This is something I did not see coming: I’ve changed my mind on GMOs because Mark Lynas, one the original anti-GMO activists, has changed his mind. Not only has he changed his mind, he is being extremely vocal about it. His speech is 5,000 words, the video is nearly an hour, but if you are at all interested in what science has to say about GMOs its a must read. He starts his speech with the following:
I want to start with some apologies. For the record, here and upfront, I apologise 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 demonising an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment.
As an environmentalist, and someone who believes that everyone in this world has a right to a healthy and nutritious diet of their choosing, I could not have chosen a more counter-productive path. I now regret it completely.
So I guess you’ll be wondering – what happened between 1995 and now that made me not only change my mind but come here and admit it? Well, the answer is fairly simple: I discovered science, and in the process I hope I became a better environmentalist.
GMOs are something I have been extremely leery about. It just seems wrong. However, as Lynas points out, we must follow the science, and science, to my surprise, has shown GMOs to be safe for humans and the environment. Lynas continues:
My second climate book, Six Degrees, was so sciency that it even won the Royal Society science books prize, and climate scientists I had become friendly with would joke that I knew more about the subject than them. And yet, incredibly, at this time in 2008 I was still penning screeds in the Guardian attacking the science of GM – even though I had done no academic research on the topic, and had a pretty limited personal understanding. I don’t think I’d ever read a peer-reviewed paper on biotechnology or plant science even at this late stage.
Obviously this contradiction was untenable. What really threw me were some of the comments underneath my final anti-GM Guardian article. In particular one critic said to me: so you’re opposed to GM on the basis that it is marketed by big corporations. Are you also opposed to the wheel because because it is marketed by the big auto companies?
So I did some reading. And I discovered that one by one my cherished beliefs about GM turned out to be little more than green urban myths.
I’d assumed that it would increase the use of chemicals. It turned out that pest-resistant cotton and maize needed less insecticide.
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.
I’d assumed that Terminator Technology was robbing farmers of the right to save seed. It turned out that hybrids did that long ago, and that Terminator never happened.
I’d assumed that no-one wanted GM. Actually what happened was that Bt cotton was pirated into India and roundup ready soya into Brazil because farmers were so eager to use them.
I’d assumed that GM was dangerous. It turned out that it was safer and more precise than conventional breeding using mutagenesis for example; GM just moves a couple of genes, whereas conventional breeding mucks about with the entire genome in a trial and error way.
But what about mixing genes between unrelated species? The fish and the tomato? Turns out viruses do that all the time, as do plants and insects and even us – it’s called gene flow.
Slate has a great review of Lyna’s mea culpa, and salutes him:
To admit that you got something wrong—whether for almost two decades, like Lynas did, or in a single but influential article, like Allen did—is terrifying. It is also the mark of intellectual rigor.
Lynas concludes that people who want to stick with organic are entitled to—but they should not stand in the way of others who would use science to find more efficient ways to feed billions. “[T]he GM debate is over. It is finished. We no longer need to discuss whether or not it is safe. … You are more likely to get hit by an asteroid than to get hurt by GM food,” he says.
Now the question is, will his former anti-GMO fellows heed his urge to review the science—or will they call him a turncoat shill for Monsanto?