An Activist Recants on GM Foods

Agriculture, Commentary, Environment, Frontier Centre, Worth A Look

Environmental journalist Mark Lynas used to think that genetically modified crops were evil. He was a leader in the anti-GM movement, and spent years helping to rip out GM crops. The crusade against GM foods was one of the most successful environmental campaigns of all time. Today, GM technology is feared and reviled by celebrity chefs, foodies and peasant farmers around the world. GM crops are banned in much of Africa and India, and all but banned in Europe.

But now, Mr. Lynas has recanted. He admits he was unequivocally, disastrously wrong about GM foods, and he’s offering his apology. “I could not have chosen a more counterproductive path,” he told a British farming conference last Thursday. “I now regret it completely.”

What led to his change of heart? He started studying the science. He discovered there was no scientific evidence for the alleged dangers of GM technology, and overwhelming evidence for its value in increasing crop yields and producing more and better food to feed the hungry of the world. “The real Frankenstein’s monster was not GM technology, but our reaction against it,” he said.

Within hours, Mr. Lynas’s speech was tweeted around the world. Not everyone applauded. India’s Vandana Shiva, a leading anti-GM activist, said allowing farmers to use GMOs is like saying rapists should have freedom to rape. But most of the reaction has been positive. “Something has moved in the terms of this debate,” Mr. Lynas told me. “It’s like the cresting of a wave. It’s as if everyone has simultanously realized that the anti-GM movement doesn’t actually have anything backing it up.”

Something else is changing, too. People are hungry to hear from a new generation of environmental moderates who value science and pragmatism over ideology and absolutes. They want to hear from those like Mr. Lynas, who think technology can be a force for good, and want to find practical approaches to environmental problems. They want to hear that environmental responsibility isn’t always incompatible with human betterment and economic progress.

Such voices are all too rare. But without them, the environmental movement is doomed to terminal irrelevance.

If there ever was a moral issue, it’s GM technology, which has been stalled and blocked in the very parts of the world that need it most. By 2050, as Mr. Lynas points out, the world will have to feed nearly 10 billion people on roughly the same land area we use today, using limited fertilizer, water and pesticides in the context of a changing climate. If standards of living continue to rise in developing countries – and we should all hope they do – that’s a doubling of global demand. The only way to get there from here is with technological innovation that proceeds much more rapidly than we’re allowing it to now. The alternative is a lot more hunger.

In the teeth of all the evidence, there’s simply no argument – moral, economic, scientific, political or any other kind – for opposing agricultural biotechnology (which, as Mr. Lynas notes, has become dominated by big multinationals because green opposition has made it so expensive to develop). The fight against biotech is, at root, a contest between the aesthetic preferences of the developed world’s urban elites and people in India and Africa who don’t have enough to eat.

That’s why Mr. Lynas went public, as loudly and eloquently as he could. “I’ve felt a strong burden of moral responsibility for having effectively told an enormous lie for many years,” he told me. “I was pushed by my own conscience.”