Wheat Field. Image source: Flickr user Stan Dalone via Creative Commons License.

Mark Lynas and the GMO Debate

Mark Tercek is the president and CEO of The Nature Conservancy. You can follow Mark on Twitter @MarkTercek and find more of his writing on The Huffington Post.

Until a few days ago, the name Mark Lynas was little known outside the environmental community. An effective campaigner, Lynas has also written several well-received books, including Six Degrees and The God Species. He also has a knack for the dramatic, such as throwing a pie in the face of Danish political scientist and environmental skeptic Bjorn Lomborg.

Through all this, Lynas had achieved some success but was far from a household name. That may be about to change.

Last Thursday, Lynas gave a speech at a conference on farming at Oxford University. The response was immediate and overwhelming. Bloggers blogged, tweeters tweeted and Lynas’s own website crashed under the onslaught.

Had Lynas revealed some dramatic discovery, or unveiled a path-breaking new campaign? No, he simply stated, in measured and scientific terms, that he had changed his mind.

Lynas had been a leading voice against using genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in farming. He was also sounding the alarm over climate change, and had immersed himself in climate science. When he belatedly did the same with GMOs, he found that a careful reading of the scientific evidence revealed that his previous opposition was untenable. At Oxford Lynas said he was, in a word, sorry.

It is a measure of the sorry state of many environmental debates that such a calm statement before a polite audience of academics would cause such a ruckus. This is not the place to debate the merits of Lynas’s new position on GMOs, though I largely but not entirely agree with it. Lynas says at the end of his speech that “the GM debate is over.” That may overstate the case; the real importance of Lynas’s speech is that it in fact allows the debate to begin.

As Lynas argues quite convincingly, until now the arguments over GM foods were based not in science but in ideology, or worse, aesthetics. He is in a position to know, since he was one of the people making the ideological arguments and converting them into civil disobedience by tearing up experimental GMO crops.

Strip away the dogma, and we must confront the evidence. Are GMO crops harmful to human health? Can they increase yields and thus reduce pressure to clear more land for farming? Do the economics of developing new crops make sense, and can we develop sound regulations for their use? These are the questions we must address, often crop by crop, place by place. Lynas points to numerous examples, like golden rice, Bt brinjal (eggplant), or blight-resistant potato. This is where the debate must go; sweeping generalities will not help us.

Since I have become CEO of The Nature Conservancy I have learned that it is our passion and the passion of our supporters that make us effective. But sometimes that passion can be our undoing. So many of us, and others who are not associated with The Nature Conservancy or conservation want the same thing—we want healthy lands, water and air, and we want wild places in which we can find inspiration. But we come to this vision of what we want with different values and beliefs. GMOs are one of those issues that expose the differences in our beliefs. Some of us are inherently optimistic about technology, and others distrust technology. GMOs embody that debate.

Let’s not allow our beliefs and values to divide us. Lynas’s talk and website were swamped with some embarrassingly vitriolic and harsh criticism—because he opened a debate. That should never be the case. We are all stronger if we embrace science even when it surprises us by overturning some of our beliefs, and we are all stronger if we respect one another’s views.

The tone of Lynas’s speech is as important as its content. He is not picking fights or making attacks; instead, he lays out his thinking and the evidence on which it is based. This is a key lesson for the environmental community. Of course we want passionate debate and discussion about different strategies; this can only move us forward. 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.

My forthcoming book Nature’s Fortune lays out the case for investing in nature for the practical results that can be achieved. Like Lynas, I don’t argue that ours is the only strategy or best strategy. As environmentalists we should be humble about our strategies; the point is to make credible progress toward a diverse and sustainable planet, not score ideological points. So we should welcome constructive criticism and new ideas, and commit to finding objective measures of our progress.

I recommend that we heed the advice of Yale’s William Nordhaus –– one of academia’s most pre-eminent thought leaders on environmental challenges: “We need to approach the issues with a cool head and a warm heart. And with respect for sound logic and good science.”


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  1. While everyone is entitled to their opinion, I find it disheartening that the President of the Nature Conservancy, whose tagline is “Protecting Nature, Preserving Life” would be so easily swayed by one individual’s impassioned denouncement of a widely held position by many prominent scientists and “nature nuts”. The GMO debate will, of course, continue unabated, and rightfully so. While GMOs are being banned in other countries following many failed “experiments” with farmers there, the U.S.D.A. doesn’t feel the need to give citizens the tools to make informed decisions about what they are eating. Let’s be honest. Monsanto’s plant science is all about profits. They are not interested in feeding the world, nor are they concerned about the impact of increasing levels of pesticide use and its deleterious consequences (illness, superweeds, etc.). Those of us who are “passionate” about preserving our planet, however, are very concerned. While Mr. Lynas may feel the need to do an about-face, the Nature Conservancy should not. We cannot preserve nature by allowing wealthy multinationals to corrupt it for monetary gain. Please continue to fight the good fight on behalf of small local farmers and those who support them. Thank you.

