Commentary: Environmentalist: Technology can attack world hunger
By Dave Kranz
Strategic use of agricultural biotechnology will be essential to meet increasing global food demand with limited land and water resources, according to environmentalist Mark Lynas.
The debate about agricultural biotechnology took another turn earlier this month when a longtime opponent changed his former position and endorsed the use of genetically modified crops to battle world hunger.
Mark Lynas is a British environmentalist and writer who helped start the anti-biotechnology movement in the 1990s and who took part in destroying test plantings of GE crops. But during a lecture to the Oxford Farming Conference in England, he said he regretted his role in "ripping up GM crops" and apologized for pursuing what he called a "counter-productive path."
Lynas, who has written extensively on climate change, said he became familiar with scientific literature while researching that topic and realized that he had never done any academic research on biotechnology, despite his strongly held opposition to it.
"So I did some reading," he said, "and I discovered that one by one my cherished beliefs about GM turned out to be little more than green urban myths."
He then listed several of his previous assumptions that he now deemed to be untrue: that biotechnology would increase use of chemicals; that it benefited only big companies; that no one wanted biotechnology; that it was dangerous. Instead, he said pest-resistant, biotech crops needed less insecticide; that billions of dollars' worth of benefits were accruing to farmers who needed fewer inputs; that farmers in many parts of the world were eager to use biotech crops; and that biotechnology was "safer and more precise" than conventional breeding.
Lynas said he determined to try to look at the bigger picture. When he did that, he said, he saw a planet that would need to support 9.5 billion people by 2050 on about the same land area as today. As population climbs and living standards also improve, Lynas said, global food demand will increase "well over 100 percent by mid-century."
Technology can address that need, he said, pointing to the work of Norman Borlaug, the agronomist whose development of high-yielding grain varieties improved production worldwide and helped stave off the predicted "population bomb" of the 1970s. Now, a further intensification of food production is needed, Lynas said, employing biotechnology to increase yields despite limited land and water resources.
But, he said, opposition to biotechnology has slowed development of new plant varieties and has ratcheted up the cost of innovation. Lynas lamented the fact that in many parts of Europe, Africa and Asia, biotech opponents "have the bureaucrats on their side."
"Thus, desperately needed agricultural innovation is being strangled by a suffocating avalanche of regulations which are not based on any rational scientific assessment of risk," he said.
Lynas said there is "rock-solid scientific consensus" on the safety of biotech food.
"We no longer need to discuss whether or not it is safe—over a decade and a half with 3 trillion GM meals eaten there has never been a single substantiated case of harm," he said. "You are more likely to get hit by an asteroid than to get hurt by GM food."
Lynas concluded bluntly, telling the anti-biotechnology lobby to "get out of the way and let the rest of us get on with feeding the world sustainably."
A few days after his speech, Lynas told a blogger for Bloomberg News that he had received "overwhelming support" for his comments—despite harsh criticism from some former allies in the environmental movement—and that this moment "feels like a turning point" in the larger debate about biotechnology.
His comments provoked considerable commentary in the blogosphere.
"It's not often that you hear someone stand up in front of a microphone and tell the world they have been wrong about a high-profile issue," wrote Karen Kaplan on the Los Angeles Times science blog, who said Lynas had offered "a full-throated defense" of biotechnology as a means of "feeding a growing population without devastating the environment."
New York Times environmental blogger Andrew Revkin wrote that Lynas had displayed "an encouraging—and still rare—capacity to shed dogma in favor of data."
The president and CEO of The Nature Conservancy, Mark Tercek, wrote that he "largely but not entirely" agreed with Lynas. "We do not seek nor could ever achieve lock-step agreement, but when the debate loses all connection to science then the environmental movement suffers badly in the long run," Tercek said.
Only in coming years will we know if Mark Lynas' speech marked a turning point in the biotechnology debate. But one of his concluding points mirrors Farm Bureau policy, which supports biotechnology, organic agriculture and the full spectrum of farming methods:
"Most important of all, farmers should be free to choose what kind of technologies they want to adopt."
(Dave Kranz is editor of Ag Alert and manages the California Farm Bureau Federation Communications/News Division. He can be contacted at email@example.com.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.