” GMO

“A Meta-Analysis of the Impacts of Genetically Modified Crops”

Impact of GM crops on biodiversity

“Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies”