Former GMO opponent decries science rejection

Mark Lynas in Winnipeg | Environmentalist says he can’t cite science in support of climate change but ignore it with GMOs

Mark Lynas looked the part of a stylish Brit as he strode through the hallways of a Winnipeg hotel wearing a grey jacket, blue Puma sneakers and a modern coif.

His laid-back appearance is deceiving, however, because he’s one of the world’s most controversial environmentalists.

More than a year ago, Lynas publicly renounced his long-standing opposition to genetically modified crops, explaining that his position wasn’t based on sound science.

Lynas’ new philosophy, that GM crops provide environmental benefits, has changed his identity within the organic and anti-GM community. Once a shining star, those groups now view him as a pariah.

Lynas has since toured the globe defending GMO technology, including a stop in Winnipeg Feb. 19 at Crop Connect, a conference for pulse, canola and special crop growers in Manitoba.

He said his conversion from GMO opponent to proponent began in the late 2000s, after he wrote a book about climate change.

Lynas spent hundreds of hours on research for the book to ensure he got the science right. When he compared his efforts on climate change to his attempts to discover the scientific truths about GMOs, he realized where he had gone wrong.

Lynas relied on the positions of national and global scientific academies to inform his stance on climate change, but he shunned those groups when it came to GMOs.

“The same institutions of experts also published consensus statements on biotechnology, using pretty much the same language, that the science is clear … it is safe, in terms of how it is currently employed,” he said.

“So you can’t take a position and say I’m defending climate change on the basis of scientific consensus but I’m opposing GMOs and ignoring the scientific consensus. Either you listen to the scientists or you don’t. But that’s the position I held, and it’s the position of Greenpeace and most environmental (groups) to this day.”

Instead of relying on science, Lynas said anti-GMO campaigners manipulate science and cultural fears to drum up opposition to biotechnology.

He said people in the developed world fear diseases such as cancer and autism, so GMO opponents spread information linking the technology to those ailments.

Africans are alarmed by threats related to sex and reproduction, so GMO campaigners tailor the message as needed.

“They (campaigners) talk about sterility. If you eat these crops you’ll be sterile and won’t be able to have children,” said Lynas, who recalled a comment from a Tanzanian farmer.

“ ‘I know if we eat these GMOs that our children will turn homosexual’…. What’s really interesting about this misinformation is that it’s really culturally specific.”

Lynas cited several case studies when arguing why environmentalists should support GMOs.

Biotech research in Bangladesh indicates that B.t. technology could protect eggplants from insects, which would dramatically reduce the use of pesticides. Farmers in that country spray the important crop dozens of times during the growing season with older, organophosphate products while wearing flip-flops and no mask.

Lynas also said GM technology could potentially safeguard cassava in Africa from plant diseases such as mosaic virus.

He supports GM labelling because transparency builds trust.

“If enough people say they want to know what’s in their food, you’ve got to tell them. You can’t tell them you don’t need to know (because it’s safe),” he said. “Their sense of fear is increased by the perception of non-transparency…. When you say to people, ‘do you want to know when GMOs are in your food supply,’ 80 to 90 percent of (people) say yes. You’ve got to deal with those facts.”

Theresa Bergsma, general manager of Manitoba Corn Growers, said farmers in her organization aren’t opposed to GM labelling.

“In general, we don’t mind the concept,” she said.

“However, we do know that there’s been some pretty significant portions of commercial (agriculture) who have lobbied to be not included…. That’s where we have the concern.”

Lynas said farmers should explain why they use GM crops and other agricultural technologies such as pesticides because the public doesn’t understand and assumes the worst.

“I think the problem here is the non-transparency of farming,” he said.

“Most people, the reason they oppose GMOs, is really because of herbicide tolerance. What they really (don’t) like is the idea that farmers are spraying their crops…. Farmers are evil, they just want to spray chemical all over the place and destroy the natural environment. That’s what people think.”

Keystone Agricultural Producers president Doug Chorley, said farm groups have a responsibility to prepare growers so that they are ready to talk about agricultural technology with their neighbours.

“We’re not doing anything wrong. I don’t think we should be ashamed of what we do on our farms,” he said.

“We need to be able to have a respectful discussion with people who have different views. That’s going to help the industry because farmers have … credibility with the public.”

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