When Mark Lynas took the stage here Jan. 23 as keynote speaker at the 2013 edition of Manitoba Potato Production Days, he knew he was likely a strange and exotic creature to his audience.
The British environmentalist and author has been involved in the environmental movement since the mid-1990s and for many years he was an ardent anti-GMO activist.
“I might not be the first person to speak here who has been critical of GMO crops — but have you ever had anyone speak to you who’s trashed GM crops in the field and lived to tell about it?” Lynas asked the audience.
So what had brought him to Brandon to speak to a group of potato farmers in the middle of a January cold snap?
A change of heart, or perhaps more accurately his head. In recent years, he has realized that he was guilty of a double standard with his views on GM crops.
“I first became aware of GM crops in 1995 and 1996, just after I had finished university and started my work as an environmentalist,” Lynas said. “I didn’t know much about it, other than it involved a company called Monsanto that wanted to pollute our food supply with GM soy.
“I was, however, speaking from a position of near-total ignorance.”
Just how little he knew about GM crops was highlighted by the very different approach he took about another issue he cares passionately about — global warming. Reeling off facts and figures at the front of the room, he underlined how much of that knowledge he had absorbed over the years.
“I know that some of you probably hold different views on global warming, and I would welcome that discussion,” Lynas said. “The key point, however, is that I felt to participate in discussions meaningfully, I had to become an expert on the science and I spent literally years in the library doing just that. As I did, I found myself telling people over and over again that we had to stick with peer-reviewed scientific literature and look at what the scientific consensus was.”
At the same time, he continued to dash off unresearched anti-GMO articles in various British newspapers.
“It’s really quite embarrassing to me, looking back,” Lynas said, flashing up a clipping from the Guardian newspaper.
“The truth was, a similar scientific consensus has emerged about GM crops, which says that they are perfectly safe,” Lynas said. “A lot of the things I had come to believe turned out to be mythology.”
Today Lynas is a full-out supporter of the drive to adopt GM crops. He says continued human population growth will make food production that’s environmentally sustainable even more important.
“As an environmentalist, I see this as a very important issue and GM crops will be a very important part of this,” Lynas said.
Lynas noted that modern, industrial-scale farming might not be as folksy as the attractive little organic farm, but it has a key attribute — efficiency. It produces more food on less land and from an environmental perspective, every acre of land left uncultivated is a victory for biodiversity.
“If we wanted to produce as much food as we do today, using technology and practices from 1961, we would need to cultivate significantly more land,” Lynas said. Worldwide, that figure would be roughly equivalent to adding the equivalent of two South American continents to our arable land base.
“If we still used that level of technology, two things could have happened. There would be no Amazonian rainforest, no trees, the earth would have been decimated. Or the human population would have been decimated.”
Safe and legitimate
Better to use the safe and legitimate technology that is available, and keep uncultivated acres uncultivated and provide humans with their nutritional needs, he said.
Lynas said that in the face of a near-total scientific consensus on the safety of GM crops, it was bordering on unconscionable for activists from wealthy nations to stand in the way of their adoption.
“I’m very lucky. My children have never gone to bed hungry, because I am fortunate enough to live in a wealthy nation, as are all of you,” Lynas told the audience. So while Greenpeace and other activist groups lead campaigns and block the adoption of things like Golden Rice, which addresses vitamin A deficiencies, children continue to die and go blind.
“They are doing this while children are dying of preventable nutrition-linked diseases,” Lynas said. “They have the luxury of doing this because I’ve never met anyone from Greenpeace who wasn’t very well fed indeed.”
But slowly the tide appears to be turning. Lynas cited a recent attempt to organize protests around the development of an aphid-resistant GM wheat at the Rothamsted Research facility in the U.K. by a group dubbing itself Take Back the Flour. Lynas described himself as helping the scientists with their public response as a form of self-imposed penance for his earlier crop destruction efforts.
The protest fizzled, as Lynas illustrated with a photo of it in his presentation.
“You can see that group under a single tree in the distance — that amounts to the entirety of the remaining anti-GM movement in Britain,” Lynas said. “In fact, about two dozen of them had to be imported from France by bus because there weren’t enough of them left in England.
“I think the public, and more importantly, the media, have moved on,” Lynas said. “They’re willing to listen to the other side of this argument in a way they never were a few years ago.”
This is a good thing, because the need for GM crops has become even more pressing as those years have passed.
“We need to accelerate, not stop,” Lynas told the audience. “Without this, we’re heading into a very chilling century indeed.”