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Former Anti-GMO Activist Says Science Changed His Mind

Jan 20, 2013
Originally published on January 20, 2013 5:29 pm

For years, British environmental activist Mark Lynas destroyed genetically modified food (GMO) crops in what he calls a successful campaign to force the business of agriculture to be more holistic and ecological in its practices.

His targets were companies like Monsanto and Syngenta — leaders in developing genetically modified crops.

Earlier this month he went in front of the world to reverse his position on GMOs.

At the Oxford Farming Conference in Britain, Lynas apologized for helping "to start the anti-GMO movement" and told his former allies to "get out of the way, and let the rest of us get on with feeding the world sustainably."

He spoke to Jacki Lyden, host of weekends on All Things Considered, about his change of heart.


Interview Highlights

On 'discovering science'

"When I started off as an anti-GMO activist, it was very much an ideological position. I was scared of the new technology, you know, it just seemed to be messing with the basic building blocks of life. But what happened in the sort of 10, 15 years since then, is that I have written a couple of books on climate change, and I really fell in love with the scientific method as a way of establishing knowledge about the world. It eventually dawned on me ... that I was actually being anti-science in the way I was talking about GMOs, and that there are many ways a stronger scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs than there is about the reality of climate change."

On the 'saga of golden rice'

"One of the case studies that really changed my mind about this was the saga of golden rice, which was developed to be vitamin A-enhanced, because something like a quarter million children per year die from a vitamin A deficiencies in developing countries, particularly in South Asia ... Greenpeace has been waging a campaign to stop this rice from ever being developed ... You can make a pretty strong case that tens of thousands of children have died because they were denied access to this purely because it's GM, and there is a ideological bias against that."

On admitting fallibility

"I would be the first one to say that having been wrong before, I am not infallible now. For me, it's important to look at what the mainstream science is saying. We need to get on with developing more biotech crops because they can potentially be an enormous boon environmentally, and I think that is a message that has been lost in this debate so far."

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Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

For years, British environmental activist Mark Lynas says he vandalized genetically modified food crops in a campaign to force the business of agriculture to be more holistic and ecological in its practices. His target were international companies like Monsanto and Syngenta, leaders in developing genetically modified organism for crops. But earlier this month, Lynas went in front of the world to reverse his position.

At the Oxford Farming Conference, Mark Lynas said that he was sorry for what he called helping to start the anti-GMO movement. He talks to us now about why he changed his mind. Mark Lynas, welcome to the program.

MARK LYNAS: Hello, Jacki. Thanks for having me on.

LYDEN: Mark Lynas, in the response to the question of why you've changed your mind, you said: I discovered science. What did you mean by that?

LYNAS: When I started off as an anti-GMO activist, it was very much an ideological position. I was scared of the new technology. You know, it just seemed to be messing with the basic building blocks of life. But what happened in the sort of 10, 15 years since then is that I've written a couple of books on climate change, and I really fell in love with the scientific method and - as a way of establishing knowledge about the world. It eventually dawned on me way too late that I was actually being anti-science in the way that I was talking about GMOs, and that there are many ways a stronger scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs than there is about the reality of climate change.

LYDEN: In terms of the science of enhancing a crop genetically, one of the things you say is that you realize this is actually helping make food sustainable in places like Asia and Africa where people are at risk of famine or other scarcities.

LYNAS: One of the case studies that really changed my mind about this was the whole saga of golden rice, which was developed to be vitamin A-enhanced because something like a quarter million children per year die from a vitamin A deficiency in developing countries, particularly in South Asia. And Greenpeace has been waging a campaign to stop this rice ever being developed.

And you can make a pretty strong case that as a result, you know, thousands - tens of thousands of children have died because they were denied access to this purely because it's GM, and there's a kind of ideological bias against that. You know, you look at this, it's nothing to do with Monsanto. It's nothing to do with most of the common concerns about GMOs. It would actually be there to, you know, to save lives in the developing world.

LYDEN: Have you heard anything from Monsanto?

LYNAS: I'm constantly accused of taking money from them. They've never offered me a penny. I've never asked for a penny, and I've never received a penny. And, you know, it's just a way of attacking my arguments without engaging with them.

LYDEN: I want to ask you about one specific Internet rebuttal to one of your claims. And this one comes from John Vandermeer at the University of Michigan who wrote that this level of understanding about science is elementary and that possibly you are now wrong about your reversal. What do you have to say about that?

LYNAS: Well, I'd be the first one to say that having been wrong before, I'm not infallible now. For me, it's important to look at what the mainstream science is saying. We need to get on with developing more biotech crops because they potentially can be an enormous boon environmentally, and I think that's a message, which has been lost in this debate so far.

LYDEN: Mark Lynas is an environmentalist who earlier this month apologized at the Oxford Farming Conference for his long campaign against genetically modified food. Mark Lynas, thank you and good luck.

LYNAS: Thank you very much, Jacki. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.