It’s not often that you hear someone stand up in front of a microphone and tell the world they have been wrong about a high-profile issue. But that’s exactly what Mark Lynas did last week at the Oxford Farming Conference in Oxford, England, when he renounced his long-held belief that genetically modified foods are dangerous and offered a full-throated defense of the technology as a means of feeding a growing population without devastating the environment.
“I apologize for having spent several years ripping up GM crops,” Lynas told his receptive audience on Thursday. “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 is a journalist and activist whose main focus is on environmental issues. He is author of the books “Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet” and “God Species: How the Planet Can Survive the Age of Humans.” He explained that it was his research into climate change science that forced him to confront his long-held beliefs about the dangers of GMO foods:
“I guess you’ll be wondering – what happened between 1995 and now that made me not only change my mind but come here and admit it? Well, the answer is fairly simple: I discovered science.”
Until that time, he said, his views about genetically engineered foods were shaped by a combination of several nonscientific forces, including a mistrust of big corporations, fear of unchecked technology and gut-level queasiness.
“When I first heard about Monsanto’s GM soya [soybeans] I knew exactly what I thought. Here was a big American corporation with a nasty track record, putting something new and experimental into our food without telling us. Mixing genes between species seemed to be about as unnatural as you can get – here was humankind acquiring too much technological power; something was bound to go horribly wrong. These genes would spread like some kind of living pollution. It was the stuff of nightmares.
“These fears spread like wildfire, and within a few years GM was essentially banned in Europe, and our worries were exported by NGOs like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth to Africa, India and the rest of Asia, where GM is still banned today. This was the most successful campaign I have ever been involved with.”
To help fan those fears, Lynas said, “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.”
In his work on climate change, Lynas said he was particularly frustrated with people who refused to acknowledge that the planet was getting warmer.
“I found myself arguing constantly with people who I considered to be incorrigibly anti-science, because they wouldn’t listen to the climatologists and denied the scientific reality of climate change. So I lectured them about the value of peer-review, about the importance of scientific consensus and how the only facts that mattered were the ones published in the most distinguished scholarly journals.”
Eventually, it dawned on him that he was guilty of the very same things when it came to genetically modified foods. After writing an anti-GM article in the British newspaper the Guardian in 2008, Lynas was struck by one particular comment from a reader who questioned the logic of being opposed to genetic engineering simply because big corporations were in favor of it.
“One does not fight the corporate misdeeds of the automotive industry, for instance, by demanding that the wheel must be banned,” the commenter, writing under the alias “Fossil,” concluded.
Fossil’s words prompted Lynas to read up on the science of GMOs. “I discovered that one by one my cherished beliefs about GM turned out to be little more than green urban myths,” he said. To wit:
“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 Terminator Technology [which was meant to make plants produce sterile, unusable seeds] was robbing farmers of the right to save seed. It turned out that hybrids did that long ago, and that Terminator never happened.
“I’d assumed that no one wanted GM. Actually what happened was that Bt cotton [which grows its own pesticide to fight bollworm and other pests] 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.”
Most importantly, Lynas said, genetic engineering is a key tool that can help farmers feed the 10 billion people who will be living on Earth in the not-too-distant future without having to convert all the world’s rain forests into farmland. Between 1961 and 2010, he said, technologies that improved crop yields spared the need to plow an area twice the size of South America.