Mark Lynas repudiates the anti-genetically modified crops movement

This is a blockbuster speech – in the link, there is a video of Mark Lynas making a speech to the Oxford Farming Conference confessing that he’s been quite wrong on opposing genetically modified crops for reasons of not much more than being obstinately anti-science/progress.

It’s an incredible eye opener, and peaks the hopes that environmentalists who deride others for being anti-science when it comes to climate change indulge in some humility and take a good look at if they themselves are being anti-science in another sphere (anti-GMO).

Mark Lynas – Lecture to Oxford Farming Conference, 3 January 2013

I want to start with some apologies. 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.

When I first heard about Monsanto’s GM soya 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.

This was also explicitly an anti-science movement. 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 – this absolutely was about deep-seated fears of scientific powers being used secretly for unnatural ends. What we didn’t realise at the time was that the real Frankenstein’s monster was not GM technology, but our reaction against it.

So I did some reading. And I discovered that one by one my cherished beliefs about GM turned out to be little more than green urban myths.

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.

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.

But this was still only the beginning. So in my third book The God Species I junked all the environmentalist orthodoxy at the outset and tried to look at the bigger picture on a planetary scale.

And this is the challenge that faces us today: we are going to have to feed 9.5 billion hopefully much less poor people by 2050 on about the same land area as we use today, using limited fertiliser, water and pesticides and in the context of a rapidly-changing climate.

It now costs tens of millions to get a crop through the regulatory systems in different countries. In fact the latest figures I’ve just seen from CropLife suggest it costs $139 million to move from discovering a new crop trait to full commercialisation, so open-source or public sector biotech really does not stand a chance.

There is a depressing irony here that the anti-biotech campaigners complain about GM crops only being marketed by big corporations when this is a situation they have done more than anyone to help bring about.

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.

Just as I did 10 years ago, Greenpeace and the Soil Association claim to be guided by consensus science, as on climate change. Yet on GM there is a rock-solid scientific consensus, backed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Royal Society, health institutes and national science academies around the world. Yet this inconvenient truth is ignored because it conflicts with their ideology.

One final example is the sad story of the GM blight-resistant potato. This was being developed by both the Sainsbury Lab and Teagasc, a publicly-funded institute in Ireland – but the Irish Green Party, whose leader often attends this very conference, was so opposed that they even took out a court case against it.

This is despite the fact that the blight-resistant potato would save farmers from doing 15 fungicide sprays per season, that pollen transfer is not an issue because potatoes are clonally propagated and that the offending gene came from a wild relative of the potato.

There would have been a nice historical resonance to having a blight-resistant potato developed in Ireland, given the million or more who died due to the potato famine in the mid 19th century. It would have been a wonderful thing for Ireland to be the country that defeated blight. But thanks to the Irish Green Party, this is not to be.

And unfortunately the antis now have the bureaucrats on their side. Wales and Scotland are officially GM free, taking medieval superstition as a strategic imperative for devolved governments supposedly guided by science.

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