Farming and food from two Upstate New York journalists

Environmentalist gets hate mail for endorsing GM crops

Former hater of genetically modified crops, Mark Lynas, started his speech at the Oxford Farming Conference last week with an apology:

For the record, here and upfront, I apologise 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 demonising 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.

So 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, and in the process I hope I became a better environmentalist.

Lynas says those who vilify GMOs are as anti-science as climate change-deniers.  He says many assumptions about seed biotechnology are wrong.

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 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 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.

After nearly an hour of speech-making, Lynas concluded:

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough. So my conclusion here today is very clear: the GM debate is over. It is finished. We no longer need to discuss whether or not it is safe – over a decade and a half with three trillion GM meals eaten there has never been a single substantiated case of harm. You are more likely to get hit by an asteroid than to get hurt by GM food. More to the point, people have died from choosing organic, but no-one has died from eating GM.

The speech has been downloaded more than 130-thousand times.  And obviously, not everyone agrees with Lynas, many for good reason.  For example, there are science-based arguments that crops genetically modified to be Roundup Ready have led to environmental harm.  They’ve led to the overuse of benign(ish) Roundup-type chemicals, and created a class of superweeds.  Farmers are reacting by using older, more dangerous chemicals to control them.  That’s certainly not as environmentally-friendly as Lynas suggests.  But his comments could help encourage civil discourse on the science of biotechnology.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case.  Farmers Weekly reports that Lynas has been getting hate mail from many environmentalists since speaking out – some calling him a shill for Monsanto.

One Twitter message was sent by the prominent anti-GM campaigner Vandana Shiva. It said: "Saying farmers should be free to grow GMOs, which can contaminate organic farms, is like saying rapists should have freedom to rape."

Mr Lynas replied: "Comparing me with rapists is disgusting and offensive. You are a reactionary fraud and an enemy of the poor."

This vituperative exchange shows just how deep-rooted views about GM crops can be.  And how supporters of biotechnology have so far lost the public relations battle – whether or not they have science on their side.

19 Comments

  1. You need to do more research on the so called super weed. It's merely resistant to the glyphosate and easily controled with a one time applicatio of an existing herbicide or the crop may be rotated and the weed controlled by cultivation.
    As for having lost the battle there are really only a small but vocal minority of folks who are really opposed to the technology.

  2. This is definitely a topic that could benefit from more facts and less emotion. Certainly the concerns about health effects of GMO consumption don't seem to have come true. But issues around long-term environmental effects and control of the seed supply have yet to be resolved.

    • Long term? Thirty years isn't enough?

  3. Well there's quite a lot to respond to here, but "enemy of the poor" seems like a fun place to start. The big companies that produce GM seed are engaged in the game of wealth concentration at the highest level. That farmers can make more with less inputs masks the fact that farmers still have to work themselves to death, while GM executives buy islands in the Caribbean. The poor…is anyone really concerned about the poor?…Commodity crops like corn and soy are the main foodstuffs of the poor. These foods, formerly known as "animal feed" are great if weight gain is the only goal, and cheap food undermines the hard work of those who grow better foods. Getting more and more people to spend their money on crops grown by fewer and fewer farmers is just another level in the wealth concentration game. Industrial seed for industrial farms producing industrial crops for industrial food manufacturers can only end up with industrial scale illness and industrial style medicine. The poor serve only to lubricate the money making machine.

    • Wat is an industrial farm?

      • Perhaps a better term would have been corporate farm"…that is to say, a farm or group of farms driven by their corporate connections to produce only for the commodity market, without much regard for the worker, the soil, or the environment.

        • I know of no such farms. Perhhaps you can be more spevific.

    • I am in total agrrement with your comments. As one who has suffered the effects of Thimet poisoning(through drift) I feel that the gmo's are only meant to eliminate any type of small family owned and operated farms. Who owns the land, controls the food, who controls the food, controls the people.

