Ex-GMO foe Mark Lynas defends modern agriculture
After years of criticizing modern agricultural practices, Mark Lynas has become one of the strongest advocates for U.S. farmers.
In 2008, Lynas, a British author of three books on climate change, wrote an editorial opposing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in The Guardian newspaper. The flurry of critical online comments led him to take a closer look at GMO crops.
In the process, he says, he learned that he had held an "anti-science" view of GMOs for too long and 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—people need independent inquiry," Lynas says.
In the spotlight. The author is once again at the center of heated Internet discussion after comments he made in earlier in the year at the Oxford Farming Conference.
"I apologize for having spent several years ripping up GM crops," Lynas said during his introduction to the 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."
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 a 2011 Guardian report claiming agribusiness company EuropaBio wanted him to be among its ambassadors as a "smear campaign".
"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 GM crops. He attributes his initial resistance to the practice to peer pressure and the circles of people with whom he associated.
Lynas first covered environmental issues for his college newspaper, where he also got involved in activism, defending the countryside against road-building. He also targeted GM crops in conjunction with Monsanto’s release of Roundup Ready soy-
beans in 1996.
"I was the lead organizer in the first and probably only office occupation of Monsanto in the UK," Lynas says. He organized buses, got inside the building with other activists and "caused havoc." He also helped destroy GM test sites.
As they saw it, Lynas says, they were preventing contamination and the spread of genetic pollution.
A change of heart. Since 2008, Lynas has realized that GMOs offer opportunity. 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 7 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 food safety and the notion that it causes cancer and other health problems.
"You can do a Top 10 list of these myths and debunk them very easily," he explains.
The public has a responsibility to educate itself, he says. 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 areas of potential.
In all cases, the goal should be to make food production systems more sustainable. "For me, the speech I made was a sort of cry from the heart," he says. "I just got sick of the amount of misinformation."
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- Mid February 2013