A Deeper Look at GMOs With Mark Lynas

03/25/2015 06:00 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2015

On January 3, 2013 in an Oxford farming conference lecture, Mark Lynas declared the science behind the safety of consuming genetically modified crops settled. Lynas is an author, journalist and long-time climate change campaigner. He also had been a vehement anti-GMO activist.

The attention Lynas's "conversion" brought made him an in-demand speaker for agriculture-related groups. The following interview focuses on Lynas's current interactions with American farmers and his thoughts on other aspects of the GMO debate.


Don Carr: You often speak to various farm groups in America. Given that a scant 8 percent of farmers in the Corn Belt believe in human-induced climate change, do you feel compelled to try and change their minds?

Mark Lynas: Absolutely. I think of myself as a climate change propagandist in red state farming country. It's an integral part of the message for me. My own conversion in the GMO sense came out precisely because I thought there was a contradiction between the scientific consensus on climate change and using that for advocacy and simultaneously rejecting the science on GMO safety. In the talks to farm groups I show evidence of melting glaciers, and I show the statements from the American Association for the Advancement of Science and other academic institutions about the scientific consensus on climate change. Then I parallel that from statements from the same institutions using the same language on GMO safety.

Even If I wanted to I couldn't sit in a room full of Republican farmers and not talk about climate change. It's really central to my GMO message, and it's something I'm still strongly involved with and writing about.

DC: Is there an equivalency? If you had to pick one, whether activists come around on GMO safety or politicians and farmers come around on climate change what would you pick?

ML: In my ideal world?

DC: Sure.

ML: I'm sorry I can't choose. In my ideal world we would have a pro-science narrative on both those issues. It's difficult to separate because one is about managing the planetary climate. All of civilization depends on a having stable climate. And the other is how to feed the world without destroying the Earth's ecosystems. I strongly feel that we need biotech and GMOS are only a component -- but an essential part of the bigger picture on how we can make agriculture more sustainable while we feed a growing population.

The longer-term agenda here is to make agriculture as intensive as possible on the smallest land area as possible while making that intensive agriculture environmentally friendly. So at the same time we're sparing large acres of natural landscape from being plowed up. The ultimate goal is to allow a re-wilding across as much of the planetary surface as possible.

I'm quite deep green about this, and that's my real motivation for pushing the GMO case and you couldn't abandon the climate change narrative.

DC: GMO tech does help farmers grow more with less effort. Isn't there a downside to that? It's not just GMOS, but GPS, better machinery and farmers bolstered by federal subsidies have allowed farmers to grow more at scale and that leads to consolidation which has helped hollow out rural America.

ML: These are very complex social and economic dynamics. Singling out particular technology to use that a lightning rod for these concerns is not helpful. I don't see why GMOs can't be used by small farmers. That's what we're doing in Bangladesh with the BT eggplant project.

There's nothing inherent in this technology that means it's going to lead to the further consolidation of farms. It really depends on how it's deployed and in whose interests. Even if you were concerned about the demise of family farms and I think I am one of those people, banning a whole suite of technologies isn't the way to address. It's avoiding it really by sticking your head in the sand.

DC: I'm not a ban guy.

ML: I'm not accusing you of that, I'm just responding to how these debates usually put. Precision agriculture by and large is a step forward from throwing granular fertilizers all over the place. And your productivity of labor is the most important thing. Back in the day farm laborers were doing everything by hand. Having 80 percent of the population working the land like in some African countries is much worse from a food security standpoint.

While its true that only 1-2 percent of Americans are directly engaged in farming, it is probably too small of a number. Because you have all sorts of issues with people are so disconnected from farming and how their food is produced and then we have this silly fight over GMOs.

DC: You say silly fight over GMOs, considering the multitude of problems agriculture faces, are we spending too much time taking about GMOS?

ML: I wish we didn't need to have this debate at all. I'd go back to campaigning on climate change quite happily. But we are having this debate and the world is as it is. And given my early involvement in the issue I feel obliged to help us move away from it.

DC: What about the idea that GMOs, since they are hardier, allow for plantings in places where we shouldn't plant more corn, like marginal areas? If we're growing more corn on more land because of GMOs and we're seeing an increase in ancillary water problems like in Toledo and Des Moines, shouldn't that be taken into account? Doesn't more corn equal more problems environmentally?

ML: That's an interesting question. You can look at drought tolerant traits, which are being introduced into corn that even in marginal areas will be a net benefit for water consumption. You have to use new technologies to mitigate the problems with old technologies and often people don't understand how that makes sense. If we have a problem with fertilizer run-off - by the way that happens in organic systems too -having crops that can fix their own nitrogen that are non leguminous, you potentially would not have to add external nitrogen. It could fix some of these problems. Now there's a biotech trait that may or may not be in the pipeline that could make a big difference in the next 10-15 years.

I'm not ideologically pro-GMO and try to say it as often as possible. I can imagine many different uses of the technology that would be negative that could compromise safety. You could put allergens and toxins much easier into food crops using this technology.

Looking at the social and environmental complexity of these issues is absolutely fine, what's not productive is this black and white debate basically about political straw men. It's a thin cover for a culture wars battle in the same way we have them over climate change and gun ownership.