Did you hear the one about the militant environmental activist and author who recently proclaimed genetically modified plants aren’t ruining the world?
No, really. It’s not a joke.
The about-face of science writer and lecturer — and radical GMO critic — Mark Lynas has triggered more heated reactions than the collision of subatomic particles.
Here’s the beginning of his speech (read the full script on his website; scroll down to watch the video of his presentation):
“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.”
Lynas spoke Jan. 3 at a conference on agriculture at Oxford University, and faster than a heifer finds a hole in the fence, his words went viral online and the ensuing comments and clicks even crashed his own website.
“Simplistic” and “sophomoric” charged the Union of Concerned Scientists. “A voice of sanity” says another online commenter. Inexcusable. Sell-out. Absolutely brilliant.
Take your pick.
Lynas, who has also authored three climate change books, including one that won a science book prize from the Royal Society, the UK’s national academy of science, did not have an overnight transformation. Over the past few years, he’s taken a long look at the science of agriculture. Not popular science, but scholarly journals. Peer-reviewed research articles.
“And I discovered that one by one my cherished beliefs about GM turned out to be little more than green urban myths.”
GMOs increase the use of chemicals? Busted. Not so.
Terminator Technology means farmers can’t save seed? No, Monsanto has never developed or commercialized a sterile seed product.
And his list continued.
Marginal land is spared from production, thanks to yield-improvement technologies and management developed since 1961. How much? Lynas cited research at Rockefeller University in his answer: 3 billion hectares (7.41 billion acres).
The naturalistic fallacy — that natural is good and man-made is bad — is irrational and simplistic, he argues, and ignores the potential benefits of research in a rapidly changing climate.
Today, Lynas said, ag innovation is “being strangled by a suffocating avalanche of regulations which are not based on any rational scientific assessment of risk,” and yet we accept the risk that millions do not have enough to eat.
We can’t, however, give a standing ovation to Lynas’ conversion and declare a victory for science. We all know that public perception steers policy, and that emotion, not science, can steer public perception.
We need, instead, to heed what Michael Specter, science staff writer at The New Yorker, said in his piece about Lynas’ rebirth. “… technology has never solved a problem — people solve problems. And we have always done that with the tools we have made. Agricultural biotechnology is one of those tools, one of many.
“It is essential, but it is not enough. We will need it all, and that includes the optimism to sustain humanity’s undeniable history of progress.”
By Susan Crowell