Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are a contentious issue, and Mark Lynas has been on both sides of the debate. In the '90s he was an early member of the anti-GMO movement in the U.K., vandalizing field trials of genetically modified crops and targeting Monsanto's offices. While researching climate change years later, he changed his mind about GMOs. "I was in the position where I was defending the science on climate change and almost denying the science on GM crops," he says. "I felt that was an impossible situation for me to be in."
He is the author of "How I Got Converted to G.M.O. Food." Lynas works with the Cornell Alliance for Science, and is also a member of the advisory council of the science advocacy group Sense about Science. His voice, of course, is just one of many in our long line of conversations about agriculture, which dates back to 2002 when Michael Pollan told us about growing a genetically modified potato at home.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: The title of the article "How I Got Converted to G.M.O. Food" is quite a mouthful.
Mark Lynas: I agree. As a writer, you don't get to choose the headlines, so that wasn't my choice of words. I would be uncomfortable, actually, about using the word converted. It's not as if I had some kind of religious epiphany. It was an evidence-based change of mind that took some time to play out, and was based on my reading of a changing situation. I changed my mind because as I saw it, the circumstances have really changed.
LRK: You visited a farmer in Bangladesh. What happened there?
ML: This was part of my work with the Cornell Alliance for Science. Cornell University is involved in deploying a GMO eggplant in Bangladesh under the auspices of the government agricultural institute there. This is a really interesting example of how GMOs can be used in a way that improves the lives of poorer farmers and improves also the environment.
The way that eggplant is grown in Bangladesh -- it's a really important vegetable, a very important part of the food culture there -- is that it is very heavily dependent on pesticides. Some really toxic chemicals are sprayed conventionally on the crop. You wouldn't believe it. You see these farmers out in the fields every single morning and every single evening spraying. They're doing it every day. They're suffering from chronic health impacts because of the amount of pesticides that are being used in the fields. Of course, there are the residues that consumers have to worry about, too, in Bangladesh. This is a real problem, how to reduce the pesticide's exposure.
Using the GMO version doesn't require any of these pesticides, because it's able to resist the pest, which is mainly what is being sprayed for. This is good for the bottom line for the farmers because they have to spend less money on pesticides. It's better for their health because they are not being constantly poisoned. And of course, it's better for the wider environment because you don't get the pesticide runoff. All told, this should be a good news story.
And yet you've got all these environmental groups who are opposing it because it's a so-called GMO, even though the net effect is to dramatically slash pesticide applications. It illustrates, in fact, how the debate has played out in a way that is fundamentally irrational, I think.
LRK: You talk about other countries that have banned GMOs. Has Bangladesh banned GMOs and this is an exception or an experiment, or is it a country that has accepted GMOs?
ML: Bangladesh has, in fact, accepted this insect-resistant eggplant when it was banned effectively in India, next door. There was a moratorium imposed after a huge amount of lobbying by anti-GMO activists back in 2010. Greenpeace managed to stop it also in the Philippines. Both of those countries are still heavily dependent on pesticides because the GMO version hasn't been able to go forward.
Bangladesh is an exception in this, a very important case study, potentially even a tipping point, because this is the world's first developing country GMO food crop, if you like, specifically out there now with farmers. Farmers are saving their seed. They are entirely in control of the technology and how it's deployed. It's now being sold into the markets. It's really going directly now into the food supply and hopefully improving the situation there.
LRK: You were opposed to GMOs for a very long time. You worked as an environmentalist against GMOs. What was the path to bring you to these conclusions?
ML: This was at the beginning of the whole GMO debate, in about 1995 or '96, when I got heavily involved in campaigning against the technology. I was one of the earlier members of the anti-GMO movement in the U.K. I personally organized targeting Monsanto's offices in England. I used to participate in vandalisms against field trials of genetically modified crops. I did media interviews, participated heavily in campaigning against this technology and helped export it to other countries as well."It wasn't that I suddenly realized that I was wrong one morning when I woke up."
I think to some extent what happened in the U.K. back then was the epicenter of the campaign. Things snowballed out from there. It was one of those campaigns where it has changed the world. Probably the majority of people since then have been led to believe that there's something wrong with GMO technology a priori, if you like. That was really an outcome of the campaigning that we were all involved in back at that point.
LRK: What changed your mind?
ML: Like all of these things, it was a convoluted path. It wasn't that I suddenly realized that I was wrong one morning when I woke up. It was really that I was involved in researching climate change.
When I started work on that back in the year 2000, I was traveling around the world looking at the impacts of global warming. I was very concerned to be able to communicate this with some degree of scientific expertise and authority. I spent a lot of time reading the scientific literature, looking at geophysics, glaciology, oceanography, all these fascinating areas of science, which really supported the whole agenda on climate change. Also, I spent a lot of time defending the fact that there was a scientific consensus that climate change is real. I really had a self-taught scientific education, which took many years. My books had a lot of scientific references.
But at the same time, of course, the scientific community had more or less made its mind up that GM technology was both safe and very effective. I was in the position where I was defending the science on climate change and almost denying the science on GM crops. I felt that was an impossible situation for me to be in as somebody who wanted to write about science and to do so with some degree of informed authority.
LRK: But there is science on both sides of this issue. There are scientists who believe GMOs have difficulties -- you know this, and we've heard about this -- the environment, perhaps human health, effects on other plants and seeds that are designed by companies to market their products. There is debate on both sides, and both sides have a level of validity. Sorting this out is not an easy thing to do.
ML: It isn't. That's why the concept of scientific consensus is so important. I could roll off half a dozen names of credited scientists who don't believe in climate change either, or who don't believe that HIV causes AIDS. You will find scientists, generally small in number, who differ from the consensus on any issue you care to name.
The important thing is to understand that thousands of studies have been carried out that show that the safety issue, in terms of human health or animal health impacts, is closed. There isn't a meaningful debate about that. You can see this in statements from the major scientific institutions. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the World Health Organization and the major academic institutions around the world have all come to a consensus. They state that GM technology does not add any degree of risk that isn't already present in conventional plant breeding.
But, as maybe you were going on to say, this isn't all about science. The politics of this, who controls the technology -- these aren't issues that are expressly scientific. They are more socioeconomic and political. That's a different kind of debate, I think.
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