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RSS By: Dean Kleckner, AgWeb.com

Dean is Chairman Emeritus of 'Truth About Trade & Technology, a nonprofit advocacy group led by a volunteer board of American farmers.

Science Helps Mark Lynas Change His Mind

Jan 17, 2013

 By Ian Pigott:  Harpenden, Hertfordshire, United Kingdom

 

"There is nothing that an intellectual less likes to change than his mind, or a politician his policy," says the British writer Theodore Dalrymple. 

Mark Lynas is both an intellectual and a political activist—hence his recent decision to change his mind is so notable. Earlier this month, he announced his conversion from foe to enthusiastic supporter of genetically modified crops.

I was in the room when Lynas revealed his change of heart whilst delivering the Frank Parkinson Lecture at this year’s Oxford Farming Conference. His talk deserves a wide audience here in the UK, where we are not allowed to grow the modern crops that farmers in the Americas and elsewhere take for granted.

For years, Lynas has been one of the world’s leading environmental campaigners. He’s best known for his work on climate change. One of his books, "Six Degrees," won Britain’s most prestigious award for science writing. It was also turned into a documentary for National Geographic, narrated by the actor Alec Baldwin and watched by millions. 

When he wasn’t talking about climate, Lynas often could be found protesting GM crops. He was not merely an extremist who wrote newspaper articles against 21st-century agriculture but also a militant who set about damaging GM crop trials.

This destructive activity, says Lynas now, "is analogous to burning books in a library before anyone has been able to read them."

Lynas calls the effort to spread malicious propaganda against GM crops "the most successful campaign I have ever been involved with."

Now he regrets it.

"I want to start with some apologies," he said at the beginning of his remarks. "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."

Instead of yanking GM crops from the soil, says Lynas, true environmentalists should seek to plant more of them.

"The GM debate is over," he said. "We no longer need to discuss whether or not it is safe. Over a decade and a half with 3 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." 

He went on to explain why GM crops are good for the environment: They allow us to produce more food on limited land, shrink our carbon footprint, and reduce our reliance on chemical sprays.

In one respect, Lynas said nothing new. As a farmer who devotes 15 percent of my land area to environmental stewardship, creating habitats for birds, mammals and pollinators, I too believe that we could enhance biodiversity and reduce our environmental footprint if we grew biotech crops.

Yet Lynas is different. We know from history that convert’s opinion can wield much greater influence—so a one-time environmental activist could become one of the greatest advocates for modern farming methods.

Lynas said in his speech that he first began to have doubts about his opposition to GM crops by reading the online comments to his newspaper columns.

Readers encouraged him to look more closely at the science of biotechnology. "I discovered that one by one, my cherished beliefs about GM turned out to be little more than green urban myths," he said. 

If the discussion over GM crops were approached by the public, intellectuals and policy-makers with the honesty and open-mindedness of Lynas, I believe they would soon realize that its role is pivotal to feeding our growing population in a sustainable and environmentally sensitive way.

Ian Pigott runs a diversified farming business in Harpenden, UK.  Located just 20 miles from the centre of London, he grows wheat, oilseed, rape and oats in rotation. The farm is a LEAF (linking environment and farming) demonstration farm.  Ian is a member of the TATT Global Farmer Network (www.truthabouttrade.org)

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COMMENTS (1 Comments)

Ric Ohge - Belmond, IA
Have You Heard about the Famous Anti-GMO Scientist Who Switched Sides and Is Now Pro?

For one thing, he isn’t a scientist at all.

This episode has been all over the media. Some commentators have speculated that this will turn the tide in Europe and persuade regulators there to give a full green light to GMO. But let’s take a moment to review the facts.


Mark Lynas is not a scientist. He does not even reveal his education on his own website, nor is it easily available on the Web. He is a British author, journalist, and environmental activist with a flair for publicity and a primary focus on climate change. He’s been called a “pioneer” and an “apostle” of the anti-GMO movement, but that is mostly his own self-promotion.


