Leading Environmental Activist’s Blunt Confession: I Was Completely Wrong To Oppose GMOs

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Jan. 3 2013 2:27 PM

Leading Environmental Activist’s Blunt Confession: I Was Completely Wrong To Oppose GMOs

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Anti-Monsanto activists in Germany in 2009

Photo by NIGEL TREBLIN/AFP/Getty Images

If you fear genetically modified food, you may have Mark Lynas to thank. By his own reckoning, British environmentalist helped spur the anti-GMO movement in the mid-‘90s, arguing as recently at 2008 that big corporations’ selfish greed would threaten the health of both people and the Earth. Thanks to the efforts of Lynas and people like him, governments around the world—especially in Western Europe, Asia, and Africa—have hobbled GM research, and NGOs like Greenpeace have spurned donations of genetically modified foods.

Torie Bosch Torie Bosch

Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a project of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State that looks at the implications of new technologies. 

But Lynas has changed his mind—and he’s not being quiet about it. On Thursday at the Oxford Farming Conference, Lynas delivered a blunt address: He got GMOs wrong. According to the version of his remarks posted online (as yet, there’s no video or transcript of the actual delivery), he opened with a bang:

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.
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His honest assessment of his heretofore poor understanding of the issue continues for almost 5,000 words—and it’s a must-read for anyone who has ever hesitated over conventional produce. To vilify GMOs is to be as anti-science as climate-change deniers, he says. To feed a growing world population (with an exploding middle class demanding more and better-quality food), we must take advantage of all the technology available to us, including GMOs. To insist on “natural” agriculture and livestock is to doom people to starvation, and there’s no logical reason to prefer the old ways, either. Moreover, the reason why big companies dominate the industry is that anti-GMO activists and policymakers have made it too difficult for small startups to enter the field.

 “In the history of #environmentalism, has there ever been a bigger mea culpa than that given here?” Discover blogger Keith Kloor tweeted. (Kloor recently called GMO foes “the climate skeptics of the left” in Slate.)

I can’t think of another environmentalist. But it does call to mind another turnabout. In 2002, medical writer Arthur Allen penned a New York Times Magazine story titled “The Not-So-Crackpot Autism Theory.” The piece suggested there might indeed be a link between autism and vaccination, and its publication in an outlet so mainstream as the New York Times gave the previously fringe theory more credibility. But soon after the article’s publication, more and more published research effectively confirmed that there is no link. Allen took that research seriously. A 2009 Times article about the book Autism’s False Prophets said of Allen: “He later changed his mind and now ‘feels bad’ about the [magazine] article, he said, ‘because it helped get these people into the field who did a lot of damage.’ ”  

 He began writing extensively about the dangers of anti-vaccine activism—including Slate pieces arguing that thimerosal is safe, criticizing Oprah for promoting the dingbat Jenny McCarthy, and decrying dangerous autism “treatments” purported to reverse “vaccine damage” that never really happened. He wrote a book, Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine’s Greatest Lifesaver, that examined the fears and misconceptions surrounding vaccination.

To admit that you got something wrong—whether for almost two decades, like Lynas did, or in a single but influential article, like Allen did—is terrifying. It is also the mark of intellectual rigor.

Lynas concludes that people who want to stick with organic are entitled to—but they should not stand in the way of others who would use science to find more efficient ways to feed billions. “[T]he  GM debate is over. It is finished. We no longer need to discuss whether or not it is safe. … You are more likely to get hit by an asteroid than to get hurt by GM food,” he says.

Now the question is, will his former anti-GMO fellows heed his urge to review the science—or will they call him a turncoat shill for Monsanto?

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

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