The GMO Debate should be over, but it’s not. Activism is trumping Science. Again.

Folks concerned about GMO foods (GMO=genetically modified organisms).  Should very carefully read and research this piece by former anti GMO activist  Mark Lynas, one of the folks who started the anti GMO campaigns that plague us today.   As he notes everybody is entitled to their *opinion*, but the science of GMOs is settled – they are safe and beneficial.
Very sorry to see Southern Oregon become entangled in the anti-GMO debate.  It’s so frustrating to me to see activism trumping science, though I won’t hold my breath waiting for that to change..
“The organic movement is at its heart a rejectionist one. It doesn’t accept many modern technologies on principle. Like the Amish in Pennsylvania, who froze their technology with the horse and cart in 1850, the organic movement essentially freezes its technology in somewhere around 1950, and for no better reason.”

Read his text. It is *very* smart. Here is a summary:

“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 at the same time the growth of yields worldwide has stagnated for many major food crops, as research published only last month by Jonathan Foley and others in the journalNature Communications showed. If we don’t get yield growth back on track we are indeed going to have trouble keeping up with population growth and resulting demand, and prices will rise as well as more land being converted from nature to agriculture.

The biggest risk of all is that we do not take advantage of all sorts of opportunities for innovation because of what is in reality little more than blind prejudice.

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.

I know it is politically incorrect to say all this, but we need a a major dose of both international myth-busting and de-regulation. The plant scientists I know hold their heads in their hands when I talk about this with them because governments and so many people have got their sense of risk so utterly wrong, and are foreclosing a vitally necessary technology.

So I challenge all of you today to question your beliefs in this area and to see whether they stand up to rational examination. Always ask for evidence, as the campaigning group Sense About Science advises, and make sure you go beyond the self-referential reports of campaigning NGOs.

But most important of all, farmers should be free to choose what kind of technologies they want to adopt. If you think the old ways are the best, that’s fine. You have that right.

What you don’t have the right to do is to stand in the way of others who hope and strive for ways of doing things differently, and hopefully better. Farmers who understand the pressures of a growing population and a warming world. Who understand that yields per hectare are the most important environmental metric. And who understand that technology never stops developing, and that even the fridge and the humble potato were new and scary once.

So my message to the anti-GM lobby, from the ranks of the British aristocrats and celebrity chefs to the US 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.”

11 thoughts on “The GMO Debate should be over, but it’s not. Activism is trumping Science. Again.

  1. It is amazing the coverage this unknown GM supporter has gained in such a short time. Who is Mark Lynas? Had anyone heard of him before? Why hadn’t we heard of him if he really was the founder of the anti-GM movement.
    The Real Mark Lynas is disrobed and laid bare in this article which follows his journey as GM crop destroyer to GM convert. It is fascinating and shows how the media can be so easily fooled into being complicit in debasing the real anti-GM movement.

  2. Janet I certainly agree with you that we should not appeal to anybody as “authority figures”, and certainly not listen to activists on the issue to gain big insights. Insight comes from the science that has extensively studied, and vindicated, GM crops. You should check it out sometime. As an advocate I’d guess you look only at the studies / data / people that support your notion of where things should be. Instead, start fresh as I have done on many topics, and review the actual scientific literature as if you *had no opinion* to begin with. You may be surprised.

    • hi Joe, nice to see that we are in agreement about Lynas and his ilk. I’m afraid that the ‘science’ bit is where we will differ. I have looked at the science, and compared the studies available to show the safety, or dangers, of GM foods and find them to be very different.
      I live in Australia and our equivalent of the FDA is FSANZ (Food Standards Australia New Zealand). As with the FDA FSANZ determines the safety of GM foods by analysing the data submitted by the companies that make the product. FSANZ says that animal feeding trials are not necessary to determine the safety of GM foods, yet say that they are the most tested foods ever. There seems to be a discrepancy there. If the food is not tested (on test animals) then how can its safety be determined?When asked for studies to show the safety of GM foods the head of FSANZ was quoted as saying there were none. This response can say two things (a) there are no studies to show its safety so therefore we cannot say that it is safe , or (b) there are no studies to show that it is not safe (because none were done ) so therefore it is safe.
      Quite a predicament! Do you think that GM feeding trials should be mandatory?

      • Sorry Janet, I missed this thoughtful reply. Nope, don’t think any trials should be mandatory because I think GMO is clearly safer than many things we take for granted but don’t worry about. There are only so many resources and so much time – we need to allocate our concerns rationally and that means accepting things as safe when the science becomes clear that they are. GMOs are safe, so let’s move on to test things that might not be. In general, my view is that we are “too safe” in modern industrialized society. We should take more risks to reduce the overall cost and inefficiency of producing “super safe” stuff.

      • Once again Joe I have to disagree with you. We cannot accept ‘science’ when the data is coming from the very industry seeking approval for its inventions. This is what Big Tobacco managed to do for decades, until we realised that they were lying about the safety of their product. We are not just talking about food, but a living thing that has the ability to spread, contaminate and replicate. It is in our food either via GM-fed animals or processed in supermarket goods all unlabelled and therefore invisible,and untraceable. How can you say that it is safer if we have no idea where it is, where it goes, or who is eating it and in what? The ‘science’ is far from clear.If independent science is showing causes for concern the very least we should do is test it.

  3. Seems to me Joe is missing the point that Mark Lynas is hardly a reliable source – but smart indeed!

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