Genetic engineering ‘monster’ exists only in our minds

Mark Lynas is a British environmentalist and journalist, with impeccable crusader credentials. In the 1990s he took a leading role in the worldwide campaign against genetically modified foods, and won. They were Frankenfoods, products of corporate greed, a danger to all mankind. But now, a decade on, he has looked at the evidence.

“I want to start with some apologies,” Lynas told a British farming conference last month. “For the record, here and up front, I apologize for having spent several years ripping up GM crops. I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid 1990s, and that I thereby assisted in demonizing an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment.

“So I guess you’ll be wondering – what happened between 1995 and now that made me not only change my mind but come here and admit it? Well, the answer is fairly simple: I discovered science, and in the process I hope I became a better environmentalist.”

It was an astonishing, gutsy mea culpa that got worldwide attention. We might want to remember his reasoning as Washington becomes ground zero in the international struggle to vilify genetically modified crops and products made from them.

Initiative 522, which is certainly headed to our November ballot, would require that all foods containing GMO ingredients wear a special label saying so. This is superficially benign, to be sold as a harmless and good right-to-know measure, but it is far more complex and devious.

Essentially the food industry will be ordered to slap warning labels on most processed products sold in Washington, at great expense, so the initiative backers can sell more foods labeled “natural” or something else, foods no more natural and no healthier than any other; to stigmatize the products of science that allows more food to be produced on less land, requiring fewer expenditures and resources and saving wear on the environment, that all credible scientific studies show is perfectly safe.

“So I did some reading,” Lynas said, “and I discovered that one by one my cherished beliefs about GM turned out to be little more than green urban myths. I’d assumed that it would increase the use of chemicals. It turned out that pest-resistant cotton and maize needed less insecticide. I’d assumed that GM benefited only the big companies. It turned out that billions of dollars of benefits were accruing to farmers needing fewer inputs.

“I’d assumed that GM was dangerous. It turned out that it was safer and more precise than conventional breeding using mutagenesis, for example. GM just moves a couple of genes, whereas conventional breeding mucks about with the entire genome in a trial-and-error way.”

The fight against GMO foods is a fight of emotion against science, an effort to deny that everything we eat is the product of human ingenuity and the purposeful manipulation of nature, that science has brought great advances in the production of food to the tremendous benefit of mankind, and that we had better not stop.

Martina Newell-McLoughlin of the University of California at Davis, testified at the Legislature’s hearing on I-522.

“The potential negative impact of this going forward, if we abandon the scientific method, we are going to slow or destroy the advances that will reduce the use of these unsafe chemicals and these less-safe agricultural practices in this country, and we limit the potential for improved nutrition, improved quality, improved sustainability and improved ability to produce food – to ensure food security in a world where we have a massive increase in population and dwindling resources.”

Yes, Lynas might say. Freezing agricultural technology in 1960 because it is “natural” and appealing to our romantic notions of what farming should be, would be a disaster for mankind and the environment. He recalled his earlier career.

“This absolutely was about deep-seated fears of scientific powers being used secretly for unnatural ends. What we didn’t realize at the time was the real Frankenstein’s monster was not GM technology, but our reaction to it.”