  4. i would like to "set emotions to the side" on this issue. but i know that might be tricky to do, since many folks are coming to this from personal perspectives/experiences.
    what i have noticed, is that ANY TECHNOLOGY OVER TIME can indeed show things going on that just were not "known" at the get go. the tobacco industry learned that lesson years ago, didn't they? law suits occurred many, MANY YEARS after that product was PROVEN BY SCIENCE what AWFUL EFFECTS that product had on the human body. even though, "back in the day" DOCTORS encouraged smoking "for health". (i know this from personal experience)
    wouldn't THAT situation be a lesson to learn from now? to more slowly?
    to NOT just continue to push this "new" GMO technology? or to just agree with "the science" that continues to suggest "everthing is fine"? when in reality, it might not be. no one has to smoke…but everyone has to EAT. so the idea here, is that MORE studies by CREDIBLE third party GROUPS should be encouraged rather than NOT encouraged. Monsanto will not release the GMO seeds to be tested. did you know this? so how can third party groups even TEST this technology if the CORPORATION HOLDING THE SEED PATENTS will not release the seed for this to happen? WHY NOT? what are they hiding IF this stuff is so great, eh?
    so research is happening is other areas instead. and many of those findings are indeed proving BY SCIENCE, that GMO products are not as "perfect" as the companies who are developing them, say they are.
    read the books WHEAT BELLY (not GMO but talks of how WHEAT has changed), and SEEDS OF DECEPTION and GENETIC ROULETTE (both GMO.
    there are other books and research papers coming out all the time now, because 30 YEARS have gone by. and the effects are tracking out for this to be seen/noted. with each passing month and year, it is closing the window on this GMO or "GE" situation. but, sadly the TRUE end result might never be "known" if the crops growing are only from GMO stocks. where are the "PURE" seeds? WHO OWNS ALL OF THIS? and WHY??
    WHO IS BENEFITTING? follow the money trail to see.
    it certainly is NOT the family farm or small farm groups.
    as far as "what is an industrial farm"….man, look it up! small farms are disappearing all over, and WHO is buying that land? WHO is out there buying up large areas in pockets of american farmland? it is not always for housing development, but for LARGE CORPORATE CONTROLLED FARMS. WHO is behind that "corporate farm" name? there are not that many. find out WHO they are! and HOW THEY DO THIS…because it is happening!
    and then find out WHO FUNDS THEM! again, WHO/What is benefitting from owning the SEEDS and the LARGE TRACKS OF AMERICAN FARMLAND? and in some areas, the same "owners" also OWN THE WATER RIGHTS, too!
    WHO is pushing this agenda? WHO is arguing against "caution".
    the next question one might ask…."WHY".
    another place to look, at the FOOD BILLS under HOMELAND SECURITY, starting with the "old number" S-510 to get started.
    finding out WHO and WHAT AGENDA is behind that, will open some eyes!
    and to help one to understand the larger picture going on here.
    GMO SEEDS/CROPS are just one part of a LARGER AGENDA going on.

    science has brought forward many wonderful things, but also some of "those wonderful things" OVER TIME have proven to be actually harmful. and THEN who pays for fixing it? usually the common person, the one who was effected, IF they are still living. NOT THE ONES WHO CAUSED THE PROBLEM, unless one can afford to take THEM to court.
    and keep up with all the legal bills in the process. many folks forget how this tends to go, unless they have been effected in some way.
    i only used the TOBACCO situation as one example, since that issue has effected me and my family. i am not a farmer, but i do know many folks who do farm. after talking to many, over a 25 year time frame, the story i get is not a pretty one at all.
    so, to understand the larger picture it can indeed take time, but it is easy to just begin, by talking with local farmers in the location where you live. drive out to the country on a weekend. just go into a random farm and begin the process, you might be surprised to find what is ACTUALLY going on! if they trust you enough, they will clue you in. not only about GMO CROPS but the whole farming picture from their experience. i have not traveled enough to speak with farmers in other countries, except canada. but from the farmers UP THERE, they have told me that there is a HUGE PROBLEM!! not only GMO but HUGE CORPORATE CONTROLLED LANDS. i would suggest to everyone, to not argue so much, but continue to pay attention to local farms, as well as watch out for large land purchases, water rights changing, small farmers/class action suits that are fighting GMO issues (like the one going on this week in WASHINGTON!)
    ALL OF THIS and ties into this GMO issue. there is a rather large "floating" iceberg out there, and we only get to "see" bits and pieces of it from time to time. instead of nit-picking between us….THINK LARGER….WHO/What is benefitting? and WHY?

