EDITOR'S NOTE: Much of the time, this column seeks to explain modern agriculture by citing sources who are involved in modern agriculture. For the next two weeks, however, this column will hear from another voice -- one that has been a critic of today's high-tech farming and food production but who has now acknowledged that much of his criticism was based on the wrong assumptions and conclusions.
Mark Lynas, a British activist and author who writes about environmental issues and who is recognized as one of the first opponents, since the mid-1990s, of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), spoke to the Oxford Farming Conference earlier this month and said he was wrong about GMOs.
He apologized for his role in the anti-GMO movement for "demonizing an important technology" that actually can benefit the environment. "I now regret it completely," he said.
First of two parts
Lynas recalled that when he first heard about GMOs being developed by companies like Monsanto Co., he pictured a giant, inwardly motivated American corporation mixing genes in species and "putting something experimental" into the food supply. "It was the stuff of nightmares," he said.
The fears he and other GMO opponents created spread across much of the world, from Europe to Africa, India and Asia, Lynas said, calling the anti-GMO criticism "the most successful" campaign in which he had ever been involved.
However, "the real Frankenstein monster was not GMO technology but our reaction to it," he said.
Lynas noted that as recently as four years ago, he still was writing letters to magazines and newspapers attacking GMOs, even though he had done little research on the matter and had limited personal understanding of the technology.
However, a couple of things happened. First, he realized that "the anti-science environment" surrounding the anti-GMO movement "was becoming increasingly inconsistent with the pro-science environment" to which he was committed for supporting the positions he took in his recent book on climate change.
Lynas said he found himself arguing constantly with those who deny the existence of climate change -- people he considered "incorrigibly anti-science" because they wouldn't listen to climatologists and other experts on the situation.
Then, he said, he was advised by one person responding to his magazine and newspaper letters that being opposed to GMO technology because it's connected with big corporations is like being opposed to automobile wheels because they are marketed by big car companies.
So, he said, he began researching the science behind GMOs and discovered that, "one by one, my cherished beliefs about GMOs were little more than 'green' urban myths."
Lynas said he assumed that:
* GMOs would increase chemical use, but GMO crops have needed fewer chemicals such as fertilizers and insecticides;
* GMOs would benefit only the big companies marketing them, but "billions of dollars of benefits" have accrued to farmers because they've needed fewer costly inputs;
* GMOs were being forced on producers who never really wanted them, but demand was so great that GMO seeds were pirated into some countries;
* GMOs were dangerous, but in reality, GMOs were more precise and safer than conventional breeding because GMO technology addresses just a few specific genes, whereas conventional breeding "mucks about the entire genome in a trial-and-error way."
* GMOs would transfer genes between unrelated species, but research shows that this happens all of the time in viruses, insects, plants and "even us."
Lynas said he then began considering how the world's population is growing to an expected 9 billion or more people by 2050 who will need to be fed from food produced on about the same land base today using limited fertilizers, insecticides and water "in the context of a rapidly changing climate."
Furthermore, food production will need to be doubled.
What's important, he said, population growth is coming from the decline in infant mortality -- i.e., more of today's children are growing up to have children of their own rather than dying of childhood diseases.
Fertility rates actually are declining, he noted; it's not that there are "legions" of children being born, but children are living longer, more productive lives.
This trend is a result of economic growth around the world -- especially in developing countries -- which has led to better health and nutrition, he said.
Lynas turned the focus of his presentation to the late Dr. Norman Borlaug and his "Green Revolution" that was based on science and sought to decrease losses and improve yields through genetic technology.
He noted that Borlaug spoke out against those who, for ideological and/or political reasons, were opposed to innovation, saying if they were to successfully halt technology, they might actually precipitate the crises they predicted the technology would cause, including famine and loss of biodiversity.
However, opposition to biotechnology continued, creating government resistance throughout the world and making the development of agricultural biotechnology so expensive and time-consuming that only the largest, most well-financed corporations could afford to be involved, Lynas said.
It now costs $139 million and takes 5.5 years to move from discovery of a new biotech seed to commercialization -- "a depressing irony," he said, in that the anti-biotech, anti-GMO groups "did more than anyone else" to bring about this situation.
European resistance to biotechnology and GMOs and "nostalgia" for farming methods of the past are putting Europe "on the verge of becoming a food museum," Lynas said.
Because of this resistance in Europe and elsewhere, the improvement in yields of important crops is stalling, Lynas warned, and "if we don't get yield growth back on track, we are going to have problems keeping up with population growth."
Food demand and prices will rise, he said, and more and more land and other resources will need to be "converted from nature" to production.
The complete text and a video of Lynas' presentation are available at www.marklynas.org/2013/01/lecture-to-oxford-farming-conference-3-january-2013.
Additional information on GMOs is available at www.FeedstuffsFoodLink.com.