Commentary

How an Anti-GM Activist Learned the Science of High-Yield Crops and Became a Campaigner for GM

Mark Lynas, a green activist who once ranted against and destroyed fields of genetically modified (GM) crops, has recanted and apologised for “demonising an important technological option.” Other activists like Greenpeace and Vandana Shiva need to do the same. (See www.marklynas.org/2013/01/lecture-tooxford-farminig-conference-3-january-2013).

Lynas says when he first heard of Monsanto’s GM soya, he thought a nasty US corporation was putting out a monster food by mixing genes. He helped kindle fears that effectively shut down GM foods in Europe and in developing nations like India. But having gone into the science behind it - and getting the Royal Society science book prize for his ‘Six Degrees’ - he found his beliefs on GM foods were myths.

“I’d assumed that GM would increase the use of chemicals. It turned out that pest-resistant cotton and maize needed less insecticide.”

“I’d assumed that GM benefited only the large companies. It turned out that billions of dollars of benefits were accruing to farmers needing fewer inputs.”

“I’d assumed that Terminator technology (which Monsanto was accused of) was robbing farmers of the right to save seed. It turned out that hybrids did this long ago, and that Terminator never happened.”

Organic farming is fundamentally the same as traditional pre-green revolution technology that kept the world at the Malthusian edge of starvation throughout history.”

“I’d assumed that no-one wanted GM. Actually what happened was that Bt cotton was pirated into India and Roundup-Ready soybean in Brazil because farmers were so eager to use them.”

“I’d assumed GM was dangerous. It turned out that it was safer and more precise than conventional breeding using mutagenesis for instance. GM just moved a couple of genes whereas conventional breeding mucks about with the entire genome in a trial and error way.

“But what about mixing genes between unrelated species? The fish and tomato? Turned out that viruses do that all the time, as do plants and insects and even us - it’s called gene flow.”

Lynas argues that a global population of 9.5 billion by 2050 will require a doubling of food output. To achieve that with low-yielding organic technology, huge forests and grasslands will have to be cleared and cultivated. This will devastate the environment, biodiversity, and water supply. No, the world needs higher yields, and GM is a way of achieving that.

Organic farming is fundamentally the same as traditional pre-green revolution technology that kept the world at the Malthusian edge of starvation throughout history.

Fortunately, modern scientists led by Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug showed that high yielding varieties (with manipulated wheat genes) using large doses of fertiliser could more than double yields and thus prevent mass starvation. Indian youngsters have no idea how terrible and humiliating were the droughts of 1965-66 that made India entirely dependent on US food aid to stem starvation.

Fortunately, the Green Revolution then replaced organic with high-yield farming, and converted India from a starvation area to a food exporter. Borlaug said organic farming could meet the demand of elites for superior, costly food.

But it could not meet mass needs. Greenpeace and other activists seem determined to push the world into food scarcity, falsely claiming that organic farming can produce as much as high-yielding varieties. By spreading false scares about GM foods and demanding ever-more testing, says Lynas, activists have increased the time for regulatory clearances from 3.7 years to 5 years, and raised the cost of bringing a GM variety to market to a whopping $139 million. Only the biggest multinationals like Monsanto can stay in this game.

Thus, activists have conferred monopoly status on the very companies they claim to abhor. Last year, Greenpeace activists destroyed a GM wheat crop in Australia. But another GM wheat trial showed a yield increase of 30 per cent.

Activists wanting to destroy a variety before it is tested are like medieval churchmen burning books and persecuting Bruno and Galileo to prevent scientific truths from coming out. Organic produce is not safer, says Lynas. In 2011, Germany’s organic beansprouts caused 23,500 cases of kidney failure and 53 deaths.

Consumers who died thought, wrongly, that they were eating something safer than fertilised vegetables. Lynas says, “The GM debate is over… We no longer need to discuss whether it is safe. Over a decade and a half with three trillion GM meals eaten, there has never been a single substantiated case of harm. You are more likely to get hit by an asteroid.”

Americans have happily eaten GM maize and soya for 15 years. European governments have been intimidated into banning GM foods, yet European tourists visit the US and eat GM foods there without any harm. Yet, Lynas is wrong in saying the debate is over. Pro-Greenpeace scientists say that not even 15 years and three trillion meals are enough to establish safety. They seek to kill GM through endless delays that make GM production uneconomic.

The debate will not end till the public realises it has been taken for a green ride. Lynas tells activists: “You are entitled to your view. But you must know by now that they are not supported by science.”

The world needs more green rebels like Lynas.

Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar is a Research Fellow at the Cato Institute’s Centre for Global Liberty and Prosperity.