Friday, January 4, 2013

Mark Lynas Recants On GM Agriculture

Some things never change.  However, many things do.  Sometimes, even the strongest of opinions can reverse direction.  Consider opposition to genetically-modified ("GM") crops and livestock.  Mark Lynas has long been one of the most eloquent and prominent opponents of GM agriculture.  In fact, he was a primary architect of widespread anti-GM public opinion in Europe.  On January 3, 2012, during an address at the 2013 Oxford Farming Conference, Lynas recounted how he achieved this:
When I first heard about Monsanto’s GM soya I knew exactly what I thought. Here was a big American corporation with a nasty track record, putting something new and experimental into our food without telling us. Mixing genes between species seemed to be about as unnatural as you can get – here was humankind acquiring too much technological power; something was bound to go horribly wrong. These genes would spread like some kind of living pollution. It was the stuff of nightmares.

These fears spread like wildfire, and within a few years GM was essentially banned in Europe, and our worries were exported by NGOs like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth to Africa, India and the rest of Asia, where GM is still banned today. This was the most successful campaign I have ever been involved with.
 Remarkably, Lynas then apologized for this very success, and publicly embraced GM agriculture, in the process portraying vilifying anti-GM environmentalists:
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...
This was also explicitly an anti-science movement. We employed a lot of imagery about scientists in their labs cackling demonically as they tinkered with the very building blocks of life. Hence the Frankenstein food tag – this absolutely was about deep-seated fears of scientific powers being used secretly for unnatural ends. What we didn’t realise at the time was that the real Frankenstein’s monster was not GM technology, but our reaction against it.
Lynas is now treading a path of conversion blazed before him by the "Skeptical Environmentalist," Bjorn Lomborg, a man whose face Lynas once festooned with a cream pie.  Like Lomborg, Lynas will surely be demonized by many of his previous comrades as an apostate guilty of ideological treason.

I have long been fascinated by attitudes towards GM agriculture.  In "Intellectual Property as the Third Dimension of GMO Regulation" (available free here), I analyzed the ironic tension between opposition to GM agriculture and opposition to patents claiming GM crops and livestock.  More recently, in "Planted Obsolescence:  Synagriculture and the Law" (available free here), I suggested that "synagriculture" (that is, agriculture based on a framework of open synthetic biology) is likely to transform agriculture by democratizing access to powerful biotechnological methods and materials capable of engineering miraculous new varieties of agricultural organisms and techniques.

As opponents and proponents battle for the soul of agricultural progress, and GM agriculture continues its worldwide march towards technological dominance, food and other products from farming remain as important as ever.  As Milton had Eve exhort in Book IX of Paradise Lost, "Adam, well may we labour, still to dress/ This garden, still to tend plant, herb, and flower."

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