Mark Lynas, a long-time, influential opponent of genetically modified food products, has recently admitted he was entirely wrong to vilify GMO's. It would be hard to over-estimate the influence Mr. Lynas has had in the anti-GMO movement since its inception in the mid-1990's. He admits he has had a great influence in turning most of Europe and much of the rest of the world against GMO's, leading to restrictions or the ultimate banning of their use in many countries.
Mr. Lynas, whose educational background is in politics and history, not science, has focused his journalistic career on environmental issues, mainly global climate change and the use of GMO's. In a recent presentation to the Oxford Farming Conference, Mr. Lymas observed that while he spent years studying the science of climate change to defend the idea that the earth's climate was warming and that this warming was largely due to human activities, he has been much less rigorous in his condemnation of genetically altered organisms. Here is what he said at the Oxford Farming Conference:
"When I first heard about Monsanto’s GM soya I knew exactly what I thought. Here was a big American corporation with a nasty track record, putting something new and experimental into our food without telling us. 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.
These fears spread like wildfire, and within a few years GM was essentially banned in Europe, and our worries were exported by NGOs like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth to Africa, India and the rest of Asia, where GM is still banned today. This was the most successful campaign I have ever been involved with.
This was also explicitly an anti-science movement. We 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. What we didn’t realise at the time was that the real Frankenstein’s monster was not GM technology, but our reaction against it.
For me this anti-science environmentalism became increasingly inconsistent with my pro-science environmentalism with regard to climate change. I published my first book on global warming in 2004, and I was determined to make it scientifically credible rather than just a collection of anecdotes."
So how does an intelligent, concerned man like Mr. Lynas end up with a pro-science stance on one issue and an anti-science stance on another issue? The answer is in two disparate philosophical trends in our thinking about such subjects. These two trends are modern cynicism and modern skepticism. Modern cynicism is subset of the original Cynics philosophy of the ancient Greeks which incorporates only the negative half of the philosophy - a distrust in human motivations. Modern cynics are distrustful of 'Big X', i.e., 'Big Pharma', 'Big Oil', 'Big Agro', Big Government', etc. Mr. Lynas would have no problem defending the science of global climate change against 'Big Oil' while simultaneously opposing GMO's as the tool of 'Big Agro'. Mr. Lynas was able to use the tools of modern skepticism, grounded for the last few centuries in the scientific method, which requires evidence and reason in order to make provisional claims on truth, to back up his support of human-induced climate change, because it supported his cynical view of 'Big Oil', while he ignored this tool in his attacks on the use of GMO's because it opposed his cynical view of 'Big Agro'. Once he applied the scientific method to his opposition to GMO's, he changed his stance. This is a rare example of intellectual honesty in our times, along the lines of physicist Richard Muller's recent change of mind about climate change.
I grew up intellectually during the first phase of environmental consciousness in the late 1960's. One of my heroes was Stewart Brand, one of the founders of the Whole Earth Catalog. Stewart Brand was opposed to many things that modern, reasonable supporters of a sustainable, comfortable, and positive vision of our human future support now. In fact, Mr. Brand has come to realize that he was wrong about many things he supported four decades ago; not about his goals for a better future, but about the means we should take to realize them. We should follow the example of Mr. Lynas, Dr. Muller, and Mr. Brand and base our vision on the future well-being of our species and our planet on a clear-eyed, science-based program to deal with our challenges and what steps we should take to realize them.