In the 90s, Mark Lynas was one of most vocal critics of genetically modified (GM) technology. An author of books such as The High Tide, Six Degrees and God Species, shocked the world when he later said he was wrong in opposing GM technology. In a lecture at the Oxford Farming Conference earlier this month, he even apologised for vandalising field trials of GM crops. In an interview with Sanjeeb Mukherjee, Lynas says his opposition to GM was divorced from science. Edited excerpts:
You were among the strongest critics of GM technology and was quite vocal in its opposition. What made you change your perception?
My change of heart on GM came about when I realised that there was no scientific basis to the fears expressed by opponents, including myself. As a writer on environment, I had long been extremely concerned about climate change and have written two books - one of which indeed has won a major scientific prize, given by the Royal Society in the UK. I realised that my insistence that everyone should respect the scientific consensus on climate change was inconsistent with my own rejection of the scientific consensus on GM, which states unambiguously that it is safe. For example, a recent statement from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) states the following: "The science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe". It also adds that "Contrary to popular misconceptions, GM crops are the most extensively tested crops ever added to our food supply" (http://www.aaas.org/news/releases/2012/media/AAAS_GM_statement.pdf ). I was shocked that the reaction from anti-GM groups to this statement was to attack the scientists who made it. Environmentalism is nothing unless it accords with a scientific view of the world. Without science we risk falling into superstition and making serious mistakes which harm people and the environment. One of the worst of those mistakes has been to oppose GM on principle without any convincing evidence that they are actually dangerous.
In that case, what was the scientific evidence that prompted you to oppose GM earlier in the first place?
There was no scientific basis for the earlier opposition - that is why I have to change my position on this. There has never been a single properly substantiated case of harm to animal or human from GM foods or crops anywhere in the world for the last 20 years. That is quite an impressive safety record, and is surely an evidence that cannot be ignored. I guess that back in 1995 this was novel technology and so it was a bit more rational to oppose it out of the 'precautionary principle' - but debate on the point of safety is no longer meaningful in the weight of so much evidence, in the same way that debate about the reality of climate change is no longer relevant to our urgent need to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.
There has been criticism about your apparent change of heart with people accusing you of being brought over by multi-national seed corporations. What do you have to say to these allegations?
Allegations reflect the weakness of arguments of the anti-GM campaigners. They cannot argue with my science, so they say that I have been bought off even though I am entirely independent - my only affiliation is to Oxford University as a visiting scholar. I am very clear on this - these allegations are baseless and false, and are attacks on me which are intended to divert attention away from the fact that what I say is supported by science and by scientists, as well as farmers around the world. I have never asked for, received, nor been offered a penny from Monsanto, nor any other corporation. I was not paid at all to deliver the Oxford speech. The reason I did so was because I was driven to by my conscience - I knew that I had helped spread unscientific superstitions around the world in my earlier role as an anti-GM activist, and now I have to carry the burden of trying to undo some of that damage. I meet many plant scientists who are still angry at me for what I have done to their work.
Is it the fear of there not being enough food for the world that made you support GM? US figures show that the world harvested 2,239 million metric tonnes last year enough to feed 13 billion people. So why should the world opt for GM?
These figures are meaningless in reality. If there is enough food to feed the world now, why is the world not already fed? And why have food prices spiked in recent years due to demand beginning to outstrip supply? In the parts of the world where people live on the land and depend on good harvests to feed their families, they also suffer from lack of fertilizers, irrigation, pest attacks and bad weather. Raising productivity for poor-country farmers would be the quickest route to attack poverty, and yet the campaigners seem content to see farmers in developing country stuck in an organic version of the Stone Age. GM crops can help protect against diseases, and in some case are the only option - one example is bananas, which are under attack from a new bacterial wilt in Eastern Africa, and for which resistance can only be brought by GM because bananas are sterile and propagated clonally.
There have been allegations that the anti-GM agitation whether in India or elsewhere is funded by vested interests. Or to say the anti-GM activists also have their vested interest in opposing the technology. What are your views on this as you have straddled on both sides of the spectrum. Can you elaborate on it?
I think it is very true that the NGOs who oppose GM are as much driven by vested interests as the corporations they claim to oppose. They have extensive funding networks from Europe and elsewhere in the West, and it is said that he who pays the piper calls the tune. Many of the most famous Indian activists travel first class on airlines and have a lucrative career on the European and North American left-wing conference circuits, falsely claiming to represent the true viewpoint of grassroots India when in fact their entire message is imported from abroad. The result is that people are misinformed and very fearful of technology which would benefit them by providing clean electricity and reducing the need to burn polluting biomass for energy, pollution from which is a big killer in India. I think NGOs should be required to reveal their funding sources in the interests of full transparency. Likewise,I am very happy to show my own audited accounts to a neutral third party if it helps to show that I have no financial interest in this work myself.
In a country like India, how do you think the GM technology could be helpful?
We must be clear GM technology is not a silver bullet and cannot deliver food security on its own. It can help farmers by reducing the need for pesticides and delivering higher yields for fewer inputs. It can also deliver drought tolerance, and help make Indian farming more resilient in the face of climate change. But it cannot solve the problem of poverty, corruption, caste oppression etc - India has a lot of work to do if it wants to become a true superpower and to eliminate poverty. Currently, the greatest number of malnourished people in the world live not in Africa but in South Asia. That India is not moving faster to eliminate hunger in its own people is shameful and an indictment of its entire system of governance.
What in your view should be the approach of Indian government in dealing with GM technology?
The Indian government strangles the entire sector in an avalanche of unnecessary and conflicting regulations. Remember that the scientists from AAAS say that there is no inherent extra danger from GM crops, any more than from crops designed through 'conventional' breeding which are not subject to any safety tests but have a higher chance of causing something toxic or allergenic by accident because they do not understand what they are doing to the genome of the plant. So much of the regulatory system is designed to appease the activists, but ends up throttling innovation. The result is that it costs so many millions of dollars to get through the regulations that only the biggest multinational corporations can even make the attempt even in Europe. In India the approvals system is entirely frozen - India cannot claim to be a modernizing country unless it is prepared to accept change and it becomes less scared of innovation and novelty. 'Tradition' is not always best, in seeds and farming just as in social hierarchies.
In India, a Parliament standing committee and also special panel appointed by the Supreme Court had opined for a ban on GM field trials. Do you think that it is a right approach or trials should at least be allowed to continue?
The whole episode with TEC (Technical Expert Committee) is an international embarrassment for India. TEC would not pass muster in any international scientific forum, and India must do better if it is to have a sensible policy on biotechnology.