by BETTER FARMING STAFF
Long before British author Mark Lynas achieved critical acclaim for his science-based approach to global warming, he was an environmentalist of a down-and-dirty sort. His target was technology in agriculture and he wasn’t above trashing crops to resist genetically modified seed breeding technology.
During a farm industry conference in Oxford, U.K. last January, Lynas, 39, apologized for his early anti-GMO activities. He credits having to learn about the science of climate change for precpitating his dramatic change of perspective. For several years he used scientific evidence to counter critics of global warming. “I knew I was right because I had assessed the evidence; not because I was shouting about it,” he says. Embracing the science behind global warming eventually led him to realize that he had not applied the same scrutiny to the concerns that had fueled his youthful attack on GMOs. Once he did, he says he discovered the technology might be a beneficial tool for helping to feed the world’s growing population. (A 2011 article that appeared in The Guardian suggested his change of opinion may have been more financially motivated. Lynas denies the claim).
Lynas’ apology has stirred international curiosity, particularly in agricultural circles. Better Farming caught up with Lynas for an interview earlier this month in London, Ontario where he was the keynote speaker at this year’s Rural Ontario Institute’s William A. Stewart public lecture. It was his second visit to Canada since his January apology. The first visit was to a potato conference in Brandon, Manitoba in February.
Lynas on GMOs
Lynas on journalism
BF: Was the Oxford conference the first time that you apologized for your anti-GMO activities?
ML: I’m not even sure that it was. I did a talk to the John Innes Centre, which is a plant science institute in the east of England a month or so earlier. I probably said some similar things. But no one really noticed. So it depends on the prominence of the stage that you’re given, I think. In the U.K. farming scene the Oxford farm conference is probably the agenda-setting meeting of the year. So I knew it was a significant opportunity to have a say to some quite influential people in agriculture, but really only just in the U.K. So the international attention that it received was an enormous surprise.
BF: You have spoken about the importance of science and the process of science — of testing your beliefs and versus faith-based belief system that is not necessarily founded in evidence. But your apology has become a story, simplified in the same way that you claim the anti-GMO message has been simplified.
ML: At the risk of simplification, one is right and one is wrong. The anti-GMO message doesn’t stand up to even the most basic rational examination. Just as the anti-vaccination or the climate denialist message doesn’t. That doesn’t mean to say that there’s no complexities, uncertainties or grey areas. But the essential heart of the anti-GMO case is mythological. So once you can get people to understand that, we can begin to have a more sensible conversation about how we do use this technology and how we need to assess it on a case-by-case basis. It doesn’t make any sense to a priori rule out an entire method of plant breeding. Why would you do that? It just doesn’t even pass the basic common sense test. And yet so many people around the world, millions have been convinced there’s something scary about it. So that is a very simple message and it has the benefit of also being truth, so far as I see it and so far as the scientific community would see it and the agricultural community as well, by and large. So I don’t feel ashamed about telling a simple story because it actually is a simple story. It doesn’t need to get complicated.
BF: A lot of environmental initiatives are about pushing us to do small things (recycle, compost, walk instead of drive, for example). But it seems that you’re saying let’s do the big things right away. Nuclear power. Let’s look at this. GMOs, let’s look at this. Those are huge initiatives in contrast.
ML: I guess it’s important to remember that nuclear and GMOs aren’t being proposed by anyone, least of all myself as silver bullet solutions. So they’re necessary but they’re not sufficient in terms of energy and agriculture. So I have a very focused agenda, which is to make a difference on the GMO debate globally, as quickly as possible and then just let things play out, as they will. Once farmers are allowed to use this technology to increase the sustainability of production, without the absurd restrictions which now apply globally and to trade and so on, then I don’t intend to tell everyone how to live their lives and what to grow. This is something that needs to be taken forward by scientists primarily. So yes I have to be involved in righting a wrong that I was involved in myself all that time ago but I’m not trying to insert myself into this debate permanently. I don’t have any great claim to knowledge and understanding here. Scientists are the people really who need to speak up for their own work and to be the ones who lead this debate and to come up with the ideas about where we go next with this technology. And by scientists I mean researchers not just in the big corporations but in the publically funded academia where they can design GMO or any other kind of plants or seeds which serve a humanitarian and environmental purpose, rather than one where there’s just a market where they have a revenue stream in the immediate sense. So when people realize that GMOs does not equal Monsanto, then I’m happy and I can retire.
