Longtime Opponent of Biotech Crops Says Movement is "Anti-Science"

January 4, 2013

As activists opposing biotechnology crops and genetically modified foods, known as GMOs, were turning in signatures for their new labeling initiative, another anti-GMO activist was giving a speech about his past activism. The speech, however, doesn't begin as you might predict:

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.

Mark Lynas, a noted climate change campaigner was preparing to write a book on biotechnolgy crops and began to do scientific research on their impacts. He found that his pro-science rhetoric on climate change was in stark contrast with his anti-science rhetoric on GMOs. The anti-GMO campaign, he said:

...was also explicitly an anti-science movement. We employed a lot of imagery about scientists in their labs cackling demonically as they tinkered with the very building blocks of life. Hence the Frankenstein food tag – this absolutely was about deep-seated fears of scientific powers being used secretly for unnatural ends. What we didn’t realise at the time was that the real Frankenstein’s monster was not GM technology, but our reaction against it. For me this anti-science environmentalism became increasingly inconsistent with my pro-science environmentalism with regard to climate change.

That tension led him to change his mind. Now he says GMOs hold great promise for the environment, specifically thanking the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for their support of GMOs that would reduce nitrogen pollution.

I hope now things are changing. The wonderful Bill and Melinda Gates foundation recently gave $10 million to the John Innes Centre to begin efforts to integrate nitrogen fixing capabilities into major food crops, starting with maize. Yes, Greenpeace, this will be GM. Get over it. If we are going to reduce the global-scale problem of nitrogen pollution then having major crop plants fixing their own nitrogen is a worthy goal.

Washington state voters will determine how much things are changing. This week, two stories provided a preview of the choice voters will face.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently announced that genetically modified Atlantic salmon doesn't threaten the environment or health. This is just the most recent in a long line of science organizations supporting GMOs. The reason is simple. GMOs are created in much the same way Gregor Mendel, who first identified the way genes work using pea plants, cross-bred the peas to encourage particular traits. The sophistication of the technique has improved since 1865, but the result is the same.

Contrast that with yesterday's comment from the sponsor of the anti-GMO initiative. When asked about an incorrect description of GMOs on the campaign web page, he responded, "Well, you know, I'm not a scientist. I work in media. Those kinds of questions I'll have to defer to later in the campaign."

That contrast about sums it up.



I think there is bright future in politics for the guy who said, "Well, you know, I'm not a scientist. I work in media. Those kinds of questions I'll have to defer to later in the campaign."

Scientist, "You can't live with them and you can't live without them"...