A flurry of critical online comments led Mark Lynas to take a hard look at genetically modified crops starting in 2008. Lynas, a British author of three books on climate change, had written an editorial opposing GMOs in The Guardian newspaper.
He decided to research the subject and in the process, he says, learned that he had held an "anti-science" view for too long. It contradicted the intensive research he’d done on climate change using scientific sources.
"People, I think, are stuck between the myth of the anti-GM campaigners and the PR sales pitch of the GM corporations, and people need independent inquiry," Lynas says.
The author is again at the center of heated Internet discussion after comments he made Jan. 3 to the Oxford Farming Conference.
"For the record, here and upfront, I apologize for having spent several years ripping up GM crops," Lynas said during his introduction to that talk. "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."
07 Mark Lynas from Oxford Farming Conference on Vimeo.
In its first week online, the speech was viewed a quarter of a million times.
Lynas says he’s been accused for years of being in the pocket of major agribusinesses such as Monsanto thanks to remarks like those. But he insists that his main focus right now is to turn down all speaking invitations he’s received, particularly those from corporations. He says he has never requested nor received any funding from GMO companies, and he characterizes as a "smear campaign" a 2011 Guardian report claiming agribusiness company EuropaBio wanted him to be among its ambassadors.
"I don’t want to be a spokesperson for industry," Lynas says. "They can speak for themselves."
What most surprises Lynas is that it took him this long to change his views on genetically modified crops. He attributes his initial resistance to peer pressure and the circles of people with whom he associated.
Lynas has been an environmentalist for as long as he can remember. He covered environmental issues for his college newspaper and got involved in activism, defending the countryside against road-building. He also targeted GMO crops in conjunction with Monsanto’s release of Roundup Ready Soybeans in 1996.
"I was the lead organizer in the first and probably only office occupation of Monsanto the UK," Lynas says. He organized buses, got inside the building with other activists and "caused havoc." At other times–day and night–he helped destroy genetically modified test sites with crops such as corn and sugar beets. Sometimes they wore biohazard suits in full view of police and cameras.
As they saw it, Lynas says, they were preventing contamination and the spread of genetic pollution. He associated with a variety of loosely affiliated people, from anarchists to environmental activists and others.
But since 2008, Lynas says, he has come to realize that GMOs present opportunities. It troubles him that some people think modern industrial agriculture is fundamentally a bad thing. Without this system, he says, the world couldn’t support seven billion people. People today are better fed than ever before, and the idea that organic farming could produce the same results is an illusion.
"It’s kind of a worldview issue, which I really think needs to be challenged," Lynas says. Other misconceptions about GMOs include myths about food safety, and the mistaken notion that they cause cancer and negatively affect health in other ways.
"You can do a Top 10 list of these myths and debunk them very easily," he says.
Lynas attributes those views to two factors: The naturalistic fallacy (the idea that nature is good and artificial is bad) and left-wing anti-corporate ideology. "Monsanto has become almost the devil incarnate for these people," he says. In his view, Monsanto is just another company with good and bad attributes.
The public has a responsibility to educate itself, he says. What’s more, it’s clear more research needs to be done on GMOs. Developing crops that don’t need applications of pesticides and fungicides and improving the efficiency of nitrogen use are among the areas where Lynas sees potential. In all cases, the goal should be to make the food production system more sustainable.
"For me, the speech I made was a sort of cry from the heart," Lynas says. "I just got sick of the amount of misinformation."