A Rebuttal to Mark Lynas’ GMO Reversal

GMO critic-turned-booster could be right — and still be wrong

If you want to get your name splattered all over the web, there’s nothing like recanting your once strongly held beliefs. Give a big mea culpa speech telling the world how wrong you have been, and you’ll get far more attention for your auto-rebuttal than you ever received for your original ideas. When it comes to ideological U-turns the media are like moths to a flame. (Never mind that, as Whitman said, “consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.”)

Mark Lynas Photo by Mauroof Khaleel/Presidency MaldivesMark Lynas — a British journalist-activist who at least once took direct
action to rip GM trial crops out of the ground — has come out as a
supporter of the technology he once abhorred.

In this case, I’m talking about the recent “big news” that one-time GMO critic Mark Lynas — a Brit who at least once took direct action to rip GM trial crops out of the ground — has come out as a supporter of the technology he once abhorred. You can find write-ups about it from Andrew Revkin and Slate and the LA Times and The New Yorker’s Michael Specter. I even got an email from the folks at the No on 37 campaign (the people who successfully fought a GMO labeling referendum in California) trumpeting the news.

Here’s the opening from the speech that Lynas gave on January 3 at the Oxford Farming Conference (you can find the text of Lynas’s prepared remarks here):

“I want to start with some apologies. For the record, here and upfront, I apologise for having spent several years ripping up GM crops. I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid 1990s, and that I thereby assisted in demonising an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment.

As an environmentalist, and someone who believes that everyone in this world has a right to a healthy and nutritious diet of their choosing, I could not have chosen a more counter-productive path. I now regret it completely.

So I guess you’ll be wondering — what happened between 1995 and now that made me not only change my mind but come here and admit it? Well, the answer is fairly simple: I discovered science, and in the process I hope I became a better environmentalist.”

For a devastating takedown of Lynas’ sudden “discovery of science” check out this piece by University of Michigan biology professor John Vandermeer over at the Food First website.

Lynas goes on to say:

“So I did some reading. And I discovered that one by one my cherished beliefs about GM turned out to be little more than green urban myths.

I’d assumed that it would increase the use of chemicals. It turned out that pest-resistant cotton and maize needed less insecticide.

I’d assumed that GM benefited only the big companies. It turned out that billions of dollars of benefits were accruing to farmers needing fewer inputs.

I’d assumed that Terminator Technology was robbing farmers of the right to save seed. It turned out that hybrids did that long ago, and that Terminator never happened.”

Let’s go through these one by one.

First, the contention that plantings of genetically engineered crops have led to a decreased insecticide usage. Actually, the record is more mixed than Lynas makes it seem. If you compare the figures here and here from the US EPA, you’ll see that between 2001 and 2007 global insecticide use did drop. But during that same period (as the percentage of GMO crops increased) herbicide usage continued to grow. This is especially important given that most GM crops (about 80 percent) are engineered to be herbicide resistant. Farmers are spraying more herbicides because that is precisely what the crops are created for — to allow for being doused with chemicals that kill competing weeds and still allow the plant to live. A peer-reviewed study published last year in Environmental Sciences Europe found that GM plantings in the United States led to a 7 percent increase in chemical spraying.

Lynas’ cherry picking also misses a crucial fact: Farmers who have grown accustomed to using Monsanto’s Roundup Ready crops are starting to see the appearance of weeds that are resistant glyphosate, the central ingredient in Roundup. To help farmers cope with the new “super weeds,” Monsanto has launched a new herbicide, Warrant. So much for the claim that GMOs will reduce chemical use.

It’s too bad the text of Lynas’ speech doesn’t come with citations, because I would love a source for his contention that GM technologies have benefitted farmers by requiring fewer inputs. Once again, the evidence is more mixed than he makes it seem. Perhaps Lynas missed all of the headlines about the epidemic of farmer suicides in India, where many genetically modified cotton growers have been driven to despair because the promised yields from GM cotton haven’t matched increased seed costs — that is, the cost of their inputs.

As a part-time organic farmer, I find Lynas’ line about hybrid seeds “robbing farmers of the right to save seed” nothing short of laughable. No, you can’t save seed from what’s called an F1 hybrid because the desired traits the plant has been bred for won’t necessarily continue into the next generation. That’s Biology 101. And it’s not at all like the Monsanto Technology/Stewardship Agreement, which includes a range of clauses that, among other things, can punish farmers for saving seed and can include harsh provisions such as inspection provisions, and one-sided limitations of remedy. With a hybrid seed, Mother Nature prevents effective seed saving. With GM crops, it’s Mother Nature plus the financial and legal muscle of giant companies like Monsanto. Big difference.

A bit further on his speech Lynas takes a gratuitous swipe at organic methods when he says:

“If you think about it, the organic movement is at its heart a rejectionist one. It doesn’t accept many modern technologies on principle. Like the Amish in Pennsylvania, who froze their technology with the horse and cart in 1850, the organic movement essentially freezes its technology in somewhere around 1950, and for no better reason.

