GMOs and the Road to Damascus

If you have any interest in agriculture, development, and food policy, the news item this week was British environmental activist Mark Lynas‘ “coming out” in favor of GMOs.

Lynas announced that his position had changed in the context of his lecture to the 2013 Oxford Farming Conference, which you can watch here:

If you don’t have time to watch the whole thing, here is an excerpt from a post on Lynas’ blog:

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.

This was such big news that even the New Yorker — an outlet that is not generally known for frequently running stories on agriculture and food policy — discussed it, writing:

Lynas has written widely, and thoughtfully, about climate change, and he came to realize that he would need to rely on science to bolster his positions in a world filled with skeptics. As it turns out, it’s hard to limit a firm belief in science to one discipline. So he began to look at the science of agriculture, too. What he found changed his position and his life; and if a sufficient number of environmentalists listen to him, it may help change the lives of millions of others.

Last week, at the Oxford Farming Conference, Lynas described how he reversed himself. Read his speech or watch the video. Better yet, do both, because his urgent statement of support for genetically engineered products was about as likely as the National Rifle Association announcing that it would help the Obama Administration limit access to guns.

The Economist had a similar write-up:

[Lynas’] position will be familiar to readers of this blog. “We will have to feed 9.5 billion hopefully less poor people by 2050 on about the same land area as we use today, using limited fertilizer  water and pesticides and in the context of a rapidly changing climate.” It will be impossible to feed those extra mouths by digging up more land, because there isn’t much going and because land conversion is a large source of greenhouse gases. Taking more water from rivers will accelerate biodiversity loss. And we need to improve — and probably reduce — nitrogen use (i.e., in chemical fertilizers  which is creating a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico and eutrophication in fresh water. The only way of squaring this circle will be through the technology-driven intensification of farming — i.e., GM.

I see Lynas’ conversion — and the subsequent big-time media coverage — as bittersweet news. It is good to have one more voice in favor of deploying GMOs to ensure food security. It is somewhat frustrating that it took the change of mind of an anti-GMO activist to bring this issue to the fore.

Ideally, a statement should be judged independently of who touts it. It’s unfortunate that in this context, a statement is judged more favorable because the person who makes it used to believe the contrary.

If you are interested in the topic of biotechnology — including GMOs — for food security, Rob Paarlberg’s Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out of Africa is required reading.