A former anti-GM activist has accused the organic movement of perpetrating “the most pernicious myth of all” by claiming that organic methods can help feed the world.
In a high profile speech to the 2102 Oxford Farming Conference last week Mark Lynas publicly apologised to the farming community for “spending years ripping up GM crops and setting up the anti-GM movement”.
Lynas admitted that he had “never read a peer-reviewed paper on GM technology or plant science in all the time I was attacking GM science in The Guardian”. It was the realisation that the “explicitly anti-science” approach of the anti-GM movement was entirely at odds with the pro-science approach to climate change campaigning that triggered his “conversion”, he explained.
“In short, I discovered science. And I believe I have become a better environmentalist for that.”
But in the intervening years, claimed Lynas, the anti-GM movement – “the most successful ‘environmental’ campaign ever” – had badly damaged the prospects for feeding the world’s poor.
It was the very success of the anti-GM campaign, argued Lynas, that had concentrated power in the hands of the few. “Biotechnology was not stopped by environmentalists but it has been made prohibitively expensive to all but the biggest corporations. It now costs tens of millions of dollars to get a single GM crop through the regulatory process. The Open Source, public sector approach to research and development doesn’t stand a chance.”
Rounding on the organic movement, Lynas accused its supporters of being “blinded to a nostalgic past”. He said that to claim organic was better for both people and the environment was “the most pernicious myth of all”. Castigating organic as “at heart a rejectionist movement”, Lynas insisted that there was no evidence that organic food conferred any significant health benefits, and he accused the organic industry of playing down the “40-50% lower yields” for certain organic crops. He claimed that in its 2012 Feed The Future report, the Soil Association had “gone to great lengths not to mention the organic production gap”.
Lynas, whose parents had been organic farmers – “and who approved this speech” – did concede that organic farming offered “many good techniques”, among them inter-cropping, companion planting and nutrient recycling. And argued that the principles of agro-ecology generally should be “taken more seriously”.
But his final message was blunt and provocative. “I say to the anti-GM industry, the organic industry, the British aristocracy, the celebrity chefs, the US foodies and Indian peasant groups – you are entitled to your view, but you must know that your views (on GM) are not supported by science. It’s time to get out of the way and allow the rest of us to get on with feeding the world sustainably.”
Responding to the speech, the Soil Association’s innovation director Tom Macmillan, said: “Mark Lynas acknowledged that meeting this challenge globally is in large part about ensuring existing techniques are available to the poorest farmers in the world, and much also depends on directly tackling poverty and on rich countries adopting more sustainable consumption habits. Banging on about GM crops, as Lynas did today, is a red herring.
“Farmers and the public have been promised the earth on GM yet the results to date have been poor. The UK Government’s own farm scale experiment showed that overall the GM crops were worse for British wildlife. US Government figures show pesticide use has increased since GM crops have been grown there because superweeds and resistant insects have multiplied. Lynas, Paterson and other GM enthusiasts must beware of opening floodgates to real problems like this.”
Conference speech in quotes
“Biotechnology was not stopped by environmentalists but it has been made prohibitively expensive to all but the biggest corporations. The Open Source approach to research and development doesn’t stand a chance.”
“The claim that organic is better for both people and the environment is the most pernicious myth of all”
“I say to the anti-GM industry, the organic industry, the British aristocracy, the celebrity chefs , US foodies and Indian peasant groups – you are entitled to your view, but you must know that your view (on GM) are not supported by science. It’s time to get out of the way and allow the rest of us to get on with feeding the world sustainably”
“Organic is at its heart a rejectionist movement”