Greens on the Run in Debate Over Genetically Modified Food

Photographer: Eamonn McCabe/Camera Press/Redux

British author, journalist and environmental activist Mark Lynas in the woods near his home in Oxford, U.K. Close

British author, journalist and environmental activist Mark Lynas in the woods near his... Read More

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Photographer: Eamonn McCabe/Camera Press/Redux

British author, journalist and environmental activist Mark Lynas in the woods near his home in Oxford, U.K.

When protesters threatened to uproot a plot of genetically modified wheat at a British government-funded agricultural research station in May, the backlash was swift and unmistakable. Many commentators, including liberals, condemned the would-be vandals—and the environmentalists who supported the stunt. Was the anti-biotech movement, which had already convinced politicians and the public in Europe to steer clear of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), losing its punch?

The question surfaced again in the fall, when California voters rejected a proposal to label foods that contained genetically modified ingredients. Around the same time, a French researcher and longtime GMO opponent published a peer-reviewed paper arguing that rats fed GM-corn developed cancerous tumors. The scientific community roundly assailed the study for faulty design and methodology. Today, the paper has no credibility, except within the feverish ranks of conspiracy-fearing activists, who are convinced that Monsanto -- and GM-crops -- represent a dangerous threat to agriculture and public health.

And now, Mark Lynas, the environmentalist and award-winning science author, has just publicly apologized “for having spent several years ripping up GM crops” and for his role in helping to spearhead the anti-GMO movement in the 1990s. Ten years ago, Lynas famously threw a pie  in the face of Bjorn Lomborg at an Oxford bookstore, where the Danish economist was scheduled to talk about his controversial 2001 book, The Skeptical Environmentalist.

Today, it is Lynas who has become increasingly skeptical of an environmental cause. He discusses his turnabout in his third book, The God Species, which was published in 2011. In it, Lynas makes an assertive case for nuclear power and biotechnology, both of which he argues will be necessary to address climate change and the food needs of a global population that is expected to surpass 9 billion people by 2050.

"You are more likely to get hit by an asteroid than to get hurt by GM food,” Lynas said.

The broad outlines of Lynas’s evolution have been public knowledge for several years. But the unflinching language and tone he used in a speech last week has reverberated. After three days, the video was downloaded 125,000 times, according to Lynas.  Some of the reaction from well-known greens has been outlandish, though few were as dramatic as Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva’s comment over Twitter likening Lynas’s defense of GM farming to saying that rapists should have the freedom to rape. Despite such outbursts, Lynas has said via Twitter that he’s received “overwhelming support.” He also said this moment "feels like a turning point” in the larger GM debate.

That may be wishful thinking.  Anyone who believes the combustible GM discourse has turned a corner would do well to remember similar pronouncements made about global warming in the last decade. How many times has it been said that the public finally -- finally! -- understands the climate threat and is ready to take it seriously?

Like climate change, the consensus science on GM crops crops is established, at least with respect to food safety, which Lynas put this way in his Jan. 3 speech: “The GM debate is over. It is finished. We no longer need to discuss whether or not 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 than to get hurt by GM food.”

The reasonable wing of GMO critics, such as Michael Pollan, author of Omnivore’s Dilemma, Food Rules and other books, contend that not enough research has been done to be sure. They likely will be saying this for decades. Still, the blunt manner with which Lynas characterizes the debate -- “It’s over!” -- belies the complexity of the broader suite of GM issues that animates opposition to the technology. In this sense, the sweeping claim that the debate is over is similar to that often made about climate change, a sentiment which, too, belies what social-policy experts have long described as “wicked problems.”

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Yes, fear-mongering is rife in the anti-GMO movement. And it’s irresponsible for mainstream pundits and journalists to enable this behavior the way they do. Science gives us little to nothing to worry about from GMOs regarding food safety, and yet it’s too easy to scream, “Frankenfood!” But if we look beyond that, there are still some nagging concerns to address, which UK science journalist Mark Henderson helpfully frames this way in his 2012 book, The Geek Manifesto: “The whole question of being pro- or anti-GMO is in many ways a bad one. The better question is what crop, with what modification, for what purpose, made by whom?”

Another note that Lynas struck in his confessionary speech echoes a frequent refrain of the climate debate. He knows that people will wonder what led him to switch his position on GM crops.  “Well, the answer is fairly simple,” he says. “I discovered science.”

The implied message here is that anyone who opposes GMOs hasn’t yet discovered science. A similar lament has been voiced endlessly with respect to climate change:  If only people were more familiar with climate science and critical reasoning, they would understand that global warming is a real and urgent danger. The facts-and-evidence approach marks the work of former Vice President Al Gore, who followed up the worldwide attention to his film An Inconvenient Truth with a book titled The Assault on Reason.

The problem with this notion is that plenty of smart, scientifically literate people don’t accept that climate change risk is as worrisome as many climate scientists assert. Why? Because as one widely discussed 2011 study found, “cultural values had a bigger effect on perception of climate change risks.”

In a similar vein, there are many scientifically literate people with worldviews that predispose them to believe that genetically modified crops pose a potential health or environmental threat. This expresses itself in numerous forms. Some negatively associate GMOs with Monsanto or industrial farming. Others insist that the precautionary principle must be strictly upheld with biotechnology. Others believe that only organic agriculture is harmonic with nature.

The upshot is that science is necessary but insufficient for steering public debate. Lynas and like-minded communicators must make GMO safety compatible with the worldviews and cultural values of their opponents.  When that happens in tandem, then it’s likely we will see a real turning point in the GMO debate.

Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes frequently on environmental issues. He blogs at Discover magazine.

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