Prominent British Environmentalist Succumbs to Science on GMO

by Patrick Brennan

I’m a little late to this story, but it’s a good one: Mark Lynas, a prominent British environmentalist and a vociferous opponent of genetically modified organisms, has changed his view on the latter issue after, well, consulting the scientific evidence and realizing that the process has tremendous potential to help the environment, with very few downsides. The NYT reports on the Oxford Farming Conference lecture at which he delivered his speech last Thursday, with the preamble being this:

For the record, here and upfront, I apologize 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 demonizing 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.

Some of the meat of his admissions:

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.

He goes on to detail specific misconceptions which he explored and discovered to be untrue, for instance:

I’d assumed that it would increase the use of chemicals. It turned out that pest-resistant cotton and maize needed less insecticide.

Unclear how much research that should have taken him . . . but regardless, the news is heartening. This is not a major issue in America, where the environmental movement has maintained a certain disdain for GMOs but has not made a priority of banning them. But as Lynas admits, advocates like him led an incredibly successful campaign to ban GM crops in Europe and in other countries. Public opinion in Europe remains very hostile to the issue, which, as Lynas discovered, is in fact an incredible opportunity, rejected out of ideological and aesthetic concerns, to preserve our environment by producing food more cheaply, efficiently, and cleanly. Here’s to hoping his conversion might help begin reversing the situation in Europe.