Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Brit went from bioterrorist to biotech believer

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It's always a challenge for farm-meeting organizers to come up with keynote speakers that will draw in the troops. So when someone comes along with a good story to tell, he or she can get a lot of mileage on the speaking circuit.

What better story is there than a conversion, someone who has gone from being a bioterrorist -- breaking into research facilities and tearing out genetically modified crops -- to becoming a biotech believer?

British author and environmentalist Mark Lynas stood before a farm audience in Winnipeg last month, pointing to himself in a photo of activists disguised in haz-mat gear protesting genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

He described experiencing something akin to an epiphany as he buried himself in the scientific research while researching his award-winning book about climate change. He became convinced the science supporting human-induced climate change was irrefutable. If he believed the science around climate change, and the need for "green energy" solutions such as nuclear power, how could he then dismiss the science supporting the safety of genetically modified crops? He logically concluded he couldn't.

That was nearly five years ago. However, it wasn't until he "came out" at a major industry conference in the United Kingdom last year that he became a household name -- at least among those who follow such things.

Since then, Lynas has been making the rounds to all sorts of exotic places -- such as Manitoba in February -- and getting paid handsome fees to tell the story of his conversion, advising companies on how to promote biotechnology, and consulting, in some cases at no charge, for universities and non-government aid organizations.

While Lynas insists his support for biotechnology is independent of that industry, he has embraced the same "feeding the world" rhetoric about the pressing necessity of doubling world food production within the next 30 years in order to feed 9.5 billion people. There was little mention of the other complexities of world food security -- or the evidence that suggests the world is quite capable of sustainably producing the required nutrition with or without GM crops.

Prairie farmers have gained new appreciation this winter for the reality that a focus on increasing production without all the infrastructure needed to get the food to those who need it is simply a waste. Thankfully, our climate and on-farm storage mean little spoilage will occur while their bumper crop of grains and oilseeds waits for rail cars. In other parts of the world, up to 80 per cent of what farmers produce is lost, along with the resources that went into producing it.

So we had a guy who has done some serious analysis on climate change --but who was admittedly passionately misinformed on GM crops -- in town promoting GM crops to an audience that has been growing them for years, and which has cheered speakers in the past who deny climate change is real.

It was a classic case of telling people what they want to hear, not what they need to know.

Where Lynas was successful in distancing himself from the biotech rhetoric is his support for labelling foods that contain GM ingredients. He believes the industry should embrace labelling -- not because these ingredients are unsafe or substantially different, but as a means of winning over public opinion. By labelling these foods, companies can go on the offensive by marketing their benefits, such as crops produced with no or fewer pesticides, rather than appearing as though they are hiding something sinister under a cloak of invisibility. Defensiveness is rarely a winning strategy because it leaves opponents in control of the agenda.

Lynas deserves credit for owning up to his changing views; it's not easy to do in a digital world in which one's past is easily retrieved for comparison with the present. Just ask any politician.

The danger is his high-profile conversion helps to keep the world food security debate focused on the narrow issue of GMO varieties. Regardless of their merits, other issues such as soil fertility, storage, infrastructure and land tenure for women need to be centre stage.

 

Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or by email: laura@fbcpublishing.com.

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 1, 2014 B7

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