One of the staunchest critics of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), environmentalist Mark Lynas, recently said he had been mistaken and that the threat of GMOs had been exaggerated by him and others for years.
According to an article on Slate.com, “If you fear genetically modified food, you may have Mark Lynas to thank. By his own reckoning, British environmentalist helped spur the anti-GMO movement in the mid-‘90s, arguing as recently at 2008 that big corporations’ selfish greed would threaten the health of both people and the Earth.
Thanks to the efforts of Lynas and people like him, governments around the world — especially in Western Europe, Asia, and Africa — have hobbled GM research, and NGOs like Greenpeace have spurned donations of genetically modified foods. But Lynas has changed his mind — and he’s not being quiet about it.”
In an address to the Oxford Farming Conference earlier this month, Lynas began with an apology: “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.”
The about-face is especially surprising given that Lynas was not just a foot soldier in the anti-GMO movement but author of three books on environmentalism and climate change. Don’t get him wrong: Mark Lynas is still all about saving the planet, he just believes that GMOs can play an important role in doing so, and should be welcomed, not shunned.
Rejecting any default demonization of Big Farma, Lynas researched what the scientific evidence revealed:
“I discovered that one by one my cherished beliefs about GM turned out to be little more than green urban myths. I’d assumed that it would increase the use of chemicals. It turned out that pest-resistant cotton and maize needed less insecticide. I’d assumed that GM benefited only the big companies. It turned out that billions of dollars of benefits were accruing to farmers needing fewer inputs…. I’d assumed that no one wanted GM. Actually what happened was that Bt cotton was pirated into India and roundup ready soya into Brazil because farmers were so eager to use them. I’d assumed that GM was dangerous. It turned out that it was safer and more precise than conventional breeding using mutagenesis for example; GM just moves a couple of genes, whereas conventional breeding mucks about with the entire genome in a trial and error way. But what about mixing genes between unrelated species? The fish and the tomato? Turns out viruses do that all the time, as do plants and insects and even us—it’s called gene flow.”
Citing varied environmental pressures (including an ever-increasing global population needing to be fed, global warming, the amount of land required to yield crops, and diminishing availability of freshwater for irrigation), Lynas concluded that concerns about GMOs range from the fabricated to the exaggerated, and are often based on a logical fallacy.
“If you look at the situation without prejudice, much of the debate, both in terms of anti-biotech and organic, is simply based on the naturalistic fallacy — the belief that natural is good, and artificial is bad. This is a fallacy because there are plenty of entirely natural poisons and ways to die, as the relatives of those who died from E. coli poisoning would tell you.”
Lynas concluded his presentation stating that farmers should not be pressured into embracing nor rejecting pesticides and genetically-modified crops; they should be free to choose what kind of technologies suit them.
Pesticides and GMO crops are just tools, and like any tool we can choose whether or not to use it. But if that tool is to be branded as dangerous — and impede progress toward feeding an increasingly hungry and populated planet — it should be because of hard scientific evidence of a real threat. According to Lynas, that evidence simply isn’t there.
Many anti-GMO activists have branded Lynas a traitor and a shill for Big Farma. But he offers another explanation: “I discovered science,” he said, “and in the process I hope I became a better environmentalist.”
Photo: Mark Lynas Credit: Corbis