Chewing on the Olive Branch: GM crops and Mark Lynas ver 2.0

January 16, 2018

Another year, another speech about GM crops at the Oxford Farming Conference by renegade environmentalist and ecomodernist provocateur, Mark Lynas. Back in 2013, Mark gave a speech to the OFC in which he recanted his opposition to GM crops and turned his guns on his erstwhile comrades in the anti-GM and wider organic and environmentalist movements. It gained extensive media coverage. Well, there’s nothing the ‘mainstream media’ (more on that concept in a forthcoming post…) like more than a former radical rejoining the fold…

This time, Mark returns with a much more conciliatory message, offering what he calls an “olive branch” and “the contours of a potential peace treaty” between the pro and anti-GM contingents. If this had been the speech he’d given in 2013 I think a lot of bad blood could have been avoided. But there we have it – it’s good to seek concord where we can, so as a sometime anti-GM blogger I thought I’d run my eye over Mark’s olive branch and see whether I’m able to grasp it. For what it’s worth, I’ve pretty much stopped writing about GM, mostly because I don’t think it’s an especially important issue in terms of future sustainability or social equity (Mark now seems to agree, implicitly) and partly because debating it always seems to generate far more heat than light. I guess my thinking on it has changed a little too. But maybe I should dust down my GM files one last time and proffer my response to Mark – always among the more conciliatory of that bellicose ecomodernist tribe – taking his seven point peace plan point by point.

But first, in other news, word has reached the Small Farm Future office that the Trump administration is prohibiting officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using the following words or phrases: ‘vulnerable’, ‘entitlement’, ‘diversity’, ‘transgender’, ‘fetus’, ‘evidence-based’ and ‘science-based’. Hmm, language police – the first stage of fasci__ ? Shush, we’ll be coming to that in a forthcoming post. Meanwhile, in a retaliatory counter-move certain to chill the atmosphere at the highest levels in the White House, Small Farm Future is banning the following words or phrases from this website: ‘snowflake’, ‘political correctness’, ‘social justice warrior’, ‘false flag’, ‘cultural Marxism’, ‘fake news’, ‘the will of the people’, ‘the silent majority’ and ‘rootless cosmopolitan’ in all its variants.

Anyway, back to Mark Lynas’s olive branch. Here are its seven twigs:

  1. Environmentalists should accept the science of GMO safety, and scientists in return need to accept that politics matter in how scientific innovations are deployed.

I think I could cautiously go along with that. I don’t (any longer) think that there are intrinsic safety issues with GMOs as a general category of things. On the other hand, I’m increasingly concerned that current agricultural approaches in general aren’t safe strategies for humanity. So there are bigger safety fish to fry. On the ‘politics matter’ side of things, damn right they do – but you wouldn’t know it from the zillion megabytes of angry GMO boosterism I’ve seen over the years. It doesn’t say an awful lot for humanity that the lessons we didn’t learn in the original ‘green revolution’ (viz. new crops don’t in themselves solve poverty and hunger) are the same lessons we didn’t learn about GMOs. Oh well, no use crying over spilt milk. I’m ready to shake on it…

…except that the science of glyphosate safety is now looking increasingly shaky, on several fronts, and glyphosate has been the glove puppet to the hand of GM. Mark writes “I don’t want to get into the glyphosate debate here”. I’m not surprised. I get the sense he no longer thinks the biotech industry have all the white hats, and the organic or environmental movement all the black ones. But he can’t quite bring himself to say so.

Also, Lynas admonishes anti-GM activists: “stop with the fearmongering and the Franken-mumbojumbo….please move on.” My feeling is that most anti-GM activists have ‘moved on’, and the ‘Frankenfood’ epithet is now used more frequently by pro-GM activists to ridicule their opponents than the other way around. In fact, I seem to recall seeing a research paper somewhere reporting that finding quantitatively, but I can’t seem to locate it now – any steers on that gratefully received. Anyway, yes, let’s talk more about what Kinchy calls the ‘scientized politics’ around GMOs and less about their generic safety as such.

  1. We drop national GMO bans and instead allow fully informed choices to be made by consumers in the marketplace via rigorous labelling and full traceability.

Nope, sorry, not on board. Mostly because I’m not an unqualified fan of global governance and I’m not a fan at all of global markets. Elected governments should be able to set the policies they please. They can always be replaced by other elected governments with different policies. Long-term readers of this blog may wonder how I can square that with my opposition to Brexit. Well, you’ll just have to wait for my upcoming Brexit post…

I’m also somewhat opposed to this one because consumers in the marketplace are very rarely able to make fully informed choices, no matter how much labelling. But maybe I could sign up to it. If GM farmers have to pay for an elaborate licensing operation that entitles them to put ‘Certified GM product’ on the label, I guess I’d be interested in seeing it put out to consumer testing.

