GMO proponent Mark Lynas told the Oxford Farming Conference he wants a peace treaty with anti-GMO campaigners. But Pete Shanks says he’d do better to work on his relationship with the truth
Mark Lynas, the notorious protester-turned-advocate of GM crops, tried “to map out the contours of a potential peace treaty” with anti-GMO campaigners in a speech he gave to the Oxford Farming Conference on 5 January. After all, he said, “pretty much everyone agrees that the current farming system is not sustainable and that we urgently need to improve it.”
That much is not in dispute. But the rest of Lynas’s speech looks set to provoke mistrust rather than concord.
There is, of course, a back story.
Lynas is a techno-environmentalist of the Stewart Brand persuasion who has spent most of his career as a writer focusing on climate change. He has published four books over the past 14 years, the most recent arguing that “nuclear energy is essential to avoid catastrophic global warming.” But he achieved notoriety for a lecture he gave five years ago at the same location, which opened flamboyantly:
“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 ... I could not have chosen a more counter-productive path. I now regret it completely.”
Cat: meet pigeons. He was righteously rebutted all over the place: see here and here and here and here and here and here and here, for instance. He sometimes responded but never gave an inch. And a lot of us learned his name.
Fast-forward five years, and wouldn’t you know it, he has another book coming out in the spring, and it’s called Seeds of Science: How we got it wrong on GMOs. Aha! Not to prejudge this tome (other than asking “Who are ‘we’?”), but it’s a fair assumption that the latest speech is the opening salvo in a publicity campaign.
So is it worth critiquing the speech? Certainly I am reluctant to afford Lynas publicity, but he’s quite good at drumming up attention and is definitely well connected. Nowadays, he’s a Visiting Fellow at Cornell University and works with the Cornell Alliance for Science, whose “core donor” is the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. So we are all going to hear about this project in a couple of months and we might as well get ready.
In the 2018 speech, he opens by saying he wants “to offer an olive branch”. He suggests that “extremists aside”, most of those interested in the issue have a lot in common. (He used to regard GMWatch as extremists, and perhaps ETC Group, but is he perhaps ready to extend the hand of friendship? Probably not.) But he rapidly raises his first straw man:
“I’ve visited numerous plant breeding labs in the last 5 years and spoken to a lot of plant scientists. I have yet to meet a single one, including those using the various techniques of genetic engineering, who claim that GMOs are going to feed the world or magically solve all our agricultural problems.”
That may be true. Scientists rarely use the term ‘magically’. But why start off by implying that your opponents, with whom you have so much in common, exaggerate? He doesn’t say they do, but the paragraph makes no sense otherwise.
Then he discusses climate change, which I think we can all agree is a major issue that is affected by agriculture. He mentions obesity and eutrophication, and moves immediately into a conflation of the present with the hoped-for future (emphases added):
“Although they have yet to be proven at scale, nitrogen-efficient crops, from oilseed rape to rice, could help reduce fertiliser applications. Perhaps one day we’ll even see staple non-leguminous crops that fix their own nitrogen.”
Convincing! But two sentences later, he admits:
“Genetic modification has not yet reduced fertiliser use, contributed significantly to higher yields, or done anything to address world hunger.”
Yes, history is not kind. The first commercial GM crop, the Flavr Savr tomato (which was tasteless; I bought a six-pack), was introduced in 1992, only a year after the World Wide Web. A quarter of a century later, half the world’s population use the web; far fewer eat GMOs and the industry tries strenuously to hide their products.
But I digress. Let us move on to his “seven-point plan”. All unlinked material in quotes is from the January 2018 speech.
1. “The activists need to face up to the fact that the GMO safety debate is over.” (He tried that one in 2016.) Oh, really? See the seven responses above to his earlier speech and and this joint statement by independent scientists about why the GMO safety debate is far from over. Or poke around any of the obvious websites, including this one.
Incidentally, these activists Lynas is supposedly trying to convince to agree a “peace treaty” are hardly going to be won over by overtures that include accusations of engaging in “fearmongering” and “Franken-mumbojumbo”, and his comparing them to climate-change deniers.
To be fair, he does also criticize both scientific hype and the Nobel laureates who accused Greenpeace and others of “crimes against humanity” for their campaign against Golden Rice – though Lynas himself used to suggest that Greenpeace was “culpable in the deaths of tens of thousands of children”. But he does not mention that Golden Rice has been in development since 1982 and became the 'magical' solution to Vitamin A deficiency in 2000, yet in 2018 still has not reached its intended beneficiaries. You can’t eat promises.
2. “Activists must stop agitating for bans and prohibitions.” Instead he favours labelling, since “to a large extent the GMO issue could be resolved by people freely exercising choice in the marketplace like any other.” What a concept – that citizens could exercise choice! But then why can’t they also choose to prohibit, if they think a ban appropriate?
3. “Let’s drop the Monsanto mania.” Yes indeed, “it’s just another company,” but it was and is an entirely appropriate focus of complaint. Lynas himself has “been lobbying Monsanto for years to get out of chemicals, but instead they have done the opposite, pushing forward with a new range of crops tolerant to the herbicide dicamba, which has had a disastrous rollout in the US.” (He did write this.) So lobbying is OK but prohibitions are not? That’s a bit odd.
4. “[A]s a response to the last point, let’s agree to support public sector, non-corporate uses of genetic engineering.” Reducing big business involvement in agriculture is a goal everyone can get behind (except, I presume, Monsanto and its peers), but public sector GMOs are still GMOs, and those who are anti-GMO would still oppose them.
5. “[L]et’s all support all varieties of farming where they clearly aim towards greater sustainability.”
“So let’s drop the snide attacks on organic and agro-ecological approaches generally. I know many organic farmers, and all of them are hard-working and motivated by a desire to produce good food and look after the environment.”
“On the other hand, organic proponents need to also respect other approaches. I haven’t seen any genetic engineers going out in the night to uproot organic maize plants.”
What he omits to mention is that genetic engineering, including gene editing, is deliberately modifying organisms by altering their genetic structure. There are well-founded concerns that this could result in negative consequences for health and the environment. And the very nature of genetic engineering means that changes to the genome will proliferate and cannot be recalled or contained even if they are found to be undesirable.
It is clear that GMO agriculture cannot coexist with non-GM agriculture. Due to the fact that consumers in many countries do not want to eat GMOs, GMO contamination of non-GMO and organic crops has resulted in expensive recalls and massive losses for the food industry and growers. Organic breeding and farming, in contrast, present no such risks to GMO or chemically-based agriculture. That’s why you don’t see genetic engineers going out at night to uproot organic maize plants and why the food industry and consumers alike are relaxed about the presence of organic crops in our fields and food supply.
6. “[W]e need to be more respectful in terms of what we call each other.” Good idea! But the advice is a little hard to hear coming from someone who less than six weeks earlier likened people who oppose Monsanto’s glyphosate herbicide to witch-burners:
“You can still burn the witch in Europe — if the witch is called Monsanto.”
Lynas actually has quite a talent for trash talk. He adds:
“By the way I don’t extend this peace offering to the extremes, the cancer quacks, snake oil salesmen and anti-vaxxers who are proliferating on the internet, many of whom also fund or promote anti-GMO causes, or those who spread myths about gay genes in Africa.”
Then he moves on from invective to idiocy:
“I’ve not met a single scientist anywhere who supports eugenics, which was the big fear of many of the original anti-GMO activists back in the 1970s.”
He cites a hostile 1984 review by Stephen Jay Gould of a book by Jeremy Rifkin, who said in 1979:
“Genetic research is going to bring us one step closer to genetic engineering. That’s where they tell us to produce ideal children and the last time that happened they had blue eyes, blond hair, and Aryan genes.”
Gould accused Rifkin of “scare tactics” and “partisan heat”. Some of Gould’s work stands up well, but in this case, Rifkin was right. To name but one, Dr Jeffrey Steinberg of The Fertility Institutes already sells sex selection and has several times promised to introduce trait selection — eyes, hair and skin color. He may already have sold traits; he certainly wants to.
Everyone who advocates germline genetic engineering is endorsing eugenics, even if they don’t know it. Eugenics is not just a government intervention involving genocide or sterilization; that is negative eugenics. Positive eugenics has also been a goal from the 19th-century restart. That is, encouraging the “best” genes, whether by breeding or direct intervention. And government is not necessarily involved; think of the mid-western “Better Baby Contests” in the early twentieth century — they were absolutely eugenic in intent, and proudly so.
Lynas strongly opposed heritable human genetic modification in 2007, citing with approval this article by Richard Hayes, the then director of the Center for Genetics and Society. He was certainly clear at that time that he had met scientists who not only supported eugenics but were actively pursuing it – and he didn’t approve of what they were doing. While conceding that they may not have used the term “eugenics”, he correctly noted that “the commodification of human reproduction could lead us blindly down the same eventual path”. So when Lynas claims now that “I’ve not met a single scientist anywhere who supports eugenics”, he is either misleading his readers or has a problem with his memory.
7. “I think we should recognise that this is first and foremost an ethical debate.” Setting aside the safety issues that remain unresolved (whatever Lynas may think), the ethics are indeed extremely important. But Lynas appears to have very little clue about what an ethical debate should encompass. He approvingly quotes Dr Denis Gonsalves, “the inventor of the genetically engineered virus resistant papaya now being grown extensively by family farmers in Hawaii”:
“If you are telling me that you think it is wrong to move a gene between species, that is your belief and I respect that. If you are telling me that it is dangerous, that is a question that can be resolved by science.”
Well, maybe. In the long run. Provided someone is prepared to do the research and can locate the funding for it. But even granting that, ethics is more complicated and important than he seems to realize. Not being actively poisonous is only the first prerequisite for approval of any food; that’s older than the human race. But the ethics of intervention in the natural world, be it directly in humans or edible crops, or indirectly by means of economic interventions or other forces, are wide-ranging and often hard to resolve. Consider this, in terms of intervention on people:
“As so often with genetics research, the potential to treat human diseases is wielded as an ethical cover to trump any legitimate wider concerns. Implanting human-cell nuclei in cow eggs may or may not eventually help people with Alzheimer’s, but the implications of this technology are highly disturbing, even at this early stage.”
That was Lynas in 2007. Personally, I like that guy much better.
Overall, he now favours a live-and-let-live approach, in which those nuts who want to eat organic are allowed to, while the smart folks eat the good stuff:
“To go back to the Hawaii example, if you don’t think it is ethically right to put a gene from papaya ringspot virus into a papaya, then you need to understand that you will be eating a lot of virus-contaminated papayas in future, or that farmers may no longer be able to grow them at all as the disease proliferates.”
This kind of scare-mongering comes up all the time in the promotion of GM crops and foods. Most recently, we’re going to lose chocolate, except that in fact we’re not. The same keeps happening with bananas, which some people seem determined to modify. Lynas continues:
“You may likewise think it is wrong for scientists to take genes for synthesising omega 3 fatty acids from marine algae and put them into oil-producing brassica vegetables. If that is your belief, like Dr Gonsalves, I respect that. But you do need to suggest where else we can get omega 3s from, if we are not to strip the oceans bare due to overfishing.”
What about from laboratory-farmed algae, which are already a major source of commercial omega-3 oils as well as being the source of the gene that scientists are trying to engineer into plants? This type of production doesn’t involve overfishing. Or is this solution unacceptable to Lynas because it doesn’t require agricultural genetic engineering, which he is now paid to promote “to the exclusion of almost everything else”?
If Lynas is serious about offering an olive branch, he will need to begin by addressing facts and evidence with honesty.
Pete Shanks is a writer and activist, educated among the grey spires of Oxford but now sensibly based in Santa Cruz, California.