Somewhat to the discomfort of his green comrades-in-arms, British activist Mark Lynas has been evolving in his views on various environmental issues lately. For example, Lynas now admits that he was wrong when declared that biotech crops posed significant risks to people and the natural world. In a speech delivered yesterday at the Oxford Farming Conference Lynas declared:
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.
Discovered science? Well, better late than never. Lynas goes on to admit:
…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.
To some extent this old news. Last year, I wrote a column reviewing Lynas' new book, The God Species, in which I welcomed him to the "Reality-Based Community." If only somehow we could get Lynas' fellow activists to actually read science and accept the broad scientific consensus on the safety of biotech crops.