Mark Lynas, the British author who made headlines a year ago by reversing his opposition to genetically modified crops says it was the compelling science on climate change that made him do it.
“You can’t take a position saying, ‘I am defending climate change on the basis of the scientific consensus, but I’m opposing GMOs and I am opposing the scientific consensus,’” Lynas, an award-winning author and journalist based in Oxford, England said at CropConnect in Winnipeg Feb. 19. “Either you listen to the scientists or you don’t.”
Lynas touched on climate change during his presentation, saying it’s a serious threat. But most of his speech was on the benefits of genetically modified (GM) crops and how they can help feed the world’s exploding population, especially in developing nations.
Lynas, a lean, boyish 41-year-old, also supports nuclear power, arguing it is less harmful to the environment than other energy sources.
In his mid-20s Lynas was so opposed to GM crops he helped destroy GM test plots in the United Kingdom — something he apologized for at a farm conference in Oxford, England last January, sparking stories in the New York Times and other renowned publications.
“I was convinced that GMOs were something unnatural, something polluted, something despicable, which had to be removed in their totality, even involving criminal activities…,” he said in an interview.
“That was misinformation, even though I didn’t know that at the time, that persist still to this day.”
Ninety-nine per cent of climate scientists agree the earth is getting warmer because of human-caused increases in carbon dioxide, Lynas said. The same consensus exists around the safety of GM crops.
Lynas said science and empiricism are being pushed aside by emotion. That’s why he also campaigns against those who oppose vaccinations.
Lynas said he spent hours studying in Oxford University’s library researching the evidence on climate change.
“When I first began to realize I got this wrong (about GMOs) my immediate instinct was to lapse into denial… because I thought once you go down this path there is no going back and it will make me a lightning rod for controversy and opposition and accusations of treachery, and all of that stuff has happened,” he said in the interview.
Critics have questioned Lynas’s motives, accusing him of being a biotechnology cheerleader.
Biotechnology is good because it creates higher-yielding crops that can protect themselves from pests, reducing the need for toxic pesticides, he said.
But he said he’s not interested in becoming a “travelling salesman for GMOs,” stressing that his speakers’ fee for appearing in Winnipeg was paid for by farmers, rather than corporate sponsors.
“You’ve only one shot at retaining your credibility,” he said. “I’m constantly requested to speak for a substantial fee for one or another big company and I always say no.
“I’m not here to defend industrialized monoculture,” he said. “That model isn’t what’s going to feed Africa in the next two or three decades because you’re talking about a continent of subsistence farmers… and there are plenty of ways where biotechnology can assist there.”
While he stopped short of calling Golden Rice, a GM which is vitamin A enhanced, a solution to blindness, he said it can save children while work continues towards a more nutritionally diversified diet.
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Lynas has joined Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences as a visiting fellow. Cornell, with Gates Foundation funding, is working on GM crops such as Bt eggplant. Unlike conventional eggplant the GM version won’t have to be sprayed 120 times a year with toxic organophosphates, he said. Free seeds are distributed to small Bangladeshi farmers.
Two viruses threaten cassava, an important food crop in parts of Africa, but there is a biotech solution, Lynas said.
He said the anti-GM campaign is highly targeted and culturally specific. In Africa, opponents claim GM crops cause sterility or homosexuality. In the West, they claim it causes autism or cancer.
Although the biotechnology industry has been dead set against labelling, Lynas said openness is how it will build trust.
“You can’t hide the presence of biotech products in people’s food supplies and just expect them to just trust you,” Lynas said. “When people know that something is being hidden from them they think it’s more risky…”
With labelling there should be no exceptions, he added.
“Ubiquity is our friend here.”
With the world’s population expected to hit 9.5 billion by mid-century food production over the next 30 years needs to double, according to Lynas. The world needs a second green revolution and biotechnology will be key.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug, the father of the first green revolution, warned against eschewing innovation, before dying in 2009, Lynas said.
“He was saying if we reject the potential to improve our crops then we really are likely to consign people to a future of food insecurity, famine and also a crisis of global biodiversity,” Lynas said. “So that’s what we’ve got to not do.”
While organic farming encourages biodiversity it is less productive, he said.
“Half of humanity would starve if we tried to go organic…,” he said, alluding to the importance of chemically produced nitrogen fertilizer.
“Biotechnology is one of many tools, of course,” Lynas said later. “This is a complex area and I don’t know anyone who is simplistically advocating just GMOs.”