Why the Founder of the Anti-GMO Movement Converted to the Side of Science

Why the Founder of the Anti-GMO Movement Converted to the Side of Science

Mark Lynas is a researcher at the Cornell Alliance for Science and the author, most recently, of “The God Species: How the Planet Can Survive the Age of Humans.”

Lynas is a British environmentalist and author who once founded the movement against genetically modified (GM) foods in the mid 1990s. However, in early 2013, this all changed when he publicly denounced his position during a now-infamous speech at the Oxford Farming Conference:

“I apologize for having spent several years ripping up GM crops,” he said. “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.”

According to Forbes, the tipping point came after Lynas wrote his final anti-GMO piece for the UK’s Guardian newspaper when he realized he didn’t believe the arguments he was making. Lynas said he was being ‘intellectually incompetent and dishonest,’ and was simply regurgitating information that had no scientific foundation.

In a recent New York Times piece, How I Got Converted to G.M.O. Food,” Mark Lynas wrote on why he decided to get on the GMO bandwagon. It’s worth a read because his editorial focuses on struggling farmers in developing countries whose lives have been transformed as result of planting and harvesting GM crops. It’s a view that I think many forget when they speak out against GMOs and the technology.

Here is a brief segment from Lynas’ piece but we encourage you to read the article in its entirety:

Mohammed Rahman doesn’t know it yet, but his small farm in central Bangladesh is globally significant. Mr. Rahman, a smallholder farmer in Krishnapur, about 60 miles northwest of the capital, Dhaka, grows eggplant on his meager acre of waterlogged land.

As we squatted in the muddy field, examining the lush green foliage and shiny purple fruits, he explained how, for the first time this season, he had been able to stop using pesticides. This was thanks to a new pest-resistant variety of eggplant supplied by the government-run Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute.

Despite a recent hailstorm, the weather had been kind, and the new crop flourished. Productivity nearly doubled. Mr. Rahman had already harvested the small plot 10 times, he said, and sold the brinjal (eggplant’s name in the region) labeled “insecticide free” at a small premium in the local market. Now, with increased profits, he looked forward to being able to lift his family further out of poverty. I could see why this was so urgent: Half a dozen shirtless kids gathered around, clamoring for attention. They all looked stunted by malnutrition.

In a rational world, Mr. Rahman would be receiving support from all sides. He is improving the environment and tackling poverty. Yet the visit was rushed, and my escorts from the research institute were nervous about permitting me to speak with him at all…

Why was there such controversy? Because Mr. Rahman’s pest-resistant eggplant was produced using genetic modification. A gene transferred from a soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis (more commonly known by the abbreviation “Bt”), produces a protein that kills the Fruit and Shoot Borer, a species of moth whose larvae feed on the eggplant, without the need for pesticide sprays. (The protein is entirely nontoxic to other insects and indeed humans.)

Conventional eggplant farmers in Bangladesh are forced to spray their crops as many as 140 times during the growing season, and pesticide poisoning is a chronic health problem in rural areas. But because Bt brinjal is a hated G.M.O., or genetically modified organism, it is Public Enemy No.1 to environmental groups everywhere.

The stakes are especially high because Mr. Rahman is one of only 108 farmers in Bangladesh currently permitted to try out the new variety. Moreover, this is among the first genetically modified food crops to be grown by farmers anywhere in the developing world. Virtually every crop, in every other country, has so far been blocked…

…In Africa, however, countries have fallen like dominoes to anti-G.M. campaigns. I am writing this at a biotechnology conference in Nairobi, where the government slapped a G.M.O. import ban in 2012 after activists brandished pictures of rats with tumors and claimed that G.M. foods caused cancer.

The origin of the scare was a French scientific paper that was later retracted by the journal in which it was originally published because of numerous flaws in methodology. Yet Kenya’s ban remains, creating a food-trade bottleneck that will raise prices, worsening malnutrition and increasing poverty for millions…

The environmental movement’s war against genetic engineering has led to a deepening rift with the scientific community. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center and the American Association for the Advancement of Science showed a greater gap between scientists and the public on G.M.O.s than on any other scientific controversy: While 88 percent of association scientists agreed it was safe to eat genetically modified foods, only 37 percent of the public did — a gap in perceptions of 51 points. (The gap on climate change was 37 points; on childhood vaccinations, 18 points.)

On genetic engineering, environmentalists have been markedly more successful than climate change deniers or anti-vaccination campaigners in undermining public understanding of science. The scientific community is losing this battle. If you need visual confirmation of that, try a Google Images search for the term “G.M.O.” Scary pictures proliferate, from an archetypal evil scientist injecting tomatoes with a syringe — an utterly inaccurate representation of the real process of genetic engineering — to tumor-riddled rats and ghoulish chimeras like fish-apples.

In Europe, leaders in Brussels propose to empower all member states of the European Union to ban genetically modified crops, if they so wish. Hungary has even written anti-G.M.O. ideology into its Constitution. Peru has enacted a 10-year moratorium.

…As someone who participated in the early anti-G.M.O. movement, I feel I owe a debt to Mr. Rahman and other farmers in developing countries who could benefit from this technology. At Cornell, I am working to amplify the voices of farmers and scientists in a more informed conversation about what biotechnology can bring to food security and environmental protection

No one claims that biotech is a silver bullet. The technology of genetic modification can’t make the rains come on time or ensure that farmers in Africa have stronger land rights. But improved seed genetics can make a contribution in all sorts of ways: It can increase disease resistance and drought tolerance, which are especially important as climate change continues to bite; and it can help tackle hidden malnutritional problems like vitamin A deficiency.

We need this technology. We must not let the green movement stand in its way.

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