IN THE 1990s, Mark Lynas was a prominent anti-GM activist at the forefront of a world-wide movement mounting protest campaigns and destroying GM crops.
Two decades later the UK environmentalist changed his mind, and has transformed into a vocal GM proponent, authoring a number of environmental science books and travelling the world speaking in support of GMOs.
Mr Lynas addressed the Rural Press Club of Queensland yesterday. This is an edited version of his presentation:
What changed Mark Lynas’s mind about GMOs?
What happened, largely, was I discovered I’d got the science wrong. That mattered to me because by that stage I’d become somebody who’d been writing books about science on global warming and I wanted to be seen as someone who got the science right.
It is important to understand it doesn’t matter to most people most of the time whether we get the science right on an issue. The motivations people have in formulating their opinions about things are not evidence-based most of the time. That is not how humans work. We are a very tribal species and our psychology is such that most of the time we assimilate information through the lens of confirmation bias.
The only reason I changed my mind was because I moved from being an environmental activist to a science writer. That led to a conflict because while I was out there arguing (the science of) the climate change issue there was an equivalent (scientific) consensus on the safety of GM crops. So, I was on the horns of a dilemma.
It took a few years before I developed the courage to make a public apology speech in 2013.
Transforming the Third World
A good news story is what happened in Bangladesh. In 2014 the Bangladeshy government gave farmers a Bt eggplant (with inbuilt insect resistance).
Eggplant is an important vegetable crop for farmers, but is infected by a serious pest called fruit and shoot borer. Farmers in Bangladesh have to control this pest by hand spraying with toxic insecticides you won’t find in Australia or other well-regulated countries.
During the growing season they could be spraying between 80 and 140 times. Pesticides were having a serious impact on people’s health and the environment.
It was an obvious intervention to introduce a GM crop that was pest resistant.
So, the Bt eggplant has had a very successful roll out. There are now 30,000 farmers across Bangladesh who are growing this crop.
Their pesticide use has declined by more than 90 per cent.
I’m a rare creature. I’m a progressive environmentalist. I’m a ‘green’ person who believes in progress and that science can and should be allowed to solve our problems and push farming in a more stable direction.
Part of that is I believe helping countries that are in extreme poverty the number one challenge.
Access to biotechnology is a social justice issue. For me as a progressive environmentalist, it is absolutely right that we fight against those who are trying to block some of the poorest farmers in the world from having the benefits of modern technology.
GMOs and the world population issue
When it comes to the population question, it is invariably an elderly white man who stands up and implies that there are too many African children being born and we shouldn’t be feeding these people because it will worsen the population issue.
That is not only morally reprehensible but imperatively incorrect.
What happens is if you do feed children and help people emerge from poverty you get a demographic transition and the fertility rate goes right down.
That has happened all over the developing world. That has got us to the point where the global fertility rate is now down to about 2.3.
So, the population problem is solving itself because development happens and because children survive past their early years.
Winning the war of words
I feel optimistic that science is finally winning the war of words on the GMO issue. Most of the environmental groups that were most actively campaigning against GMOs, Greenpeace in particular, are dialling back on their actions.
I think their experience destroying GM wheat a few years ago in Australia really damaged their reputation. For these groups, reputation is everything.
Their reputation is invested in people’s perception that they are a science-based advocacy group, because otherwise they are on the horns of the same dilemma I was – Greenpeace is out there saying you must listen to what they say on climate change because they are taking the scientific evidence, but they are basically ‘climate change deniers’ when it comes to their perspective on GMOs.
That is not a winning strategy and is one I think they are moving away from.
Building a pro-science movement
You have to build a movement. There is a pro-science movement which has come into being around the world. There have been marches for science that we have helped organise in places like Nigeria, Uganda and the Philippines.
We have tried to bring in the developing countries whereas up until now it had been a very Western phenomenon.
It is strange thing that you have to go out there and defend the idea of objective truth.
The trend of modern politics has moved in a very disturbing direction which is wrapped up in the rise of populist movements. The Kremlin is one of the main backers of anti-GMO mythology. Why is Putin trying to sow the seeds of discord? Because the agenda is to undermine and corrode public trust in institutions, democratic institutions in particular.
So, it helps to understand the wider political contexts in which these debates are happening.
So, the movement we need is not just pro-science, it needs to be pro-democracy.
Monsanto missed opportunity
It is always good to support your product, but it has to be done in a way that doesn’t damage public understanding or doesn’t undermine public trust.
That’s not how Monsanto behaved initially. They pushed their Roundup Ready (herbicide tolerant) trait. But, had they led with insect resistance as a technology I think we would be in a very different place because they would have been able to go out with the message saying it would reduce pesticides.
Instead, they went with herbicide tolerance, which was clearly going to increase herbicides. So, the message the public took was that GMOs increase pesticide increase. That message has stuck in the public mind and is something the anti-GMO groups continue to emphasise.
That is why they now focus on glyphosate as a campaign tool because it is a proxy war against Monsanto and GMOs. That is the new front.
I think CRISPR and the new gene editing technologies will succeed.
I don’t think the anti-GMO groups will be successful in demonising them because it is a difficult case to make. They have to say that precise, sequence-specific, targeted mutations are worse than untargeted, random mutations which is what we have had before.
It doesn’t make intuitive sense to defend older technologies when you have new and precise technologies on offer.
Demonising and scaremongering
In the United States, about 40 per cent of the population believes GMOs are safe.
Public understanding is not very high. Polls that have asked similar questions about whether you are happy to have DNA in your food find there is a percentage who say they are not and they want their food to be DNA-free!
So, if you ask a question you will elicit a certain response.
The general level of public fear about GMOs is not very high, but people generally think that GMOs are possibly bad and they ought to go for the non-GMO product.
So, it is a big challenge to improve people’s understanding.
One of the things I have backed is GMO labelling of foods. I believe the best tool we have in this game is transparency to build public trust.
If you tell people what is in their food it removes one of the main tools of the anti-GMO groups who say the companies are smuggling dangerous things onto your dinner plate without you knowing. That is guaranteed to increase your fear.
If you do the opposite and say everything is on the label, public fear dissipates.
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