At a farming conference in Oxford, England, earlier this month, he gave a speech reversing his previous position on GMO in characteristically dramatic style: “You are more likely to get hit by an asteroid than to get hurt by GM food.” Obviously no scientist would make such a statement given the lack of established facts about GMO. It is precisely the lack of proven facts which are the problem. Lynas added, just to stir the pot further: “More to the point, people have died from choosing organic, but no one has died from eating GM.” Of course he provided no support for that wild claim.


Lynas says he was blinded by the anti-GMO rhetoric [1], that “ the debate is over” and there is a “scientific consensus” in favor of it, which is patently false. He told NPR that he originally came out against GMO without studying it [2], which we believe. While this may be indicative of his immaturity at the time—this is, after all, the same fellow who threw a cream pie in the face [3] of climate-change-denier Bjorn Lundborg—it may also indicate his ability to be persuaded by whoever is yelling the loudest at the time.


In his speech at Oxford, Lynas made a number of more specific claims about the safety and effectiveness of genetically engineered crops. Let’s look at them and see how they stand up to all the scientific evidence:


“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.” Lynas says GMO benefits small farmers, who rely on and want the seeds. Not true. Farmers in India went into debt to buy GE seeds [4], hoping for increased yield, and when those crops failed due to pest infestation, they were left more impoverished with no prospects for the future. Farmers were not told that the crops would require twice the amount of water, and that the crops do not produce viable seeds—which means the farmers would have to keep purchasing new seeds. In response, many farmers killed themselves. The rate of Indian farmer suicides began increasing after the introduction of Monsanto’s Bt cotton in 2002, and two-thirds of farmer suicides occur in five Indian states, which has come to be known as India’s “Suicide Belt.” Over 17,000 farmers in India committed suicide in 2009 alone because of Monsanto and GE seeds. Many of the farmers made their suicides a symbolic act by drinking Monsanto’s pesticide. Lynas’s primary argument here is that GMOs will feed the world and increase crop yields. Our extensive article shows that this simply isn’t true [4].
“I’d assumed that it would increase the use of chemicals. It turned out that pest-resistant cotton and maize needed less insecticide.” True about insecticides, but wrong about the rest—insecticides are not the only chemical problem [5]. GMOs have dramatically increased the use of herbicides. Roundup Ready crops have grown resistant to herbicides, creating superweeds that require even more dangerous and toxic herbicides [6].
Lynas calls the regulatory system in Europe burdensome, unnecessarily increasing the cost of GMOs. Not everywhere! Here in the US there is no regulatory system specific to GMOs, turning consumers into human guinea pigs, and concentrating money and power in the hands of few powerful biotech companies, with the USDA rubberstamping GMO deregulation [7] to the benefit of Big Farma.
“I’d assumed that GM was dangerous. It turned out that it was safer and more precise than conventional breeding.” Safer? Categorically untrue. For someone who says he has come to love the scientific method, this is a remarkably unscientific conclusion, because there have been no long-term human studies supporting the safety of GMOs [8]. What is most notable about the GMO field is the lack of independent, objective, and long-term studies in humans. There have, however, been plenty of animal studies, and here the science is becoming clearer: GMOs may be causing birth defects, high infant mortality rates, fertility problems, and sterility [9] in hamsters, rats, mice, and livestock fed GMO soy and corn, and some hamster pups even began growing hair inside their mouths. Studies indicate other serious health risks [10] as well: immune system dysregulation [11], with changes in the number of immune response cells showing up in the gut, spleen, and blood—all of which points to an allergenic and inflammatory response to GMOs; increased aging [12] (especially in the liver); dysregulation of genes associated with cholesterol synthesis, insulin regulation, cell signaling, and protein formation; and changes in the liver, kidney, spleen, and gastrointestinal system.

The real story here is not Lynas’s antics, from pie-throwing to dramatic recantations. It is the media’s coverage of the latest self-promotional stunt. Cover the stunt if you like, but please do not pretend that this has anything remotely to do with science.
9:51 AM Jan 23rd
 

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