A Change of Heart: Former Anti-GMO Advocate Apology

Mark Lynas, a former anti-GMO advocate, shares his "change of heart" remarks at Cornell University on biotechnology's future role.

Published on: May 3, 2013

Within days of legislation being introduced in U.S. Congress to require labeling of genetically modified foods, the co-founder of Europe's anti-GM movement was on the campus of Cornell University. This time, Mark Lynas had a much different spin on genetic engineering or genetic modified organisms, a key biotech tool.

Early this year, Lynas stunned the environmental and anti-GMO worlds by publicly apologizing for "demonizing" biotech. Following are excerpts from his remarks at the Cornell conference on biotech's role in adapting to global climate change. Warning: It's long, but fully loaded with facts.

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.

A Change of Heart: Former Anti-GMO Advocate Apology
A Change of Heart: Former Anti-GMO Advocate Apology

This matters enormously. 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.

History surely offers us, from witch trials to eugenics, numerous examples of how when public misunderstanding and superstition becomes widespread on an issue. Irrational policymaking is the inevitable consequence, and great damage is done to peoples' lives as a result.

This is what has happened with the GMOs food scare in Europe, Africa and many other parts of the world. Allowing anti-GMO activists to dictate policymaking on biotechnology is like putting homeopaths in charge of the health service, or asking anti-vaccine campaigners to take the lead in eradicating polio.

The time has now come for everyone with a commitment to the primacy of the scientific method and evidence-based policy-making to decisively reject the anti-GMO conspiracy theory. We must work together to begin to undo the damage.


Lynas' apology
I would much prefer to live a quieter life. However, following my apology for my former anti-GMO activism at my Oxford speech in January, I have been subject to a coordinated campaign of intimidation and hate, mostly via the internet.

I have a personal responsibility to help put these myths to rest because I was so complicit in initially promoting them. My activism has done real damage in the world.

I am now convinced that many people have died unnecessarily because of mistakes that we in the environmental movement collectively made in promoting anti-GMO fear. 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 were in large parts the precise opposite of the truth.

This is why I use the term "conspiracy theory". Populist ideas about conspiracies arise spontaneously when powerful ideological narratives collide with major world events, rare occasions where even a tiny number of dedicated activists can create a lasting change in public consciousness.

Conspiracies can be deadly
Successful conspiracy theories can do real damage. In Nigeria, an outbreak of Muslim conspiracy theorizing against polio vaccination led to a renewed polio outbreak. it spread to 20 other countries just when the disease was on the brink of being entirely eradicated.

In South Africa, the HIV/AIDS denialist myth became official government policy, just as the anti-GMO denialist myth is official European Union policy today. Hundreds of thousands of people were denied life-saving anti-retroviral treatments and died unnecessarily.

Thousands died because the President of Zambia believed the lies of western environmental groups that genetically-modified corn provided by the World Food Programme was somehow poisonous. I have yet to hear an apology from any of the responsible Western groups for their role in this humanitarian atrocity.

Friends of the Earth was one of those responsible. Friends of the Earth Europe is still actively promoting GMO denialism in the EU in a new campaign called Stop the Crop. 

Another well-known example is Golden Rice, genetically modified to contain high levels of beta carotene to compensate for the vitamin A deficiency. This deficiency kills hundreds of thousands of children around the world and blinds many more every year. One study on the prospects for Golden Rice in India found that vitamin A deficiency could be reduced by 60%, saving 1.4 million healthy life years.


It's a 'no-brainer'
The anti-GMO campaign does not even have the benefit of intellectual coherence. If you truly think that herbicide-tolerant biotech crops are an evil plot by Monsanto to achieve a stranglehold on the entire world's food supply, why would you also oppose all other non-patented and open-source applications of biotechnology, which have nothing to do with Monsanto, apparently without exception? This is like being against all computer software because you object to the dominant position of Microsoft Office.

So if you think that Bt corn is bad for U.S. farmers – despite all the evidence to the contrary, it shouldn't necessarily follow that you also have to ban virus-resistant papaya, or oppose a blight-resistant potato in Ireland.

This matters today more than ever because we are entering an age of increasingly threatening ecological scarcity. The American Association for the Advancement of Sciences released a consensus statement on [biotechnology]:

"The science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe... The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society, and every other respected organization that has examined the evidence have come to the same conclusion: consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques."

Of course conventional agriculture has well-documented and major environmental failings. But the flip side of this is that intensive agriculture's extremely efficient use of land is conversely of great ecological benefit. If we had tried to produce all of today's yield using the technologies of 1960, we would have had to cultivate an additional 3 billion hectares, the area of two South Americas.

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.

Genetic modification is not a silver bullet. 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? Real-world evidence so far gives grounds for optimism.

This was the warning Norman Borlaug left us with: "If the naysayers do manage to stop agricultural biotechnology, they might actually precipitate the famines and the crisis of global biodiversity they have been predicting for nearly 40 years."

The only way conspiracy theories die is if more and more people wake up to reality and reject them. I hope we are close to this tipping point today. With just a little extra push, we can all join in consigning anti-GMO denialism to the dustbin of history where it belongs.