Anti-GMO activist changes his mind–what does it really mean?

mark lynas for PMLet’s get this out upfront. There is no evidence that genetically modified food (which most people call GM or GMO) cause any harm to humans. None. And many people, myself included, consider anti-GMO activists to be nothing more than the left’s version of global warming denialists. The anti-GMO crowd use many of the same strategies and techniques of all science deniers, whether it’s vaccine-, global warming-, or evolutiondenialists:

  • logical fallacies
  • pseudoscience
  • hysterical claims
  • conspiracies
  • abject lack of real science

British environmentalist Mark Lynas was probably the heart of the anti-GMO movement, who as recently as 2008 railed that the big agricultural companies, like Monsanto, were lying that GM crops were necessary for feeding the world as the climate was changing. Basically, the only reason anyone today is questioning GMO crops is because of Lynas.

Recently, Lynas has had a complete change of heart during a lecture on January 3 2013 to the Oxford Farming Conference. He opened his lecture with what must have caused a few gasps:

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 which 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 I guess you’ll be wondering—what happened between 1995 and now that made me not only change my mind but come here and admit it? Well, the answer is fairly simple: I discovered science, and in the process I hope I became a better environmentalist.

He claimed his change of heart came about as a result of his research into climate change for his book, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, published in 2009. 

For me this anti-science environmentalism became increasingly inconsistent with my pro-science environmentalism with regard to climate change. I published my first book on global warming in 2004, and I was determined to make it scientifically credible rather than just a collection of anecdotes.

So I had to back up the story of my trip to Alaska with satellite data on sea ice, and I had to justify my pictures of disappearing glaciers in the Andes with long-term records of mass balance of mountain glaciers. That meant I had to learn how to read scientific papers, understand basic statistics and become literate in very different fields from oceanography to paleoclimate, none of which my degree in politics and modern history helped me with a great deal.

I found myself arguing constantly with people who I considered to be incorrigibly anti-science, because they wouldn’t listen to the climatologists and denied the scientific reality of climate change. So I lectured them about the value of peer-review, about the importance of scientific consensus and how the only facts that mattered were the ones published in the most distinguished scholarly journals.

My second climate book, Six Degrees, was so sciency that it even won the Royal Society science books prize, and climate scientists I had become friendly with would joke that I knew more about the subject than them. And yet, incredibly, at this time in 2008 I was still penning screeds in the Guardian attacking the science of GM – even though I had done no academic research on the topic, and had a pretty limited personal understanding. I don’t think I’d ever read a peer-reviewed paper on biotechnology or plant science even at this late stage.

Obviously this contradiction was untenable. What really threw me were some of the comments underneath my final anti-GM Guardian article. In particular one critic said to me: so you’re opposed to GM on the basis that it is marketed by big corporations. Are you also opposed to the wheel because because it is marketed by the big auto companies?

So he saw the conflict in the science of climate change vs. the anti-science of GMO stance and changed his mind. I’m glad he shed that anti-science rhetoric he was spewing, but the fact is that he was an ignoramus writing about junk science for over ten years, and using every available outlet to do so. It makes it difficult for me to accept anything he says as honest.

Thus, color me a bit skeptical. If it were so easy to change minds about science, all the science bloggers could move on to writing about cool new medical procedures, fossils, insect species, stars, or whatever, instead of spending their writing lives beating down pseudoscience from all sides. Lynas changed his mind because books are profitable, and if he’s going to be writing “sciency” books, he better be consistently science-y.

But if he’s really had a change of heart, why isn’t he calling out the anti-science shills by name? Why isn’t he criticizing their bad science by name? Why isn’t he calling out the anti-science organizations whose anti-GMO stances are no different than Big Oil’s stances on global warming?

Mark Lynas has a decade of anti-science damage to correct, and it’s not going to be done by one lecture that seems transparently self-serving. So far, I am not impressed.

The Original Skeptical Raptor
Chief Executive Officer at SkepticalRaptor
Lifetime lover of science, especially biomedical research. Spent years in academics, business development, research, and traveling the world shilling for Big Pharma. I love sports, mostly college basketball and football, hockey, and baseball. I enjoy great food and intelligent conversation. And a delicious morning coffee!