Anti-GM activist apologizes for past

Jan 11, 2013
by WLJ

In phrases reminiscent of a religious conversion, one of the architects of the western world’s social and political paranoia over genetically modified (GM) crops has seen the light of scientific reason.

Now, pleading on behalf of the earth, the environment and the multitudes of hungry people everywhere, he is urging his past compatriots of “antis” to join him in support of GM crops.

Thursday, Jan. 3, saw the most recent Oxford Farming Conference where journalist, environmental activist, and now ex-anti-GM agitator, Mark Lynas described in no uncertain terms how he came to support GM technology and why others should, too. In his 51-minute speech, he apologized for his past activities and urged others to accept GM technology.

“I want to start with some apologies. For the record, here and upfront, I apologize for having spent several years ripping up GM crops. I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid-1990s, and that I thereby assisted in demonizing an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment.

“As an environmentalist, and someone who believes that everyone in this world has a right to a healthy and nutritious diet of their choosing, I could not have chosen a more counter-productive path. I now regret it completely.”

Lynas described how his moment of scientific epiphany came when he really analyzed his own behavior for consistency. His research on the issue of global warming really forced him to see how unscientific he was being in his treatment of GM technology. While he and his fellow climate-focused environmentalists preached on the value of peer-reviewed scientific articles and the need for research-backed decisions in one area, he ignored the same on the topic of GM technology.

“Obviously this contradiction was untenable,” he said. In seeing his personal inconsistency, he went out and began researching the science behind GMOs (genetically modified organisms).

“So I did some reading. And I discovered that one by one, my cherished beliefs about GM turned out to be little more than green urban myths.”

Lynas described these myths in the terms of religious belief, using words and phrases like “ideology,” “beliefs” and “environmental orthodoxy.” He pointed out from his experience that the fervor surrounding the anti-GM movement, which he helped create, was more about the images, the aesthetics of a romanticized vision of nature, and making anything considered “unnatural” out to be the enemy.

“We employed a lot of imagery about scientists in their labs cackling demonically as they tinkered with the very building blocks of life. Hence the Frankenstein food tag— this absolutely was about deep-seated fears of scientific powers being used secretly for unnatural ends.

What we didn’t realize at the time was that the real Frankenstein’s monster was not GM technology, but our reaction against it.”

As rejection of GM technology is a large part of the organic food movement, Lynas had a fair amount to say about organic production. And most of it was what one could call environmental blasphemy, particularly in the UK.

“[P]erhaps the most pernicious myth of all is that organic production is better, either for people or the environment,” he said, mirroring the sentiments of Norman Borlaug of “Green Revolution” fame. He went on to quote the well-worn details of organic production’s drastically reduced yield per acre and larger use of resources compared to conventional production which includes and embraces GMOs. Such data should be familiar to anyone aware of Dr. Judith Capper and her work, as the matter of defining sustainable agriculture by resources uses versus production has been her battle cry for years now.

Lynas went on in depth and with much passion about the value of technological advancement in the global food system, particularly in light of the growing global population and the growing middle class.

“We are going to have to feed 9.5 billion hopefully much less poor people by 2050 on about the same land area as we use today, using limited fertilizer, water and pesticides and in the context of a rapidly changing climate.”

Lynas put the growing population in perspective by pointing out it’s not that more people are having more children, just that those children who are being born are surviving more and longer than in any other generation. He also schooled the audience on some of the history of early GM crops, their successes in feeding the world, and the efforts to destroy them. Of particular focus for him were the successes of some developing countries in reducing their needed land resources for agriculture by using GM crops, and their improved yields.

“So how much land worldwide was spared in the process thanks to these dramatic yield improvements, for which chemical inputs played a crucial role? The answer is 3 billion hectares, or the equivalent of two South Americas.

“There would have been no Amazon rainforest left today without this improvement in yields. Nor would there be any tigers in India or orangutans in Indonesia. That is why I don’t know why so many of those opposing the use of technology in agriculture call themselves environmentalists.”

If, for Lynas, the discovery of science was the catalyst for his conversion to support of GM technology, Borlaug was his patron saint. In the more history-oriented portions of Lynas’ speech, the efforts of Borlaug featured heavily. He also quoted the Green Revolution’s architect often, as in the following, which came around 2009.

“To quote Norman Borlaug again: ‘I now say that the world has the technology—either available or well advanced in the research pipeline—to feed on a sustainable basis a population of 10 billion people.

The more pertinent question today is whether farmers and ranchers will be permitted to use this new technology? While the affluent nations can certainly afford to adopt ultra lowrisk positions, and pay more for food produced by the so-called ‘organic’ methods, the 1 billion chronically undernourished people of the low income, food-deficit nations cannot.’” A good portion or Lynas’ presentation was spent castigating his own British and European fellows for what he called their arrogance in inflicting and inciting anti-GM sentiments in and on the rest of the world. He told stories of efforts of global non-profit organizations, like Greenpeace, and European governments to halt the development of GM technology in developing countries, calling it immoral and inhumane as well as likening it to burning books before people were given the chance to read them.

“The risk today is not that anyone will be harmed by GM food, but that millions will be harmed by not having enough food, because a vocal minority of people in rich countries wants their meals to be what they consider natural.”

Lynas eventually closed his impassioned presentation at the conference with a few added barbs to those whom he described as his affluent and well-fed peers, and with a final plea to those listening that they reconsider their positions on GM technology and truly look at the science supporting it. His was an argument as much moral and humanitarian in nature as it was reason- and science-based.

“So I challenge all of you today to question your beliefs in this area and to see whether they stand up to rational examination. Always ask for evidence, as the campaigning group Sense About Science advises, and make sure you go beyond the self-referential reports of campaigning NGOs [non-governmental organizations].

“But most important of all, farmers should be free to choose what kind of technologies they want to adopt. If you think the old ways are the best, that’s fine. You have that right. What you don’t have the right to do is to stand in the way of others who hope and strive for ways of doing things differently, and hopefully better.” — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor