INT – TIME TO END ANTI-GM CONSPIRACY THEORY
29 April 2013
Find below an edited version of a presentation by former anti-GM campaigner Mark Lynas hosted by the International Programs – College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, Cornell University.
For the full text, or to watch the presentation, follow the link above.
I think the controversy over GMOs represents one of the greatest science communications failures of the past half-century. Millions, possibly billions, of people have come to believe what is essentially a conspiracy theory, generating fear and misunderstanding about a whole class of technologies on an unprecedentedly global scale.
This matters enormously because these technologies – in particular the various uses of molecular biology to enhance plant breeding potential – are clearly some of our most important tools for addressing food security and future environmental change…
So for me also there is also a moral dimension to this. The fact that I helped promote unfounded scare stories in the early stages of the anti-GMO movement in the mid 1990s is the reason why I now feel compelled to speak out against them. I have a personal responsibility to help put these myths to rest because I was so complicit in initially promoting them…
Following a decade and a half of scientific and field research, I think we can now say with very high confidence that the key tenets of the anti-GMO case were not just wrong in points of fact but in large parts the precise opposite of the truth…
The anti-GMO campaign has also undoubtedly led to unnecessary deaths…
I think this campaign is shameful and has brought the entire environmental movement into disrepute, with damaging consequences for the very beneficial work that many environmentalists do…
Science tells us today that the coming age of ecological scarcity extends much further than just global warming. If we wish to preserve a semblance of current biodiversity on this planet, for example, we must urgently curtail agricultural land conversion in rainforest and other sensitive areas.
This is why organic agriculture is an ecological dead-end: it is dramatically less efficient in terms of land use, so likely leads to higher rates of biodiversity loss overall. Maybe organic producers should be legally mandated to specify on labels the overall land-use efficiency of their products. I’m all in favour of food labelling by the way when it comes to something important that the consumer should have the right to know.
Of course conventional agriculture has well-documented and major environmental failings, not least of which is the massive use of agricultural fertilisers which is destroying river and ocean biology around the world. But the flip side of this is that intensive agriculture’s extremely efficient use of land is conversely of great ecological benefit.
For example, if we had tried to produce all of today’s yield using the technologies of 1960 – largely organically in other words – we would have had to cultivate an additional 3 billion hectares, the area of two South Americas.
We cannot afford the luxury of romanticised but inefficient agricultural systems like organic because the planet is already maxxed out in terms of both land and water. Our only option therefore is to learn to do more with less. This is known as sustainable intensification – it’s about improving the efficiency of our most ecologically scarce resources.
But remember, everything is changing. Food demand will inevitably skyrocket this half-century because of the twin pressures of population growth and economic development. We need to sustainably increase food production by at least 100% by 2050 to feed a larger and increasingly affluent global population.
It is a truism to say that people are hungry not because there is a global shortage of food in an absolute sense, but because they are too poor to afford to eat. But it is a dangerous fallacy to suggest therefore that because the world on average has enough food, we should therefore oppose efforts to improve agricultural productivity in food insecure countries.
In fact probably the best way to address rural poverty is to ensure that subsistence farmers the world over enjoy more reliable and increasingly productive harvests. This will enable them both to feed their own families and to generate a surplus to sell at a profit so their children can go to school.
Is genetic modification a silver bullet way to achieve this? Of course not. It cannot build better roads or chase away corrupt officials. But surely seeds which deliver higher levels of nutrition, which protect the resulting plant against pests without the need for expensive chemical inputs, and which have greater yield resilience in drought years are least worth a try?…
However, a showdown is looming, because some of the most exciting biotechnology initiatives are now based in African countries.
But if the activists have their way, none of these improved seeds will ever leave the laboratory. And this brings me, by way of conclusion, to the essentially authoritarian nature of the anti-GMO project.
All these activists, strikingly few of whom are themselves smallholder farmers in Africa or India, claim to know exactly which seeds developing country farmers should be allowed to plant. Those which are not ideologically approved by self-appointed campaigners should be banned forever.
In the final assessment only way that conspiracy theories die is because more and more people begin to wake up to reality and reject them. Then perhaps there comes a tipping point where what was once received wisdom becomes increasingly understood for the foolish nonsense that it always was.
I think – I hope – that we are close to this tipping point today. And now, with just a little extra push, we can all join in consigning anti-GMO denialism to the dustbin of history where it belongs.