Twitter-land was abuzz last week with news that a formerly ardent critic of genetic engineering (GE) has recanted his position. Mark Lynas gave a long mea culpa speech at the Oxford Farming Conference, in which he apologized to the world for tearing up GE crops back in the day, and for what he described as his “anti-science environmentalism.”
Unfortunately, Lynas then went on to ignore the weight of scientific evidence (more on that below). He claimed that GE crop production is good for biodiversity and necessary to feed the world, that organic farming is bad, and that “there is no reason at all why avoiding chemicals should be better for the environment.” He then quickly slammed the door shut on public debate, pronouncing “discussion over.” Many of us in the global scientific community were left shaking our heads, bemused if disappointed in Lynas’ anti-science rhetorical flourishes.
Four excellent science- and evidence-based rebuttals to Lynas have since appeared, authored by University of Michigan evolution professor, John Vandermeer; Union of Concerned Scientists’ Doug Gurian-Sherman;Dr. Brian John of UK’s Durham University; and Earth Island Journal’s Jason Mark.
Less rigorous was the response of journalists at the New York Times, New Yorker, L.A. Times, Slate and the Economist, who essentially reprinted large swaths of Lynas’ speech, congratulating him on his "courageous" about-face, without bothering to investigate the veracity of any of his claims. In so doing, they’ve demonstrated their adroit use of the copy-paste function on their keyboards, but little else.
Separating evidence from rhetoric
Lynas went wrong in several areas. First, he claims that GE crops are critical to feeding the world. There are two fundamental problems with his reasoning: a) GE crops do not increase yield and b) focusing on productivity is not actually the way to solve world hunger.
Taking the second, larger point first: people are hungry because they cannot afford to buy food. They cannot afford food because they are poor, and their poverty is related to a host of complex political, social, economic and environmental factors. It turns out that things like global trade policies, land tenure, commodity speculation, corporate concentration ratios and biofuel mandates are more direct determinants of hunger than a crop plant’s intrinsic yield.
That is why the most comprehensive global assessment of agriculture to date — the World Bank and U.N.-sponsored International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Scientific and Technology for Development (IAASTD), authored by 400 scientists and development experts from over 80 countries — highlighted the urgent need to undertake major shifts in governance, trade, finance and development policies in order to “feed the world.” This could be achieved, says the IAASTD, by rebalancing power in the food system, supporting small-scale farmers and advancing social equity.