The reversal of opinion by a British environmentalist and writer who was instrumental in launching the anti-biotechnology movement in the 1990s has sent shockwaves through the environmental activist biosphere and beyond. A small sampling of the outrage: “Everyone has their price.  Clearly Monsanto was able to pay the right price for him to change his mind,” Jennifer Ngo commented on the Mother Jones blogsite. “I don’t know that Lynas has been bought,” remarked a blogger named Lou on the same site, “but wild swings from one extreme to the other do not appear to me to have the markings of intellectual pursuit.”

The “Lynas” these bloggers are referring to is none other than Mark Lynas, who took part in destroying test plantings of genetically engineered crops 20 years ago.  But during a lecture to the Oxford Farming Conference in England in early January, Lynas admitted that he regretted his part in “ripping up GM (genetically modified) crops” and said he was sorry for “demonizing an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment.”

This is no insignificant change of heart of environmentalism’s once stalwart supporter and crusader. Lynas, who while performing extensive research on global warming, said his opinion was changed because he became familiar with scientific literature and realized he had never done any academic research on biotechnology – despite being a fervent opponent against it for years.

(See related, Road to Damascus change for anti-GM apostle Mark Lynas)

Digging deeper into the empirical data available to him about genetically engineered crops, Lynas’ epiphany led him to conclude that his beliefs about biotechnology turned out to be little more than “green urban myths.” 

He then listed several of his previous assumptions that he now discredits: that only big companies profit from GMOs (genetically modified organisms); that biotechnology would increase the use of chemicals; that there was no big demand for biotechnology and it is unwanted; that it is dangerous.  Instead, he said pest-resistant biotech crops needed less insecticide; that biotechnology is safe and more precise than conventional breeding; that billions of dollars worth of benefits are available to farmers who discovered to their glee they needed fewer inputs and that farmers throughout the world are eager to plant biotech crops.

“As an environmentalist, and someone who believes that everyone in this world has a right to a healthy and nutritious diet of their choosing,” he told the conference, “I could not have chosen a more counter-productive path. I now regret it completely.”

This type of mind reversal over such an important technological advancement that allows scientists to genetically engineer certain traits into the molecules of various plants is an amazing metamorphosis. It’s too bad that this insight is lacking in most EU countries that have taken the opposite course, essentially banning GM crops.

Suffocating regulations

For years in this space I have trumpeted the advancement in the research and development of GM crops. Upon my employment at WPHA seven years ago I immediately was sent to visit with WPHA member companies engaged in developing this technology.  There I witnessed the process and research involved in genetic engineering, and learned the harsh fact that these companies have to deal with; it takes almost 10 years and $185 million to get a new GMO product registered and sold.  This is because of a stifling mountain of regulations and years of testing to prove the product is safe. Nonetheless, I quickly realized that plant biotechnology was the wave of agriculture’s future, and said so in this space. Apparently, Lynas has seen the same light and finally accepted the fact that “Frankenfoods” — as they are notoriously referred to by devoted environmentalists — are indeed an extra tool to feed a hungry world.

He told the Oxford audience that he saw a planet that would need to support 9.5 billion people by 2050 on the same land area as today. As population climbs and living standards also improve, he said, global food demand will expand to “well over 100 percent by mid-century.”

Pointing to the work of Norman Borlaug — the famous agronomist who developed high-yielding GMO grain varieties that improved production and relieved world hunger in the 1970s — Lynas said further intensified food production is now needed and GMOs play a pivotal role. He said opposition to biotechnology has slowed the development of new plant varieties and has ratcheted up the cost of innovation. He attacked opponents in many parts of Europe, Africa and Asia who have thrown roadblocks in the path of GMO progress.

“Thus, desperately needed agricultural innovation is being strangled by a suffocating avalanche of regulations which are not based on any rational scientific assessment of risk,” he said. He added that the discussion about GMO foods being dangerous has been rendered obsolete, noting that 3 trillion GMO meals have been eaten over the past 15 years without a single substantiated case of harm. “You are more likely to get hit by an asteroid than to get hurt by GM food,” he said.

It is encouraging when environmental converts eventually see the light and come over to “science.”  Most of today’s green groups are motivated by agendas of self-interest and parrot anti-biotech bromides without the slightest idea of what they are talking about.  So when you see someone such as Lynas switch teams via empirical and scientific evidence, it is indeed a conversion to relish.

I’ll wrap this up with Lynas’ closing statement to the Oxford audience, an observation that is, as the English would say, “spot on.”

“So my message to the anti-GM lobby, from the ranks of the British aristocrats and celebrity chefs to the U.S. foodies to the peasant groups of India is this: You are entitled to your views.  But you must know by now that they are not supported by science. We are coming to a crunch point, and for the sake of both people and the planet, now is the time for you to get out of the way and let the rest of us get on with feeding the world sustainably.”

Hear, hear.