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November 27, 2014
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‘Scientists agree transgenic crops are safe’

Mark Lynas is visiting Argentina to give a lecture at the Maizar congress in the Four Seasons hotel.
By Fermín Koop
Herald Staff
Activist who flip-flopped on genetically modified farming to speak in BA today

Environmentalists frequently criticize transgenic crops. Until recently, Mark Lynas was no exception. A British journalist, researcher and activist, Lynas helped found the movement against genetically modified (GM) foods in the mid 1990s. But as time went on, he started questioning his own views, leading him to publicly denounce his previous positions during a speech at the Oxford Farming Conference in 2013 that rocked the environmental world.

“I apologize for having spent several years ripping up GM crops,” he said back then. “I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement ... and that I thereby assisted in demonizing an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment.”

As he gets ready to speak at the Maizar 2014 congress in Buenos Aires this afternoon, Lynas talked to the Herald and explained his change of heart. He claims organic agriculture “would be a disaster” for the environment and said it will take decades to fully implement renewable energy around the world.

You seem to have undergone a personal and professional transformation. You now support what you once vociforously opposed — GM crops and nuclear energy among others. How do you explain that?

I haven’t changed my mind on being an environmentalist. What changed is my own understanding of scientific issues, in particular of transgenic crops. I was one of the first campaigners on the issue, and I’ve even destroyed crops — that’s how personally I felt. But my information wasn’t coming from scientists, it was coming from Greenpeace. Then I went to write books on climate change, and I always told people who denied climate change that you’ve got to listen to the science. There’s the same kind of scientific consensus on the safety of GM crops as there is on the reality of climate change.

What kind of research led you to change your views?

I talked to scientists and began reading scientific literature. When I wrote my books about climate change, I read hundreds of scientific papers published in academic journals. The whole time I was an anti-GM campaigner I didn’t read a single paper, something that applies to most activists now. GM crops became the symbol for environmentalists who protest against big corporations like Monsanto. All of the fears have some actual foundation, but the enemy is not GM crops.

What led you to being an environmentalist in the first place?

I was a real activist, and I even organized the first protest ever against Monsanto. But that was a young person’s game. If you are in your twenties, you can allow yourself to be chased by the police at a protest. But now I’m 41-years-old and have kids. I learned a lot more in the last 10 years than when I was at university. You need to keep an open mind, and accept that you might be wrong. I’ve been wrong on a lot of things.

You received a lot of criticism from environmentalists when you announced your change of views. Has your new stand on GM crops ended your reputation as an environmentalist?

People will always criticize you if you change your views. People have a lot of emotional investment inthese issues and they feel personally betrayed. But there’s nothing I can do about that. Either you can be true to yourself and be honest with what you believe in or you can continue to live a lie. I chose the first one.

Was it hard to announce your new opinions to everyone?

Yes, it took a long time to build up the courage to announce it. I realized I got this wrong in 2008, and in 2013 I made the speech where I came clean.

Leaked documents from Europabio, the European association for bio-industries, talked about a plan to fracture the green movement, and you were mentioned by NGOs as one of those who has been recruited...

It’s not true. I was never even contacted by Europabio. I’ve never taken a single dollar from the biotechnology industry. So I’m comfortable making these arguments, because I’m making them as an independent researcher.

Are GM crops harmful to human health?

No, they are not. GM crops are actually better for the environment. Genetic modification is a technique to produce different varieties of crops. Genetically modified crops have been specifically designed so the modifications don’t present any additional risks. The techniques can be used to make crops less risky and harmful than they currently are. It’s actually the reverse of what most people imagine.

But what about pesticides and herbicides? Companies fumigate near schools and towns here.

There are different types of genetic modifications, and some don’t need fumigation like BT crops. GM crops around the world have largely reduced the use of pesticides. Glyphosate is pretty benign to human health, but it doesn’t feel like that if you are being sprayed with it. Let’s not invent scary stories about this.

There seems to be a large organic movement around the world that supports an alternative agricultural model. Is it a real option?

The organic movement is living a lie. There’s no environmental justification to what it does, and makes the distinction between artificial and natural, which is a false distinction. What matters is if something is good or bad. An organic agriculture system would be a disaster for the environment. It’s much less productive, so if you want to feed a growing population you would have to destroy the entire rainforest. A mass extinction of natural species would take place.

You’ve said that there are irrational fears over GM crops. What are those fears?

Well-known NGOs use images of babies’ heads coming out of ears of corn, and that’s outrageous. There are conspiracy theories all around the world. In Africa, they say GM crops make men infertile, while in Bangladesh they say crops leave children paralyzed. In Europe they say it’s going to cause cancer, and in the US autism is the main fear.

How do you feel about environmentalists who oppose shale oil and gas?

Fracking can be done well or poorly. There have been cases of water contamination and leakage in the United States. One of the problems there is that it isn’t properly regulated, so companies are allowed to keep secret what chemicals they use. For environmentalists, everything has to be perfect right away, so we have to go straight to renewable sources. But the reality is that you can’t have that. Industrialized societies cannot depend fully on solar or wind power now. It’s going to take decades to get mostly renewable energy.

@ferminkoop
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