  2. Given the amount of money Monsanto gives TNC, this comes as no surprise whatsoever.

  3. I used to be a supporter of The Nature Conservancy, but your sellout to the multinational Monsanto ends my support. Like usual it’s all about the money. There could not be any better example of corporate greed than Monsanto, whose agenda is nothing less than controlling the food supply of the entire world. I had questions about your direction recently with regard to the Cemex property in California, which was to allow logging on the property after buying it to protect it (to benefit who?). I am attaching the article from 2009 documenting their donation with regard to the Mississippi River. If you were truly concerned about the water quality you would not accept money from a corporation that has done more to degrade the water by its promotion of endless amounts of Roundup being sprayed on the fields of American farms, and which of course ultimately ends up in the water. I will be removing The Nature Conservancy from my will. http://www.nature.org/about-us/working-with-companies/companies-we-work-with/monsanto-and-the-nature-conservancy.xml

    1. Michael, Im joining TNC as a result of Marks turnaround. Would you rather have roundup (which degrades pretty fast in the environment) or atrazine and metalochlor, the main herbicides used on corn in the Midwest, in our water? And no, I don’t work for Monsanto.

  4. I can respect this man’s turn-around, but what I am MOST angry about is that the issue is not about allowing GMOs necessarily, it’s about letting the consumer CHOOSE whether or not they want GMO produce or food. I want to have my produce labeled so that I can make an informed choice and Monsanto, along with TNC, now, are fighting – with nearly half a BILLION dollars in both Washington State and Colorado – to make sure that the consumer cannot choose for themselves.

    The other point – and it is huge – is that GMOs may not be harmful at all in some produce and it may be very harmful in others. So much depends on exactly what kinds of genetic modification is taking place. What Monsanto has done to corn is unconscionable – there the modifications include embedding pesticide into the corn’s DNA such that each kernel contains pesticide. This is not something that can be washed off; you WILL consume it when you eat corn that comes from their seed. There are plenty of scientists who are finding all sorts of ailments and conditions that they believe come from these pesticides. Monsanto has successfully lobbied to be held virtually unprosecutable and exempt from many FDA regulations. It’s surreal. Monsanto has also successfully sued and destroyed organic farmers who were trying to keep their seed from being contaminated by the GMO corn. They are suing states that have voted to require labelling of GMO products – LABELLING.

    So, if it’s not bad, why must it be hidden? We label ingredients for nearly all foodstuffs that we buy in a grocery store; why are organic food sellers (like Whole Foods, Cascade Farms, etc.) on the “no labelling” bandwagon? They’re proud to place “organic” all over their products, but they don’t want their customers to know that their seed may be GMO. These companies – and TNC – are sinking millions and millions of dollars to keeping their customers and constituents uninformed and THAT is what I find unconscionable. I feel betrayed by TNC, knowing that they do a lot of good in their lobbying, but that they are spending some of my donated money to keep me in the dark about my food purchases. Shame.

  5. Well, Mark, why ARE we consuming pesticide with our corn?

    1. “Organic” corn uses pesticides in its production, contrary to popular belief. Additionally, with GM corn, you are consuming approximately 1-2 ppb (that is “parts per billion”) of glyphosate. Do you realize that pesticides are a necessity for managing agriculture beyond the scale of a garden? So, that is why there is a tiny (on the scale of ppb) trace amount of pesticides in your corn.

  6. I would like to say thank you to you, Mark. Embracing peer-reviewed and well-documented science is key to helping the earth. Too many people dismiss GM science because of a distrust in companies (even though much of the research is actually done at universities on public grants, and also despite the fact that Monsanto is NOT the only GM-seed producing company, nor are they the largest), distrust in the very idea of pesticides (even though “organic” crops also use pesticides, often ones that are more dangerous to human health than those used in modern agriculture and used in higher quantities/concentrations then in GM agriculture, and despite the fact that not all GM crops are modified to resist pesticides, as many have other beneficial traits such as the blight-resistant potatoes you had mentioned or the “golden” vitamin-A fortified rice), or a distrust that food products produced with GM crops aren’t labeled as such (even though GM is a breeding technique, not an ingredient, meaning that adding “made with genetically modified ingredients” adds no useful information to a product’s label, rather it serves only to spread fear as many would read that label like a warning label rather than an informative bit. Additionally, it is hypocritical for pro-“organic” food people to call for labeling of GMOs on products when their own foods aren’t labeled with “made with ingredients modified by selective-breeding” and/or “made with ingredients modified by mutagenesis” labels…). Individuals educated in chemistry and biology are key to nature conservation research and in bettering the environment.

  7. I have just received my TNC membership renewal and before I send it in, I would like to know what is TNC’s current position on GMOs now that, in May,2016, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences have declared GMOs to be safe for humans and animals, and, very likely, the environment after 30+ years of research and extensive testings. Plus, weeks later, 108 Nobel Laureates have come out in support of GMOs safety and its benefit to society (fighting hunger and malnutrition). So, now that the science is even more rock solid for GM/GE, how does TNC stand on GMOs? Does it stand with science or the pseudoscience of the anti-GMO factions spreading false and misleading information to promote fear and to steer people toward the more expensive and unsustainable “organic food” industry?

    1. PS I’ve been a member for 21 years and this could be the end. I have already terminated my long membership to five other environmental organizations because of their anti-GMO stance.

      1. As a Pro-GMO activist, I appreciate this a lot! Thank you for standing with science!

    2. Cheers to you, sir!

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