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Anti-GM foods activist sees the science -- and the light

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VICTORIA -- When British environmentalist and author Mark Lynas gave a speech to the Oxford Farming Conference on Jan. 3, he was instantly transformed from an organizer of the movement against genetically modified foods into a high-profile apostate.

The text of his speech, available on his website (www.marklynas.org) and widely circulated on the Internet, should be read by all who worry about how farmers will be able to feed the world's growing population.

In the address, Lynas explained the reasons for his dramatic shift from a passionate opponent to a supporter of GM foods. His account reveals how a group of clever activists used fear-instilling tactics to turn millions of people against the only technology that offers any hope of preventing mass starvation.

It's an astonishing account of how anti-capitalist, anti-corporate ideologues campaigned against genome research, one of mankind's most significant scientific advancements, without even looking at the science. "In 2008, I was still penning screeds... attacking the science of GM," Lynas said. "I don't think I'd ever read a peer-reviewed paper on biotechnology or plant science."

He recalled how he and other anti-GM activists exploited fears about genetic manipulation: "These fears spread like wildfire, and within a few years GM was essentially banned in Europe... Africa, India and the rest of Asia. This was the most successful campaign I have ever been involved with."

He described how GM opponents "employed a lot of imagery about scientists in their labs cackling demonically as they tinkered with the very building blocks of life. Hence the Frankenstein food tag -- this absolutely was about deep-seated fears of scientific powers being used secretly for unnatural ends."

Lynas said he began to reconsider things when he decided to look at the science. He found genetically modified plants produce higher yields, thereby reducing the loss of biodiverse natural areas to agriculture. He learned GM requires less fertilizer, thereby reducing nutrient-rich runoff that threatens rivers and streams.

He learned pest-resistant seeds reduce insecticide use and drought-resistant plants lessen the unsustainable depletion of aquifers. And he found GM research is safer and more precise than traditional plant-breeding methods.

"GM just moves a couple of genes whereas conventional breeding mucks about with the entire genome in a trial-and-error way," he said.

Lynas also disclosed how anti-GM activists exploited the fallacy that "natural is good, and artificial is bad," which helped fuel the organic food movement.

Because organic yields are only about half that of conventional farming, current food production would require converting the equivalent of two South Americas to farming, he said, destroying much of our planet's remaining biodiversity.

Despite such stark facts, most environmental groups retain their anti-GM, pro-organic ideology. Once again, the anti-science crowd wins, and the planet loses.

The same misguided environmentalists argue organic foods are safe and GM foods are not. Yet, in 2011, manure-tainted organic bean sprouts in Germany killed more than 50 people and affected more than 3,000 others.

Lynas noted that "with three trillion GM meals eaten, there has never been a single substantiated case of harm... People have died from choosing organic, but no one has died from eating GM... On GM, there is rock-solid scientific consensus backed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Royal Society, health institutes and national academies around the world. Yet this inconvenient truth is ignored because it conflicts with (GM opponents') ideology."

The U.S. National Academy of Sciences projects global food demand will more than double by 2050, posing a colossal challenge. Producing all that food without converting the remaining biodiverse regions to farming will require much higher-yielding crops. And it must be accomplished while reducing water, fertilizer and pesticide intensity. GM offers the only hope of achieving these crucial objectives.

In his speech, Lynas cited the late agronomist and Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug, founder of the so-called Green Revolution that saved a billion lives by introducing higher-yield crops in Pakistan, India and Mexico, and quoted him as saying: "If the naysayers do manage to stop agricultural biotechnology, they might actually precipitate the famines and crisis of biodiversity they have been predicting for nearly 40 years."

Gwyn Morgan is a Canadian business leader and director of two global corporations.

-- Troy Media

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 7, 2013 A13

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