Mark Lynas, one of the architects of the anti-GMO movement in the 1990s, now says environmentalists must open their minds to science if they want to heal the earth.

Lynas, who recanted his anti-GMO stance in a January speech at the Oxford (England) Farming Conference, says his main goal isn’t just the acceptance of GM crops – such as Roundup Ready soybeans or Golden rice – but to inject a scientific perspective into environmentalism.

“People were pointing out how wrong I was,” he says, “and I realized that I didn’t know enough about the subject to talk about it,” he says.

“The environmental movement harms the environment when it refuses to accept scientific information as a solution,” Lynas says. “Environmentalism, like any other belief system, has gotten lost in its own bubble. It’s become more extremist, and it’s been marginalized by ill-informed people.”

After writing his last anti-GMO article in 2008 for The Guardian, Lynas says some of the comment underneath the online article started him on the path to rethink his position.

 

Overwhelmed by evidence

Lynas researched the subject as he wrote his book, The God Species, which challenges the environmental movement’s dismissal of nuclear energy and other technology. By the time he finished the book, the overwhelming evidence on the safety and effectiveness of GM crops had changed his mind.

“It did take me two years to pluck up the courage to write up what I did in the book,” he says. “And what I said in Oxford was even more blunt – and it took me another two years to say that. But I felt pushed by my own conscience.”

Since his January speech, he’s faced intense rebuttals from former colleagues – a reaction that doesn’t surprise him. “This (subject) tends to be something with very little middle ground,” he says. “It’s not possible to change the mind of activists whose stake in the issue is a religious devotion to the natural world.”

Within the movement, the mythology that he calls a naturalistic fallacy is so powerful that what many people believe is opposite of true, he says. It’s the belief that everything natural is good and everything artificial is bad. “For organic, the naturalistic fallacy is elevated into the central guiding principle for an entire movement. This is irrational, and we owe it to the Earth and to our children to do better.”

 

Recognize organic techniques

That’s not to say that organic farming has nothing to offer, he points out. “There are many good techniques that have been developed, such as intercropping and companion planting, which can be environmentally very effective, even it they do tend to be highly labor-intensive. Principles of agro-ecology such as recycling nutrients and promoting on-farm diversity should also be taken more seriously.”

But the organic movement is in the way of progress when it refuses to allow innovation, he says. “Using GM as the most obvious example, many third-generation GM crops allow us not to use environmentally damaging chemicals because the genome of the crop in question has been altered so the plant can protect itself from pests. Why is that not organic?”

This “think quackery,” as he calls it, isn’t confined to the organic crops versus GM crops debate, he adds. It shows up in the argument against climate change and in the anti-vaccine movement. “My concern is environmentalists are seen as the enemy by farmers, and we need to get everyone at the same table to solve the real problems.”

 

To hear or read Lynas’ speech, go to: http://bit.ly/WqThNu.