It doesn’t even apply this idea consistently however. I was reading in a recent Soil Association magazine that it is OK to blast weeds with flamethrowers or fry them with electric currents, but benign herbicides like glyphosate are still a no-no because they are ‘artificial chemicals’.”

Talk about a straw man argument. I don’t know any organic farmers who want to freeze their agricultural practices in the amber of nostalgia. Just look at an outfit like the Organic Farming Research Foundation and you’ll see that organic agriculture, at it best, seeks to take the wisdom accrued from 10,000 years of agriculture and graft onto that reliable rootstock the best available twenty-first century science. Lynas perceives some kind of inconsistency in the use of flame weeding because he doesn’t really understand the ideals of organic agriculture and its commitment to appropriate technology — in this case, using some fossil fuels to scorch weeds rather than using synthetic chemicals that persist in the environment to do the work.

As for the contention that glyphosate is “benign,” check out Vandermeer’s review of the evidence linking glyphosate endocrine disruption.

Toward the end of his speech Lynas makes what I think is his most outrageous comment (that is to say, the least supported by evidence), when he says:

“In reality there is no reason at all why avoiding chemicals should be better for the environment — quite the opposite in fact.”

Ahem. Here’s something I wrote last year about the dangers of pesticides:

“When pesticides are sprayed onto farm fields, they don’t just stay in that one place. They seep into the water and waft through the air and accumulate on the shoes and clothes of farm workers. In recent years in California (the country’s top ag producer) an average of 37 pesticide drift incidents a year have made people sick. Pesticides also find their way into the homes of farm workers. A study by researchers at the University of Washington found that the children of farm workers have higher exposure to pesticides than other children in the same community. When researchers in Mexico looked into pesticide exposure of farm workers there, they found that 20 percent of field hands ‘showed acute poisoning.

The health impacts on those workers were serious and included ‘diverse alterations of the digestive, neurological, respiratory, circulatory, dermatological, renal, and reproductive system.’ The researchers concluded: ‘there exist health hazards for those farm workers exposed to pesticides, at organic and cellular levels.’

There are shelves’ worth of studies documenting the health dangers of pesticide exposure. A study published last year found that prenatal exposure to organophosphate pesticides – which are often sprayed on crops and in urban areas to control insects – can lower children’s IQ. A follow-up investigation into prenatal pesticide exposure concluded that boys’ developing brains appear to be more vulnerable than girls’ brains. A study by Colorado State University epidemiologist Lori Cragin found that women who drink water containing low levels of the herbicide atrazine are more likely to have low estrogen levels and irregular menstrual cycles; about three-quarters of all US corn fields are treated with atrazine annually. British scientists who examined the health effects of fungicides sprayed on fruits and vegetable crops discovered that 30 out of 37 chemicals studied altered males’ hormone production.”

That quick review of the scientific literature only addresses agricultural chemicals’ impacts on human health. It would take paragraphs more to outline pesticides’ documented risks to “non-target” species such as frogs, birds, and fish.

So Lynas’ claims for the benefits of genetically modified crops are shaky, at best.

But let’s just say — for the sake of argument — that Lynas is more or less right on evidentiary grounds, and that there isn’t enough science to dismiss GM technologies out of hand.

I would still be skeptical of genetically modified — for reasons that have more to do with political ecology than biology or science.

To plagiarize myself again, from a story I wrote in September 2011 expressing concerns that some GM critics have overblown the potential human health risks of GMOs:

“Perhaps the greatest — and certainly the best documented — threat posed by GMOs involves how they undermine food sovereignty. As Maria Ishii-Eitemann, a senior scientist at Pesticide Action Network, explains it, food sovereignty is “our right to save, plant, and grow seeds and crops as we want.” The steady monopolization of the seed supply is eroding that sovereignty. The skills needed to genetically modify seeds are so specialized (and the investment required so immense) that only a handful of massive firms can take it on. Compare that to the thousands — or, globally, the millions — of seed dealers and seed savers who use traditional plant breeding techniques. … GMOs are dangerous because they concentrate power — and that’s never good news for democracy.”

As a matter of principle I believe that de-centralized power is preferable to concentrated power; that a larger number of market players is preferable to monopolies or oligopolies; that local and regional economies are on average more ecologically sustainable and socially responsible than international economies; and that — especially when it comes to our food supply — it’s better to trust in less technologically sophisticated seed production methods than technologically demanding seed production methods. Small is, indeed, beautiful, if for no other reason than that systems and technologies that are closer to the human scale will prove more resilient in an era of climate chaos. Or, to borrow words from the old Lynas, from a 2008 commentary he wrote for the Guardian: “The [GM] technology moves entirely in the wrong direction, intensifying human technological manipulation of nature when we should be aiming at a more holistic ecological approach instead.” The new Lynas would probably slam that sentence for being more ideological than it is scientific — but science itself is an ideology, and everyone has to start from some point of view.

In that 2008 article Lynas acknowledged that the debate over GM technology “is not about technology or science, it’s about economics and social policy.” For reasons of economics and policy alone, I can’t share Lynas’ embrace of GMOs.

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