In his presentation at the recent Bernstein Symposium hosted by the Risk Science Center, Mark Lynas recounted his personal journey of scientific discovery. The knowledge he gained along the way provided the stimulus for a dramatic shift away from what has been described as a religious-like conviction that genetically modified (GM) foods exploit and harm consumers. Whether you agree or disagree with Lynas, there is no denying that his transformation has certainly put a spotlight on the GMO debate.

“I remember thinking that science has gone too far and that we shouldn’t do something that has unintended consequences, which had some level of risk attached to it,” Lynas said in the opening minutes of his presentation. “But the flip side is that it could also have benefits – but the only benefits that we saw at the time were to multinational corporations like Monsanto.”

So how did a former environmental activist and leader of anti-GMO movement in the mid-1990s who coordinated destructive attacks against bioengineered crops and Monsanto facilities pivot on such strongly held convictions?

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PIVOTING ON SCIENCE
It all started when Lynas, working as a climate change journalist, set out on a project to document and catalogue the real life impacts of climate change. An extensive fact finding mission ensued in which Lynas engaged the science community to better understand the topic.

“Learning the science was eye opening in a way that I never anticipated. Not only did I start to understand and gain an appreciation for the natural sciences, but almost fall in love with how science works as a process.”

Another the critical point in Lynas’ pivoting process was when he authored his final anti-GMO article for UK newspaper the Guardian, a piece he now describes as “utterly embarrassing”.

“Many of the strong negative comments made me realize that I wasn’t upholding the same standards on the GMO issue as I was trying to maintain on climate change.”

Lynas’ newfound scientific rigor began to translate to his stance on GMO, and when he began immersing himself in the science behind GM his view point shifted.

“I began to realize that opposing an entire technology on the basis of how some people might use it is not logical, it’s like trying to ban mobile phones because you object to the dominant position of apple.”

“I have a debt to pay for having mislead the world more than a decade ago when I was an anti-GMO activist with only the very shallowest understanding of science.”

A TOOL IN THE TOOLBOX
Lynas goes on to say that while not the answer to all the woes in the world, biotechnology is tool that can help address both humanitarian and environmental concerns, and that forgoing agricultural technology has a real cost, especially in developing countries.

Lynas points to the example of Golden Rice, which is produced from rice crops enriched with Beta Carotene – a protein that helps to combat vitamin A deficiency and gives the grains their trademark golden color. As such, this type of genetically modified food has the potential to prevent up to 3 million deaths annually.

“These crops are grown in level 2 biosafety facilities as if the researchers are developing germ warfare rather than nutritionally improved crop that could save millions of lives.”

In August of this year, activists posing as farmers breached the company’s rice fields in the Philippines and destroyed the entire Golden Rice crop.

“I think it is a massive injustice that the most vulnerable and the poorest subsistence farmers in the world should be the ones who are denied the benefits of agricultural technology because of the irrational fears of the well-fed European consumers who fund these activist groups.”

Lyans also outlines biotechnology as part of the answer for increasing productivity and sustainable farming.

“We have to address the gap between productivity increases and the rate of human population growth. The world’s population is going to hit 9.5-9.6 billion by 2050. We are going to have 1 billion mouths to feed in the next 12 years, and we cannot do that by standing still in a technological sense.

Increasing agricultural productivity by 100% by the middle of this century presents real challenges.

“If we are not to plough up all the remaining rainforests in Brazil, Indonesia and Africa, then this food increase must come from increasing the productivity of currently cultivated land.”

In his closing comments, Lynas goes on to say that while science can give us amazing new tools, it can’t tell us exactly how to deploy them, and that it is up to the farmers and consumers to be well informed about what is in their best interests.

“The best information, as I’ve learnt the difficult way over the last 20 years, can only come about through science.”

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