BF: We’re just on the cusp of accepting genetically engineered alfalfa, here. There’s a lot of concern about the impact that it might have on contaminating seed stocks because Canada is a big exporter of forage seeds, for instance. There are also concerns about increased herbicide costs for farmers and increased glyphosate resistant weeds.
ML: I just don’t get it. If farmers don’t want to buy these things, then don’t buy them. Then they should be given the choice. And if there’s issues about producing identity preserved seeds for the seed markets, then fine, you need a separation distance. All of this stuff is not new. It’s the same for any crop which has pollination issues like canola or maize even — things which are wind-pollinated. Same for the herbicide issue. You could already be using a selective herbicide on the crop which isn’t GMO. None of these are about GMOs in and of themselves. They are about farm or agricultural management strategies in lots of different ways and it’s a complicated picture. So it’s the wrong question — should we use GMO seeds. If you ask it in those very simplistic terms, you’ll come out with the wrong answer.
BF: There are systemic issues with farming that have exacerbated some of the challenges with the technology. We’ve had increased glyphosate resistance for instance.
ML: When we talk about resistance, well, absolutely resistance would also emerge but it’s not a reason not to use technology to start with, otherwise we’d give up using antibiotics because antibiotic resistance emerges. But you know, my life was saved by antibiotics when I had pneumonia. I would prefer not to be dead because somebody was concerned about resistance eventually. So you use technologies as responsibility as you can to make them last as long as you can as a tool and to try to delay the evolution of resistance but whatever management strategy you will be using, you will be putting selective pressure on the pest which will drive it to evolve resistance, whatever the system that you’re using.
BF: U.S. writer Josh Schonwald argues that the anti-GMO movement has actually contributed to the concentration of GMO technology in the hands of large players like Monsanto because of the expertise that’s involved in taking that technology to market. What’s your perspective?
ML: I made the same point in my Oxford speech. Because the unintended consequence of the anti-GMO movement has been to concentrate power in the hands of a very small number of agro-chemical companies. Monsanto and Syngenta are the main obvious two candidates. Because it now costs upwards of $100 million to introduce a new event into a seed. And a third of that is regulatory costs. Which is frankly largely unnecessary, or at least ought to be applied cross the board to all different varieties. New varieties. As I think is the case in Canada, actually. Canada is unusual in that. So I’m most interested about having a more open source approach where publically funded scientists can develop as cheaply as possible seeds for poor countries to use without having to pay international property and so on. That does involve a complete change of approach. It’s almost as if, it’s like seeds have gone the way of pharmaceuticals where it costs a billion dollars to develop a new drug and that’s not something that anyone can do unless they’re practically an oligopoly of big pharma companies. BF
BF: How does a journalist who becomes the story maintain credibility?
ML: Well that’s why I think it didn’t receive much coverage in the U.K. Because environmental or farming journalists know me and they’ve heard me talking about this stuff for years now. It was all in my books and so on. And I think they all just shrugged and thought that’s him going off at one again. So it’s interesting to see how it played in different media markets, if you like. And the places where it was given really prominent coverage, so India where there was national coverage; China even, many many other countries. I think it was because they didn’t know who I am and therefore they could have the very simple sort of narrative of co-founder of the anti-GMO movement, which is in itself an exaggeration, apologizes for actions. You know, it’s a neat little story but it depends really on not really knowing the context of myself because being a journalist in the story rather undermines things. Journalists don’t like to write about themselves and for good reason. But I’m not really much of a journalist, and I haven’t been for years. I’m a campaigner and lobbyist and all sorts of other amorphous things. Maybe I’m a creature of the Internet to some extent where there aren’t the same boundaries that there used to be when you had a job in the Times and you went to work at the Times every day and you had a very clear set of boundaries about what you could do and what you could say.
BF: You’ve been described as a broadcast commentator, a journalist and an author who is focused, I guess, on science journalism and on environmental journalism. How would you describe what you do?
ML: I don’t think there’s a name for it. Because I also, I’ve done direct advising to head of state (for the Republic of the Maldives, a chain of islands in the Indian Ocean) until quite recently. Which isn’t journalism because I was doing negotiating on behalf of the Maldives in the international climate negotiations, for example. So I suppose the catchall would be that I’m a campaigner because I’m focused on securing certain outcomes, all around environmental sustainability for which journalism is a tool. So it’s not as if I would see myself as a neutral news writer where you have to balance different perspectives. I know where I am going, if that makes any sense. I have a strong agenda and I don’t make any bones about that.
BF: When was that transition away from journalism?
