Vocal Anti-GMO leader changes tune

January 4

From Science 2.0, By Hank Campbell

British environmentalist Mark Lynas was an early advocate against GMOs and, as he tells it, that meant he was an early advocate for demonizing scientists. 

While most actual scientists did not give much credence to an offhand claim by researcher Árpád Pusztai in the mid-1990s that a genetically-modified potato damaged the immune system of an animal, because the results were unpublished and unverified, UK media of the scare journalism kind and British activists took off with it and the "Frankenfood" movement was born.

Here is what Lynas writes about his early efforts :

These fears spread like wildfire, and within a few years GM was essentially banned in Europe, and our worries were exported by NGOs like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth to Africa, India and the rest of Asia, where GM is still banned today. This was the most successful campaign I have ever been involved with.

This was also explicitly an anti-science movement. We employed a lot of imagery about scientists in their labs cackling demonically as they tinkered with the very building blocks of life. Hence the Frankenstein food tag – this absolutely was about deep-seated fears of scientific powers being used secretly for unnatural ends. What we didn’t realise at the time was that the real Frankenstein’s monster was not GM technology, but our reaction against it.

Last spring, 55 members of the US Congress finally became as anti-science as the British and asked the FDA to put warning labels on GMOs, but there is hope for those anti-science politicians because Lynas, one of the people who originally set out to cripple biology - and did, including acts of eco-terrorism - has decided to accept science.

Some skepticism of new science was warranted, of course, I was concerned in the early days of genetically-modified food also - as I have said many times, given my way, nothing my family eats would be grown, killed, picked, cleaned, processed or cooked by any hands but mine - but an irrational standard for proof that no product can satisfy is just anti-science fundamentalism and I never caved into that.  Today, I have far more confidence in conventional farming than I do in organic food, despite being a farm-grown food person my entire life. Yet a segment of the public remains (in some instances) skeptical of GMOs and (in others) educated by activist public relations scare tactics. Even on Science 2.0, we have people who constantly snipe at every biologist and biology study about food. Biologists get the brunt of derisive comments on this site anyway, mostly of the 'you can't prove it's safe' kind about food and then all kinds of crackpot comments about evolution.

But it's nice to see that some activists can be convinced; we're not going to see anyone at the Union of Concerned Scientists accept science in my lifetime, I predict, but then no one would have predicted Lynas would change his tune either. He said corporations were evil, they were greedy, none of the science breakthroughs were real and if they were, they would never help poor people.  All the same stuff we have read time and again. Due to that public relations work, any food that is a GMO is spurned by anti-science activists and politicians who ironically claim to care about helping the world's poor - they think a perfectly safe genetically modified ear of corn is worse for poor people than letting them starve.

But Lynas dropped an intellectual bomb in his Oxford Farming Conference lecture (posted on his site). He said he was wrong about GMOs (bold mine):

"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."

If that doesn't reaffirm your faith in the power of science outreach, I don't know what can. Science actually won over someone who was anti-science. Read More