Mark Lynas on climate change and GMOs

by Marlo Asis

October 11, 2016

As University of Nebraska students discussed climate change with Alliance for Science Visiting Fellow Mark Lynas, 2015 Global Leadership Fellow Marlo Asis of the Philippines shared an interview he conducted with Lynas at Cornell University last year.

Too many people make very wide assertions about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or genetically engineered (GE) crops. British author and environmental campaigner Mark Lynas thought things must be looked at case by case basis. He had direct personal experience with genetically engineered eggplant in Bangladesh, which according to him has been of great help for farmers planting it [Bt eggplant] in terms of reducing the amount of pesticide used.

For me as an environmentalist, I want to see reductions in pesticides, because that s good for the environment and good for people s health, Lynas said.

The former anti-GMO campaigner Lynas wants to get away from a situation where people talk about GMOs as some kind of broad category. It s not actually that meaningful; by and large what we are talking about is lots of different types of new crops which are simply produced using the newest techniques at the molecular level in the laboratory by scientists, rather than being done haphazardly over a much longer time period by people breeding new seeds. Basically genetically engineered crops are better and newer varieties of seeds in lots of different areas, he explained. Generally, a genetically engineered crop should be a good thing. Farmers should have a choice which crops to grow and we should try to make agriculture improve.

Thoughts on anti-GMOs

Anti-GMO social movements oppose lots of things, which most of the time have nothing to do with GMOs. So they oppose big corporations, but then they also oppose GM crops that have been developed in the public sector without corporate funding, which in Lynas opinion is completely inconsistent. Anti-GMOs talk about food sovereignty, but Lynas thinks that food security should be more a legitimate concern, meaning sufficient food for children and about 800 million people who are malnourished through sheer lack of food on a daily basis.

The most important way to address food security is to increase the productivity of smallholder farmers in developing regions like Sub-Saharan Africa. One of the reasons why farmers from those areas have so much trouble is that they re still cultivating old fashioned varieties of crops. The consequence of NGOs [if you call them social movements or anti-GMOs] activities might even be to keep farmers trapped in poverty. They would not admit it or even realise it but that s the real world outcome of what they re doing.

Thoughts on organic agriculture s opposition to GM crops

It s a huge mistake for the organic industry to ban GMOs. Actually in some ways and some cases, GMOs have allowed for the reduction or even elimination of chemical pesticides, which is what organic cultivators say they want, Lynas stated. My parents had an organic farm and they would have loved to cultivate a GMO, if it was something that would enable them to produce a crop with no chemicals, Lynas said. The problem with organic is that it has been too sceptical in accepting technological innovation. We can t solve human problems by not using new tools and standing still. We need to have innovation, we have to use creativity to tackle some of the real problems we have about the effects of farming in the environment. It s a big mistake for organic practitioners to reject and try to ban new things.

Thoughts on issue of big corporations controlling GM seed supply

If one is concerned with access to technology that is controlled by big corporations, you do not try to ban new technology. More public sector adoption and use must be pushed so that the technology may be utilized in ways that which big corporations may not have interest in because they cannot make a profit at. The Monsantos of this world aren t investing in cassava or sorghum or any of the crops that are important on the subsistence level; that s where public sector science comes in. Trying to ban the entire technology is absurd and that is very damaging. What we have seen a lot of are anti-GMO groups trying to stop public sector scientists. They don t really try to stop Monsanto, they actually stop public sector scientists working directly with farmers in developing countries, and I think it s highly unfortunate, Lynas added.

Thoughts on safety of biotech crops

There are a lot of conspiracy theories, and theories vary widely and are culture specific. In Africa, where homosexuality is frowned upon, some anti-GMO activists say GMOs cause homosexuality. In the United States, GMOs have been publicized to cause autism which is a concern for many Americans. The anti-GMOs invent conspiracy theories about these crops, which are meant to appeal to whatever peoples’ deepest fears are. In Bangladesh, they say GMOs cause paralysis. There s no science confirming that, course; they are just stories and myths invented by activists. But because people don t understand what GMO technology is, they are very easily scared and there is all sorts of imagery on the Internet that portrays GMOs as half strawberries and half fish, things that are meant to scare and upset people. It s about the most egregious and misinformed use of pseudoscience you could possibly imagine.

To see the environmental movement engaging in these practice I find really upsetting as an environmentalist myself, Lynas said. So can we categorically say that GMOs are safe? It s more difficult or impossible scientifically to prove a negative. One can design a GMO crop that is unsafe, so I can t categorically say that all GMOs are safe but it s the same for anything. Potatoes contain glycoalkaloids, which are poisonous; when you leave them under the sun they go green. Peanuts can be allergenic and can kill people. So there are lots of safety issues in our food supply. Organic bean sprouts have killed fifty people in Germany because of contamination with E. coli. Having a safe food supply involves different considerations, but genetic modification of the way seeds are bred is not one of them.”

Bt eggplant commercialization in Bangladesh

Bt eggplant or Bt brinjal has been commercially released in Bangladesh. The Prime Minister and the Agriculture Minister have been very supportive of the commercialization of the genetically modified eggplant because they see how important it is to reduce pesticide use by farmers who cultivate the vegetable. Eggplant is a very important vegetable in Bangladesh and is widely used there in cooking and tends to have enormous amount of pesticides sprayed on it during the growing season. Bangladeshi farmers have to spray 80 or even 100 times during the growing season so one can imagine the health concerns for the farmers and for the consumers because of the usage of pesticides. The Bt variety means they can dramatically reduce pesticide use. It s a big step forward and several hundred farmers are already growing Bt eggplant and probably about a thousand more farmers will be growing it in the coming season.

Philippines must learn from Bangladesh experience

It s unfortunate that activists can launch nuisance lawsuits and they could kind of browbeat the judiciary into passing judgments which really aren t grounded on proper scientific evidence. The antis were clever in doing that; they brought a lot of pseudoscientists to make judges think that the case against Bt eggplant actually has some merit, but really it didn t. The problem is when activists use the legal system, and that can be very damaging across all sectors. I think the court case on Bt eggplant in the Philippines has had a damaging impact on the whole biotechnology sector, and it is really important for the scientists and farmers to stand up and make their voices heard against the court s ruling. (Note: Recently the Supreme Court in the Philippines reversed its stance on Bt brinjal, much to the celebration of the scientific and farming communities in the country.)

Public perception on GMOs

The public can make up its own mind, but it s important that people have access to the best kind of information regarding genetically engineered crops, not just scary pictures that can be seen on the Internet or the kind of materials put out by activist groups. Remember that those are not based on science, but rather on an ideological viewpoint, which is to try to ban the whole technology whatever its merits might be. People need to listen to the scientists and get their information from the experts who have a very strong consensus that this technology doesn t present any additional risks to the consumer. How we use the technology, how the farmers can have access to it, what are the kind of crops they need to grow these are questions that are all open for debate.