    • I have suffered with a chronic leukemia caused by inhaling the drift of Thimet on a windy day while preparing fields for planting. The advertising excecutive that owned the farm directly next to our farm sent in hired planters who literally plant the entire farm in one day. they never come back to cultivate just dump tons of weed and bug killer on. It was a windy day and I could smell this stuff but was not aware of what it was. By that evening I was itching so bad I thought I would go crazy, my skin smelled, I could taste this awful stuff. Anyway I was diagonosed a year or so later with "chronic lymphositic leukemia". I have scar tissue on my kidneys, as well as many other health problems. I had never been sick a day in my life! At that time no one would even listen to me. I was treated with benadryl and prednizone. By the time after much sickenss and bone marrow biopsies my blood markers show the cell malnormalities. There is not one thing that I can do about it because at the time there was so little known about these things. Now that statutes of limitation have run out and I just get to suffer the consequences. So I do feel that these chemicals and genetically modified seeds will have consequences down the road. We have the ability as farmers to produce a good safe crop for all the world without all this poison. It's all about the money and who get't the money. Every nation has its own ability to produce for their people. Many of these countries have arrid and rich lands. Greed and multinationalization of the world's food has caused this mess and starvation. God forbid we should all be able to "bloom where we were planted" Monsanto wouldn't want that now would they?

  5. Michael,
    many family farms of all sizes decide to incorporate as the business organization that best suits their needs. Incorpoation allows for a smooth generational transfer of ownership and allows other family member to enter the business.
    There a very few dairy farms here or nationwide that do not produce solely for the commodity market. Few farmers sell their own milk or make their own cheese for resale.
    Noone can mistreat their employees or their land for long and stay in business.
    But, our discussions have nothing to do with the article on which we are commenting, precisely the use of biotechnology.
    Perhhaps we should move these the adult conversation on farm politics.

  6. There are some that will never be convinced that biotech derived foods are safe. They will choose to bellieve what they will even though their sources are not those who have spent their lives in the field of biology. They will continue to rant against "big business whose only goal is profit" and ignore the fact that the books they reading are written by authors who's only goal is to spin their tale of fear for profit. They will not avail themselves of the opinions of learned reviewers of those books and movies. There is ample information to be found that products of biotechnology are properly regulated and tested and declared safe before being opproved for public use.
    There are still people that belive that the moon landing was staged.

    • Much of the ample information you write of are studies that are paid for by the big biotech companies. Can we really allow the fox to continue to guard the hen house?
      We used to think that DDT was safe. No one can say whether 30 years is long enough or not. Besides it wasn't until the mid nineties that GM corn was allowed in the US.

  7. This is a ridiculous debate from a scientific standpoint. There is absolutely no credible evidence that GMO crops are are harmful to human health. The fact that this is even an issue is symbolic of a woefully uninformed and sensational media. Nothing like a good story about how we are being killed by something we can't see. This is a debate of privilege, only where there is too much food can we afford to worry about things like GMOs. It is actually an issue of social justice, as GMOs aid in access to food for poorer people. Anyone who has truly seen hunger and can still fight against technology has a harder heart than I do. Scientific advances have enabled us to get to 7 Billion people, headed towards 9 or 10 Billion. It will take technology to make sure we can feed them all. I respect the right of people to buy whatever they please, but they need to recognize the cost of their choices. How many people have to starve so you have a minutely better chance of living to 100?

    • Aaron, you are right this is a rediculous discussion. But, one poster above is guoting from three publications that have been throughly debunked and another is in the camp that accuses anyone who challeges their anti-biotech views as being a shill for big pharma (Monsanto).
      We have no choice. If we don't challenge them who will?

      • I know. And I did. But the reliance on anecdotes rather than science will never cease to frustrate me. Maybe we should produce like we did 100 years ago for a year. I bet starvation would put an end to this anti technology nonsense.

  8. The fear of GMO foods is more like the fear of fluoridated water than climate denying. Or more like fear of nuclear power plants. Humans are subject to irrational fears. Its one of the charms of being human. This is an anti-science fear of the new.

  9. Although after Chernobyl and Fukushima, fear of nuclear power is more rational than is fear of GMO foods.

  10. Almost everything we eat has been genetically engineered and looks quite different from the wild plant or animal that was the forefather of the grain, vegetable, fruit, or livestock that we now farm for food and fiber. I'm not enthusiastic about crop variants bred mainly to facilitate use of pesticides, but I don't see the practice of genetic modification as something substantially different from human selective breeding practices. Reading about the genetic modification of corn's forefather to produce the plant we know today in Michael Pollan's "Omnivore's Dilemma" is a good illustration of how far-reaching traditional selective breeding is.

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