One further quid pro quo. Mark writes “Activists must stop agitating for bans and prohibitions”. How about in return the GM industry stops agitating for the retraction of research papers from scientific journals when they dislike the findings? The hounding of figures like Séralini has been quite extraordinary, and the motivations of some of the people involved are murky. This is a one way street – Diels et al, for example, reported statistically significant correlations between author affiliation to the GM industry and study results favourable to GM crops (Food Policy. DOI: 10.1016/j.foodpol.2010.11.016). Time to end the publication bias.

  1. We all get over the Monsanto obsession but make a much more serious effort to start getting off the chemical treadmill and moving farming onto more sound ecological principles.

Well, let’s face it, Monsanto has an unsavoury corporate history. Was it really a good idea for the company that helped supply Agent Orange to the US military in Vietnam to ask for our trust in launching a potentially risky and scary-sounding food technology in order to help it sell more weedkiller? It was also in my view a huge mistake for Monsanto to go anywhere near so-called Terminator Technology, and for it to ask farmers to sign an overly restrictive technology agreement that curtailed seed-saving and the perceived independence of farmers.

These are not my words, but a certain Mark Lynas’s – and about as good a summation as I’ve seen as to precisely why a lot of anti-GM activists have obsessed about Monsanto. I agree, though, that it would be good to move farming onto sounder ecological principles, such as avoiding the broad spectrum killing of weeds and insect pests. But since much of the GM industry comprises herbicide tolerant crops, and much of the rest of it comprises Bt-expressing crops, it seems to me the industry has a long way to go. There’s a problem here with pest resistance and with the potentially short shelf-lives of crops that’s intrinsic to the underlying model of agriculture as a social practice within which the corporate and large-scale GMO industry operates, and I’ve rarely seen the GM boosters pay anything more than lip-service to this. Mark now endorses the warnings about pest resistance long made by Greenpeace and the Soil Association – organisations that he’s spent too much of the past five years ridiculing. Now he writes “let’s drop the snide attacks on organic and agro-ecological approaches generally”. Well, that would be nice. But he also writes “I’m certainly not about to apologise for anything. One apology is enough for a lifetime I think.” Only one apology in a whole lifetime? Boy, I usually offer more than that in a single day. Well, I am English. But then so’s he. I think a teeny-tiny apology to the organic movement from the biotech boosters for relentlessly targeting the things it’s got wrong rather than the numerous things that it’s got a lot more right than them over the years would be in order.

On the “getting off the chemical” treadmill front, Mark writes “It is very clear… that insect-resistant crops have helped reduce applications of insecticide” and “it is also clear that the adoption of herbicide-tolerant crops has helped shift farming away from more toxic herbicides”. Now, I must admit that I haven’t been closely following the recent research literature on these issues (not that one can treat it as entirely unbiased – see point 2), but Mark’s careful choice of words invites suspicion. If insect-resistant crops have helped reduce applications of insecticide then that’s good for farmers, but my question is whether the use of these crops has increased or decreased the overall selective pressure for resistance among the relevant pests? If the former, as seems likely in view of the heavy reliance on Bt traits, then current reduced applications may be the calm before the storm. And when it comes to herbicides, Mark doesn’t seem to be claiming that herbicide applications are reduced, only that herbicide-tolerant crops have shifted farming away from more toxic herbicides. More toxic than what? More toxic in what way? I’m assuming that we’re talking about glyphosate here, whose toxicity is currently moot. And, as Professor Ian Boyd recently argued, ‘non-toxicity’ is generally only measured in lab tests or field trials – “The effects of dosing whole landscapes with chemicals have been largely ignored by regulatory systems”. What seems to have happened in farming generally – GM or non-GM – over recent years is a vast growth in the use of glyphosate, and thus a vast over-simplification in farming methods. So could we agree that one good step in getting off the chemical treadmill would be to stop using glyphosate-tolerant transgenic crops?

  1. We agree to support public sector and non-corporate uses of genetic engineering where these can clearly contribute to environmental sustainability and the public interest.

Yes, provided we also agree to support private sector and corporate uses of genetic engineering only where these can clearly contribute to environmental sustainability and the public interest.

  1. We support all forms of agriculture that aim to find ways towards greater sustainability. Let a hundred flowers bloom.

