Co-founder of anti-GM movement Mark Lynas calls for evidence to replace instinct in GM debate
Author, environmentalist and “stately scientific rationalist” Mark Lynas makes the case for GM technology to help deliver more, safe food with less impact on the planet’s resources.
He gave the 4th Chris Lamb lecture at the John Innes Centre, set up in memory of the former JIC director who died in 2009. This was also the 10th annual lecture for the Friends of the John Innes Centre.
Lynas made an appeal to apply scientific scepticism to environmental campaigning, while at the same time ridding debate of the “jargon that infests scientific dialogue”.
“I still strongly hold to the environmentalist label and the essential values that make environmentalism such an important philosophy,” he said.
“I care about protecting the biosphere and the planet’s capacity to support people indefinitely.”
At the same time, he stressed the importance of “taking an evidence-based approach to controversial areas and not just taking assertions by campaigners as gospel” or judging issues on instinct.
One of founders of anti-GM movement, he helped develop the anti-gm narrative still in use today. Trawling scientific journals while researching a book about climate change, he started to think he should apply scientific evidence to other campaign issues.
“I had an idea that [appealing to scientific values] was contrary to my night-time activities against GMOs, given that most scientists had little time for anti-gm activism and said it wasn’t evidence-based.”
In his latest book The God Species, Lynas outlines his case for the technology.
“I realised genetic engineering technology could be a powerful tool to address planetary boundaries, such as issues with the nitrogen cycle,” he said.
Food production is limited by nitrogen availability, but we have overcome this by synthesising around 120bn tonnes of atmospheric nitrogen a year into fertilisers.
“This is a good thing because it keeps more than half of humanity alive, but it has doubled the nitrogen cycle on land,” said Lynas.
Environmental impacts include eutrophication and the release of nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.
Lynas paid tribute to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for funding current JIC research to investigate the possibility of triggering a symbiosis between maize and nitrogen-fixing soil microbes. The aim of the research is to improve productivity for smallholders in sub-Saharan Africa without using synthetic fertilisers.
“Not using GM technology is risky in itself,” said Lynas.
It is regulated out of existence in most of Africa. It is effectively illegal to use this technology in any environmentally beneficial way in most of the world except in very specific applications.”
He outlined the major challenge of how to feed a growing world population on limited land, with limited water and within the context of a very rapidly changing climate.
“Back in 1995 we didn’t know everything that we know today. Now after two trillion GM meals have been served and eaten, I don’t think we need to discuss the safety of GM. We need to begin roll back a decade and a half of pointless regulation which is strangling an important new technology.”
“My fellow environmentalists say they respect scientific consensus on all issues and certainly they do with climate change. I think it is time to move on and to start focusing on the real problems the world faces.”
Mark Lynas delivered his talk, entitled “Organic food, GMOs and sustainable agriculture: green myths and scientific reality”,on Monday 3 December. Watch the complete talk online