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.