Yes, but bear in mind the coiner of the ‘hundred flowers’ phrase was one of the most tyrannous pluralism-crushers in human history. If we compare the amount of historic government and private sector support for, say, glyphosate-tolerant crops to, say, permaculture gardening, it’s apparent that, as in Mao’s China, some flowers are given a lot more chance to bloom than others. If this suggestion means anything, it has to be reflected in funding and other forms of societal support. So in view of the historic advantages accruing to the GM industry, here we’re talking about a large transfer of resources into agroecology, right?

  1. We stop the name-calling… the deal is I won’t call you anti-science if you don’t call me a Monsanto shill.

This should be easy for me, since opposing the use of particular technologies isn’t the same as opposing science, and I’ve never called anyone a shill (well, OK, I once sort of nearly did, to my later regret). Though a couple of times I’ve experienced vigorous put-downs on GM from people who seem to have no other internet presence, which kind of makes me wonder. Then again, the most virulent online criticisms I’ve received other than on the GM issue have come from permaculturists objecting to my take on perennial grain breeding. Maybe there’s just something about seeds that makes people really angry.

Anyway, the main kind of name-calling I’ve encountered over GMOs occurs in relation to claims about their poverty-alleviating powers. It’s one reason I’ve largely stopped writing about them, because it’s unedifying when rich westerners preen themselves in front of other rich westerners about their superior concern for the poor. So I’m heartened to see Mark criticising the absurd claim that opposition to Golden Rice is a ‘crime against humanity’. But dismissing those who favour tackling Vitamin A deficiency through poverty relief and dietary improvement rather than through Golden Rice with the phrase ‘let them eat broccoli’, as Mark did, is not much less absurd. If you use that phrase, it means you’re happy that some people are so poor they can’t afford to eat anything but rice, so long as it’s fortified to prevent one of the more acute manifestations of the resulting nutritional deficiencies. It would be good to see Mark explicitly repudiate his prior position on this.

  1. Let’s make ethical objections to genetic engineering explicit and in the process recognise real-world tradeoffs about where we do and don’t use this technology.

OK, agreed. Mark adds “Let’s also continue to work together to build a shared vision for where we want food and farming to be in the 21st century. To me, this vision would include feeding the 800 million people who are hungry. Tolerating this situation is a moral outrage that surely dwarfs all others in this debate.”

Also agreed. Mark writes, “I’ve visited numerous plant breeding labs in the last 5 years and spoken to a lot of plant scientists. I have yet to meet a single one, including those using the various techniques of genetic engineering, who claim that GMOs are going to feed the world or magically solve all our agricultural problems.”

Well, that’s a good start – if only public debate had reached that level of understanding. Nevertheless, there seem to be plenty of scientists (and even more scientism-ists) who advocate for various GM interventions without displaying much conception of the wider social and agronomic factors that may lead to the success or failure of the intervention. So I think there’s a long way to go before we’re all singing from the same sheet on what the tradeoffs are. I’d suggest that we’ll have made some progress once the following statement commands widespread agreement:

Crop development of all kinds can potentially ameliorate the situation of poor people. BUT POVERTY IS NOT CAUSED BY POOR CROP VARIETIES AND WILL NOT BE ENDED BY BETTER ONES.

Still, Mark’s intervention is no doubt a welcome attempt at least to start finding some middle ground. My feeling is that it will generate a lot less media coverage and excitement than his 2013 speech did. And if I’m right, I’d like to invite him to ruminate on why that might be…


Teaser photo credit: By Dave Hoisington/CIMMYT – Genetically Modified Corn— Environmental Benefits and Risks Gewin V PLoS Biology Vol. 1, No. 1, e8 doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0000008 http://biology.plosjournals.org/perlserv/?request=slideshow&type=figure&doi=10.1371/journal.pbio.0000008&id=39336, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2509491

Chris Smaje

After studying then teaching and researching in social science and policy, I became a small-scale commercial veg grower in 2007. Nowadays, when I’m not writing about the need to design low-impact local food systems before they’re foisted on us by default, I spend my time as an aspiring woodsman, stockman, gardener and peasant on the small farm I help to run in Somerset, southwest England Though smallholding, small-scale farming, peasant farming, agrarianism – call it what you will – has had many epitaphs written for it over the years, I think it’s the most likely way for humanity to see itself through the numerous crises we currently face in both the Global North and South. In my writing and blogging I attempt to explain why. The posts are sometimes practical but mostly political, as I try to wrestle with how to make the world a more welcoming place for the smallholder. Chris is the author of A Small Farm Future: Making the Case for a Society Built Around Local Economies, Self-Provisioning, Agricultural Diversity, and a Shared Earth, and most recently, Saying NO to a Farm-Free Future: The Case for an Ecological Food System and Against Manufactured Foods.

Tags: Building resilient food and farming systems, GMO crops