ML: I don’t know really. I remember being in real moral quandaries when I was involved in climate change negotiations in Copenhagen in 2009 and I was being asked by newspapers to write commentary type pieces on negotiations that I was actually involved in. And that felt very strange and uncomfortable because you can’t observe the process at the same time as you participating in it. You certainly can’t observe it dispassionately when you’re trying to influence the outcome. So in fact for that I ended up writing a piece for the Guardian which was kind of a whistle-blowing piece about the role of China and what I’d seen in the heads of state meeting, which is actually behind closed doors. I really broke a very strong code of honour in terms of respecting confidentiality at heads of state meetings. But I did that because I thought it was important for the world to know what happened.
And I think the headline that they gave it in the Guardian was “How do I know that China destroyed Copenhagen — I was in the room.” Something like that. And that room included President Obama, Angela Merkel – about 15 world leaders. And I was there with the president of the Maldives, standing behind his chair. So that’s how I got to observe that at very close quarters. But, well, the Chinese leadership was not happy. Hu Jintao, the president of China at the time complained to the Maldives about what I’d done, so there was a big discussion in cabinet about the foreign minister versus the environment minister about what should be done.
BF: Where can you draw the line between something like activism and journalism? Or do you?
ML: All journalists have agendas, whether they choose to make them explicit or not, and most of them don’t. To give you an example, The Guardian newspaper in the U.K. You’re going to get very different coverage on GMOs (genetically modified organisms) or nuclear or other lightening rod type issues, depending on who is writing a story. Even though it’s written up formally as a news piece.
BF: You’ve talked about how here is something that you did, you have to take responsibility for it, it’s important for you to right the wrong. If journalists find themselves covering an issue from one way and then seeing things from a different perspective, what’s their responsibility?
ML: Journalists are past masters at not taking responsibility for the things that they’ve done. What about the journalists who wrote up the original Frankenfood scare stories? What about the journalists who promoted the vaccination on autism scare? Countless other areas where journalists make a living from promoting a journalism scare story that they know personally not to be true. Unfortunately, that’s the way journalism works. And that’s one of the reasons why I can never stomach being just a conventional journalist because I wanted to be guided by my own ethics rather than the pressures of the job.
BF: Now you’ve definitely written for many well-known publications throughout the world. Post-apology, do they still want your work?
ML: I’ve got a different kind of platform now, where I’m doing interviews; I’m being asked for my opinion about things. That’s not really what happens to you as a journalist. So I’m not really a journalist in a meaningful sense any more. There was a profile on me in The Observer magazine a few weeks ago and it’s not really the sort of thing that happens to a journalist. So it’s what happened to me. It’s not that I wanted this to be the outcome. I didn’t want to become the story. I didn’t think that would actually be a particularly useful campaigning strategy. My thought, and I still do think, that the best people to advocate on this issue are farmers and scientists primarily. And consumers as well if they’ve got something sensible to say. And so really this has all happened by accident. But I just want to try to make the best of it since it has happened.
BF: How are your book sales since all of this happened?
ML: I don’t know actually, I don’t track these things. I don’t have any way of tracking it. If you’re obsessively vain, you can look at your Amazon rating but it fluctuates and you’re more likely to be disappointed than you are to be happy.
BF: Do you have any sense of, has your audience changed since all of this has happened — who’s listening to you, has that changed?
ML: I get a sense that there’s different audiences or different interests trying to co-opt me. The climate skeptics are always saying, ‘oh well, Lynas is on a journey and he’s clearly going to end up being a climate skeptic because he’s concluded the environmental movement is wrong about, well nuclear and GMOs and other things. So he’s clearly going to end up convinced that the whole climate change message is also a lie.’ But to me that’s nonsensical. The point of everything I’m doing is to take the expert consensus as the kind of baseline to say, OK, we can, let’s start our debate here, rather than starting at a different place and ignoring or attacking the site of a consensus on an issue.
BF: In his Forbes blog, Richard Levick says of you, “no one preaches better than a convert.” Freelance science writer David Appell, says “A quick little apology isn’t going to cut it here.” He wants you drummed out of the profession of science journalism. Can you comment?
ML: How is that going to happen? I’m not sure what to say really. You just have to be as honest as you can, I think. Would it be better to maintain my former position despite knowing that it was incorrect? That seems to be what’s often suggested. They want me to apologize for apologizing now. BF
For more on Lynas’ perspectives on journalism, visit J-Source.
This interview has been edited and, in some parts, condensed.