I want to start with some apologies. 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 that can be used to benefit the environment.
As an environmentalist, and someone who believes that everyone in this world has a right to a healthy and nutritious diet of their choosing, I could not have chosen a more counter-productive path. I now regret it completely.
So what happened to my thinking? Well, the answer is fairly simple: I discovered science, and in the process I hope I became a better environmentalist. Having written two books about the science of global warming, I came to understand that defending climate science was incompatible with attacking the science of biotechnology.
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.
You are more likely to get hit by an asteroid than to get hurt by GM food
But what about mixing genes between unrelated species? The fish and the tomato? Turns out viruses do that all the time, as do plants and insects and even us – it’s called gene flow.
So this is the challenge that faces us today: we are going to have to feed 9.5 billion, hopefully much less poor, people by 2050 on about the same land area as we use today, with limited fertiliser, water and pesticides and in the context of a rapidly changing climate.
It is not enough to sit back and hope that technological innovation will solve our problems. We have to be much more activist and strategic than that. We have to ensure that technological innovation moves much more rapidly, and in the right direction for those who most need it.
It now costs tens of millions to get a crop through the regulatory systems in different countries. In fact the latest figures I’ve just seen from CropLife suggest it costs $139m to move from discovering a new crop trait to full commercialisation, so open-source or public sector biotech really does not stand a chance.
There is a depressing irony here that the anti-biotech campaigners complain about GM crops only being marketed by big corporations when this is a situation they have done more than anyone to help bring about.
Today, as one commentator put it recently, Europe is on the verge of becoming a food museum. We well-fed consumers are blinded by romantic nostalgia for the traditional farming of the past. Because we have enough to eat, we can afford to indulge our aesthetic illusions.
Organic farming has much to offer, but it is in the way of progress when it refuses to allow innovation. Many third-generation GM crops allow us not to use environmentally damaging chemicals because the genome of the crop in question has been altered so the plant can protect itself from pests. Why is that not organic?
Organic is also in the way when it is used to take away choice from others. One of the commonest arguments against GM is that organic farmers will be “contaminated” with GM pollen, and therefore no one should be allowed to use it. So the rights of a well-heeled minority, which come down ultimately to a consumer preference based on aesthetics, trump the rights of everyone else to use improved crops that would benefit the environment.
Last year Greenpeace destroyed a GM wheat crop in Australia. This was publicly funded research carried out by the Commonwealth Scientific Research institute, but no matter. They were against it because it was GM and unnatural.
What few people have since heard is that one of the other trials being undertaken, which Greenpeace activists with their strimmers luckily did not manage to destroy, accidentally found a wheat yield increase of an extraordinary 30%. Just think. This knowledge might never have been produced at all, if Greenpeace had succeeded in destroying this innovation.
As the president of the NFU Peter Kendall recently suggested, this is analogous to burning books in a library before anyone has been able to read them.
In China, Greenpeace managed to trigger a national media panic by claiming that two dozen children had been used as human guinea pigs in a trial of GM golden rice. They gave no consideration to the fact that this rice is healthier, and could save thousands of children from vitamin A deficiency-related blindness and death each year.
The fact that golden rice was developed in the public sector and for public benefit cuts no ice with the antis. Take Rothamsted Research, which last year began a trial of an aphid-resistant GM wheat. Professor John Pickett and his team took to YouTube and the media to tell the important story of why their research mattered. They gathered thousands of signatures on a petition when the antis could only manage a couple of hundred, and the attempted destruction was a damp squib.
This year, as well as repeating the wheat trial, Rothamsted is working on an Omega-3 oilseed that could replace wild fish in food for farmed salmon. So this could help reduce overfishing by allowing land-based feedstocks to be used in aquaculture. Yes it’s GM, so expect the antis to oppose this one too, despite the obvious potential environmental benefits in terms of marine biodiversity.
My conclusion today is very clear: the GM debate is over. It is finished. We no longer need to discuss whether or not it is safe – over a decade and a half with three trillion GM meals eaten there has never been a single substantiated case of harm. You are more likely to get hit by an asteroid than to get hurt by GM food.
Just as I did 10 years ago, Greenpeace and the Soil Association claim to be guided by consensus science, as on climate change. Yet on GM there is a rock-solid scientific consensus, backed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Royal Society, health institutes and national science academies around the world. Yet this inconvenient truth is ignored because it conflicts with their ideology.
One final example is the sad story of the GM blight-resistant potato. This was being developed by both the Sainsbury Lab and Teagasc, a publicly funded institute in Ireland – but the Irish Green Party was so opposed that they even took out a court case against it.
This is despite the fact that the blight-resistant potato would save farmers from doing 15 fungicide sprays per season, that pollen transfer is not an issue because potatoes are clonally propagated and that the offending gene came from a wild relative of the potato.
There would have been a nice historical resonance to having a blight-resistant potato developed in Ireland, given the million or more who died due to the potato famine in the mid-19th century. It would have been a wonderful thing for Ireland to be the country that defeated blight. But thanks to the Irish Green Party, this is not to be.
And unfortunately the antis now have the bureaucrats on their side. Wales and Scotland are officially GM free, taking medieval superstition as a strategic imperative for devolved governments supposedly guided by science. In Africa, “no GM” is still the motto for many governments.
Thus desperately needed agricultural innovation is being strangled by a suffocating avalanche of regulations that are not based on any rational scientific assessment of risk. The risk today is not that anyone will be harmed by GM food, but that millions will be harmed by not having enough food, because a vocal minority of people in rich countries want their meals to be what they consider “natural”.
In my view, farmers should be free to choose what kind of technologies they want to adopt. If you think the old ways are the best, that’s fine. You have that right.
What you don’t have the right to do is to stand in the way of others who hope and strive for ways of doing things differently, and hopefully better.
So my message to the anti-GM lobby 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.
Mark Lynas is an environmental author and campaigner. His most recent book is The God Species: How the Planet Can Survive the Age of Humans. He is a visiting research associate at Oxford University’s School of Geography and the Environment.