Genetically Modified Foods: There’s No Science Behind Its Opponents

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?

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14 Responses to Genetically Modified Foods: There’s No Science Behind Its Opponents

  1. Pingback: Can Genetically Modified Food Save Millions Of Lives? | Reason and Politics

  2. Ken R says:

    They still should label GMOs. People have a right to know the content in their food.

  3. uberspeck says:

    Interesting article, but it’s not quite enough to convince me. I’ve eaten enough fresh home grown produce to realize that the stuff we get in the store has made a very substantial departure from what it once was. Those deep red, flavorful tomatoes I ate as a kid are now a strange translucent orange color with all the flavor of a sheet of cardboard. Sure, they grow faster and are larger, but you can’t convince me they have the nutritional value of the unaltered fruit. Our entire food culture in this country is a disaster. We alter, enhance or replace natural sources with artificial supplements in the name of “efficiency” or to “provide for the exploding population”…yet our production levels commonly exceed demand and the industry has diversified by cramming the stuff into everything from fuel to plastic. The wife and I have decided to try going wheat free for a while to see if it’s truly beneficial. You would not believe everything that has wheat in it…it’s insane…corn is even worse.

    :: pauses to breathe ::

    Anyway, I’m ranting about broader issues here, but IMHO it’s premature to declare GMO “healthy”. In a more regulated/tested/limited approach I might be more accepting of it (FDA? Where the hell are you?). The problem is we’ve found so many nasty things to do to ourselves and our environment via cleaning solvents, hormones, steroids etc. that throwing artificially genetically modified stuff into that mix can’t possibly be helping. We’ve perfected the mass production of “food like” products and we’re creating a population of sickly, morbidly obese mutants that are crushing the life out of our health industry. That’s a rant for another time 😉

    • I figured this topic would fire you up; I thought of you as I wrote it. You know I’m right there with you when it comes to our food culture and all the poison we allow in our foods. Its a crime the FDA doesn’t do more to keep that crap out of our foods.

      This article changed my mind on GMOs as an idea. I don’t look at them as totally bad or good. The example of pesticide reduction in certain crops really stood out to me. If thats all they changed in the plant and we can reduce pesticides, I think thats a huge benefit.

      I really want to form my opinions on evidence, and in this case the evidence seems to be that GMO when properly done can benefit humanity.

  4. I don’t know. I’m still leery about them. You need decades worth of testing to know the long-term effects.

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