GMOs get a new unlikely ally
By Holly Martin
I remember interviewing a Texas cotton farmer over 10 years ago. We were riding along in his pickup past fields and fields of genetically modified cotton. I obviously can't remember his exact words but it went something like this: "When GMOs first came out I thought, 'Finally. Something that the environmentalists and farmers can agree on.' But that didn't happen. They don't like GMOs either. It's crazy. Just crazy."
I couldn't have agreed more. It was at that point I realized that regardless of facts, some folks just don't care. They are going to oppose technology just because they can. Few issues relating to agriculture have been as contentious as genetically modified organisms. GMOs first came on the crops scene in the mid-1990s.
One of those environmentalists who raised the loudest concerns was Mark Lynas. He didn't just oppose GM crops, he literally went to the fields and ripped the plants out of the ground. A British environmentalist, he has written several books and spoken vocally about the impact of man on the environment.
He shocked environmentalists and farmers alike recently when he said, "For the record, here and up front, 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."
Well, whatta 'ya know. Lynas was speaking in at the Oxford Farming Conference. He went on to say he tried very hard to stick to his anti-GMO philosophy but then something happened. "I discovered science, and in the process I hope I became a better environmentalist."
Lynas made some up-front assumptions that turned out to be false. "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.
"I'd assumed that no one wanted GM. Actually what happened was that Bt cotton was pirated into India and Roundup Ready soya into Brazil because farmers were so eager to use them.
"I'd assumed that GM was dangerous. It turned out that it was safer and more precise than conventional breeding using mutagenesis, for example; GM just moves a couple of genes, whereas conventional breeding mucks about with the entire genome in a trial and error way."
The thing is that Lynas took the responsibility to learn about GMOs himself. He did the research and almost against his wishes discovered he was wrong. Really wrong. That's good news for agriculture, but the problem is most consumers don't have the luxury of discovering science for themselves. They rely on what they hear and read, and all too often, those "facts" aren't really "facts."
A recent example is an online attack on Cheerios. You know Cheerios, that wholesome, tasty treat stuck in the diaper bag of every mother of a toddler between Lubbock and Lincoln? The attack was propelled by the fact that General Mills, the maker of Cheerios, helped defeat Prop 37 in California that would have required all food that contained GM crops to be labeled. Never mind that scientific organization after organization has stated GM foods are safe. Those that oppose GMOs didn't care. They wanted to force food companies into an expensive labeling process, regardless of the facts.
So the conflict isn't over, but Lynas' opinion does give me hope. He says farmers should have the right to utilize technology to help feed a "growing population in a warming world."
And he has a pretty strong message to those who oppose GM foods. "My message to the anti-GM lobby, from the ranks of the British aristocrats and celebrity chefs to the U.S. foodies to the peasant groups of India is this. You are entitled to your views. But you must know by now that they are not supported by science. We are coming to a crunch point, and for the sake of both people and the planet, now is the time for you to get out of the way and let the rest of us get on with feeding the world sustainably."
Lynas sums it up pretty well. "The stakes are high. If we continue to get this wrong, the life prospects of billions of people will be harmed."
Holly Martin can be reached by phone at 1-800-452-7171 ext. 1806, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.