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Archive for February, 2013

Saving the Earth with GMOs

I read an interesting speech on GMOs written by Mark Lynas, who claims to have been one of the founders of the anti-GMO movement in the 90s. The speech starts with an apology for having led the charge against GM crops for so long, and proceeds with an explanation of why he changed his mind.

With regard to why he originally opposed GMOs, he describes his reaction to Monsanto’s GM soya’s introduction in 1995:

Mixing genes between species seemed to be about as unnatural as you can get – here was humankind acquiring too much technological power; something was bound to go horribly wrong. These genes would spread like some kind of living pollution. It was the stuff of nightmares.

So the campaign began to ban GM crops, and it was wildly successful.

But Lynas later realized, “This was also explicitly an anti-science movement.” This became clear to him when he started reading scientific studies in order to write a book on why climate change is a real danger, and he decided to do similar research on GMOs in order to be consistent. What he found was:

– Instead of increasing the use of chemicals, GMOs frequently require less chemicals
– Instead of only helping big companies, GMOs actually made farming more affordable for small farms
– Instead of being dangerous, GMOs are actually more safe than conventional breeding methods like mutagenesis, because GMO methods only modify a couple of genes instead of randomly affecting an entire genome.

Lynas then starts to look at the other side of the GMO issue. Demand for food in the world is going up–not due to a population explosion like many think (the global fertility rate is actually dropping), but because of declining infant mortality and various efforts to eliminate poverty.

Higher demand for food means more land conversion to farms–with all the associated impacts on various plant and animal species and a decrease in CO2-consuming trees. It also means more demand for water from rivers, with similar impacts on the natural world. Finally, it also means more fertilizer, increasing the possibility of things like the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico from nitrogen runoff.

Unfortunately, “organic” farming techniques are essentially frozen to 1950s techniques, which require more land, more water, and more fertilizer than newer techniques. Worldwide, the use of chemicals in farming has saved 3 billion hectares of land from being converted to farms, or the equivalent of two South Americas. As Lynas said,

There would have been no Amazon rainforest left today without this improvement in yields.

Lynas emphasizes that he doesn’t have any problem with organic farming per se, “But organic is in the way of progress when it refuses to allow innovation.” He also objects to how the “organic” movement takes away freedom of choice from others, getting GMO crops banned because they might contaminate the organic crops.

He mentions how Greenpeace recently destroyed a test crop of GMO wheat in Australia. The part of the crop that wasn’t destroyed showed a 30% yield increase. Lynas points out that improvements like this could go a long way to helping us save the environment while keeping people fed. A GM omega-3 oilseed that could be used to feed fish could help reduce overfishing. An organization called Rothamsted Research is looking into an aphid-resistant GM wheat that would require no pesticides to deal with aphids.

Lynas’s opinion on the debate is:

So my conclusion here today is very clear: the GM debate is over. It is finished. We no longer need to discuss whether or not it is safe – over a decade and a half with three trillion GM meals eaten there has never been a single substantiated case of harm. You are more likely to get hit by an asteroid than to get hurt by GM food. More to the point, people have died from choosing organic, but no-one has died from eating GM.

And he concludes with a couple of points that sound reasonable:

…I challenge all of you today to question your beliefs in this area and to see whether they stand up to rational examination. Always ask for evidence…and make sure you go beyond the self-referential reports of campaigning NGOs.

and

…most important of all, farmers should be free to choose what kind of technologies they want to adopt. If you think the old ways are the best, that’s fine. You have that right. What you don’t have the right to do is to stand in the way of others who hope and strive for ways of doing things differently, and hopefully better. Farmers who understand the pressures of a growing population and a warming world….

Link to the full speech:

Lecture to Oxford Farming Conference, 3 January 2013 on Marklynas

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