The repentant environmentalist in his own words

In January this year, here in Britain, author and activist Mark Lynas made a speech to our National Farmers Union (NFU). He caused quite a stir. He said that he wanted ‘to put science back at the centre of the GM debate,’ and he classed himself as having been a leader in the anti-GM movement. He apologised for having been that leader. If he really was that leader. Some of the people he claims to have led say he wasn’t their leader.

Soon after Mr Lynas apologised, I showed you what Alistair Driver at the Farmers Guardian wrote about discussing his apology with him. That newspaper article led to more debate.

GM is genetic modification, also called genetic engineering. It’s one kind of biotechnology. The Council for Biotechnology Information (CBI) shows us the actual words that Mr Lynas said to the NFU. He made no secret of the fact that his apology came while promoting his latest book, which came out a few weeks later. He also made no secret of his not being a scientist.

Two months after the loud apology, Will Storr at the Observer told us how Mr Lynas did what he did, then changed his mind.

Fast-forward a few months, and we see more of Mr Lynas. CBI shows us what Mr Lynas said in July 2013. He’s keen to tell everybody that GM food isn’t dangerous to eat. Yawn. As you can see under my ‘genetic modification’ tag, I think that’s a distraction, even perhaps a smokescreen for more substantive reasons to question the value of GM crops.

I think that other approaches to feeding the world may be less exciting than GM, to people who love technology, but they may be more relevant. Saving seeds, for example. Because not all the promises made for GM have come true.

Mr Lynas ended his remarks in July with a mention of GM cassava (Manihot esculenta) which, he says, faces ‘opposition from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who want to keep all GM crops out of Africa.’ It’s not clear why he mentions cassava instead of the other staple crops people grow and eat in different parts of the world. But it’s clear that he wants to return to his statement in January that he’s up against ‘naysayers’.

[Edit] Perhaps he thought he was talking about Yellow Cassava but that’s a selectively bred variety, not involving GM. Perhaps by ‘NGOs who want to keep all GM crops out of Africa’ he meant the African Centre for Biosafety (ACB). If so, I think he should read the ACB’s report ‘GM Cassava fails in Africa’.

I’m still keeping an open mind, but Mr Lynas hasn’t won me yet. GM is a minefield. Don’t believe everything you read.

About argylesock

I wrote a PhD about veterinary parasitology so that's the starting point for this blog. But I'm now branching out into other areas of biology and into popular science writing. I'll write here about science that happens in landscapes, particularly farmland, and about science involving interspecific interactions. Datasets and statistics get my attention. Exactly where this blog will lead? That's a journey that I'm on and I hope you'll come with me.
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12 Responses to The repentant environmentalist in his own words

  1. Daniela says:

    I haven’t kept up with this guy, but what caused his conversion from anti-GM to completely for them. I agree with you, there is more to the story than just modifying the plants and from what I’ve read (and as you know I am very biased) these plants have not lived up to their billing. In fact, I posted an article recently that pesticide use has doubled in the midwest because pests are developing a resistance to it. How can that in any way be healthy – for animals, humans or the environment. If you call yourself an environmentalist, shouldn’t you at least take the “environment” into consideration – or is he now anti-environmentalist as well as pro-GM?

  2. Read this as the GM industry is now targeting Africa and they’re using Cassava as a wedge to break in…

    • argylesock says:

      Yes I think so. It might be an effective choice of what I’m going to call a ‘poster crop’, like the infamous ‘poster child’ used in other contexts. I think cassava could be effective as a poster crop because most people in the rich world aren’t very familiar with it, yet it could be shown in appealing photographs. Women in colourful clothes growing and preparing cassava. Children eating cassava porridge. Get your wallet out.

  3. pcawdron says:

    In theory, the concept of GMO is good science… humanity has been selectively modifying genes for thousands of years, this is simply a more direct means.

    In practice, GMO is not black and white as no two genetic changes are the same and each has to be judged on its own merits, on the basis of evidence. And that’s where monopolization by large corporations makes no sense. Where’s the peer review? Where’s the independence around testing? We need an effective mechanism to provide proper oversight without burying good science in bureaucracy.

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