Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are one of the best things going right now. They increase crop yields in extreme climates, are resistant to disease, and are one of our best technological solutions to feeding an ever-growing global population in an environmentally sustainable way. But to many people, they are just creepy, which is why much of the world has been slow to embrace this wonder technology.
Could that soon change? Mark Lynas, the man who spearheaded the green movement’s opposition to GMOs in the 1990s, apologized yesterday for “demonising an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment.” In a fifty minute lecture delivered at the Oxford Farming Conference, he delivered a startling mea culpa:
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.
When I first heard about Monsanto’s GM soya I knew exactly what I thought. Here was a big American corporation with a nasty track record, putting something new and experimental into our food without telling us. Mixing genes between species seemed to be about as unnatural as you can get—here was humankind acquiring too much technological power; something was bound to go horribly wrong. These genes would spread like some kind of living pollution. It was the stuff of nightmares.
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.
Greens are always eager to remind us of their scientific bona fides when discussing climate change, but they are conveniently forgotten when it comes to GMOs. Indeed, GMO opponents have been named the “climate skeptics of the left” due to their neglect of scientific research in the GMO field. Pamela Ronald, a UC Davis geneticist, observes that “There is broad scientiﬁc consensus that genetically engineered crops currently on the market are safe to eat.”
The environmental movement’s campaign against GMOs has relied heavily on lurid imagery and rhetoric about “Frankenstein foods” to convince us of the dangers of these supercrops. Given the unfortunate success of this campaign, which led to the banning of GMOs in much of Europe and Asia, it is encouraging that one of the movement’s leaders has admitted his past mistakes.
The green argument is much stronger when it hews to science, not to emotional manipulation.