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Road to Damascus change for anti-GM apostle Mark Lynas

  • Mark Lynas, a pioneer in the anti-GM movement, came out as a full-fledged advocate of genetic crop modification. His reversal may end up as a significant benchmark for the GM crop industry.

In a shot heard round the GM world, Mark Lynas, a pioneer in the anti-GM movement, came out as a full-fledged advocate of genetic crop modification.

Speaking at a farming conference Jan. 3, in Oxford, England, Lynas' blunt words served as both declaration and confession. His delivery was no rendition of scientific boilerplate, Lynas was chunking verbal hand grenades into the arena: “The GM debate is over … 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.”

His reversal may end up as a significant benchmark for the GM crop industry. Lynas, a journalist and anti-GM heavyweight, played a pivotal role galvanizing anti-GM forces in the 1990s. This is the same activist that shoved a pie in the face of environmental skeptic Bjorn Lomborg during a book signing/presentation in 2002. (Video of the Lomborg pie incident)

Taking no prisoners, Lynas spoke without nuance or subtlety: “The real Frankenstein’s monster was not GM technology, but our reaction against it.”

Why the about-face for Lynas? He couldn’t escape the burden of science. “I discovered that one by one my cherished beliefs about GM turned out to be little more than green urban myths.”

Lynas said he put aside frankenfoods rhetoric and started looking at the data. The result was a Road-to-Damascus change.

• “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.”

After describing the circumstances behind his conversion, Lynas then took a hammer to the sacred cow of organics, calling it a rejectionist movement frozen in 1950s technology that claims a “monopoly of virtue.”

“One farming system cannot claim to have a monopoly of virtue … It seems like almost everyone has to pay homage to ‘organic’ and to question this orthodoxy is unthinkable. Well, I am here to question it today.”

Lynas’ speech has reverberated across Europe, where EU regulations have a stranglehold on genetic engineering. Just a few months ago, Maurice House, minister counselor on food and agriculture for the US mission to the EU, offered a grave warning, "In an era of globalization, Europe is in danger of becoming a food museum.”

While Europe bleats about the evils of GM, Africa sticks its head in the sand (Kenya banned GM crops in 2012), and India looks backwards — world population is hurtling down the track toward the 9.5 billion mark by 2050. There is no turning the demographic train around: There will be 2.5 billion more mouths to feed in 2050. And yet, the anti-GM movement takes a happy-in-hell approach and attempts to block GM crops at every turn.

Despite Lynas’ unflinching speech, the anti-GM movement will go on whistling past the graveyard. As for Lynas, he is off the anti-GM reservation and won't be going back. The weight of science was too heavy and the consequences of denial too grave: “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 want their meals to be what they consider natural.”

(See here for a video and transcript of Mark Lynas’ speech.)

(See video interview with Lynas discussing his GM reversal.)

Discuss this Blog Entry 6

Steve Savage (not verified)
on Jan 11, 2013

The full speech (~30 minutes) is well worth the listen as is the Q&A. Lynas is extremely articulate. Once an opponent, he had many admiring things to say about Norm Borlaug and quoted him repeatedly. Borlaug's grand daughter tweeted to say thank you. What Lynas is saying about how rich world phobias are going to hurt the poor isn't new, Robert Paarlberg of Harvard has been saying that for years, but your Damascus road image is apt here - the person you least expect to say something has a certain credibility

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jan 11, 2013

Despite this major defection, the anti-GMO movement will march on because it is has never relied on science or facts for its motivation. It is fueled by a group practicing a severe form of social narcissism in an attempt to exert their grandiose feelings of superiority on the world around them. Their self delusion will continue, they will continue to march on with huge egos and small substance.

ZeroSum2 (not verified)
on Jan 11, 2013

Just one observation: As pointed out in the blog - there will be 9.5 billion people on planet earth by 2050. That's an additional 2.5 billion to what we have now. Whether they are rich or poor, they have to eat. Maybe the anti-GMO folk have a Plan B that they are not disclosing!

Dr. Jerry Miller (not verified)
on Jan 11, 2013

GM crops are probably not unhealthy and I have lots of clients who use Roundup ready cotton which is a Godsend for sure. However, there is one thing that I am worried about with GM crops and that is the Law of Unintended Consequences. When we combine genes across not just species, but Kingdoms, we create novel combinations of genes that Ol' Mother Earth has never seen before. We do not know what might happen because no looks for effects at the ecosystem level. I will use Golden Rice as an example.

Golden rice has had a bacterial gene for the manufacture of Vitamin A inserted into it. What happens if the major pest of rice is lacking only Vitamin A to explode in population? What happens if this gene is transferred into weed populations that then go crazy? Just because we do not look for ecosystem effects does not mean they are not there. Has everyone forgotten rabbits in Australia or kudzu in the US? Those were both efforts to solve a problem which then became major problems of their own.

I am not saying that we MUST STOP genetic engineering. All I am saying is that we should widen our investigations into their possible side effects. We must also beware of narcissistic anthropomorphism that leads us to think we are the most important species on earth. The various ecosystems on earth support us, not the other way around. We only have one planet that will support human life and we forget that to our peril.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Feb 11, 2013

I agree with you.

I think there's too much of a knee-jerk reaction on both sides. Both sides - for and against GMO's - have merit.

The science for creating and utilizing GMO's tends to be sound but on the other hand long term environmental impact of GMO's is seriously lacking (interaction with non-GMO organisms- gene flow, trending toward an impoverished stock of crops or lack of biodiversity, etc.).

on May 22, 2013

He said he put aside frankenfoods rhetoric and started looking at the data. The result was a Road-to-Damascus change. sailing

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