Mark Lynas yet again fabricates his past and smears friends and former associates. By Jonathan Matthews
Amid rising concerns about fake news and misinformation, the Gates-funded Alliance for Science has taken to promoting their long-time comms strategist Mark Lynas as an expert debunker of science-related conspiracy theories and disinformation campaigns. More recently, he has also been billed as their “research lead” into false claims about GMOs, COVID-19, vaccines and other controversies.
This has led to Lynas being cited as an expert and quoted by journalists in fact-checking articles. The irony here is not just that he lacks any scientific expertise – his only qualification being an undergraduate degree in history and politics, but that Lynas himself has been repeatedly called out for making inaccurate and misleading claims.
And his dubious record on factual accuracy has been thrown into the spotlight once again by new instances of flagrantly false claims – this time of environmentalists trashing research laboratories and engaging in Maoist-style denunciations.
Smashing up research labs
As well as working for the Alliance for Science, Lynas is also the “Senior Strategist” behind RePlanet, a lavishly-funded NGO he cofounded with other ecomodernists to rebrand their support for technologies like nuclear energy, synthetic food and GMOs. And at RePlanet’s first annual conference last October in Warsaw, Poland, Lynas gave the keynote speech, in which he drew on his own personal history as an activist:
“Then in the late 1990s I heard about genetic engineering, and helped to steer the direct action movement to stop GMOs by direct means: We destroyed them wherever we could, in the labs and in the fields.”
Lynas then went on to describe how, as a champion of the scientific consensus on climate change, he had eventually concluded that his anti-GMO activism made him “uniquely vulnerable” to criticism:
“I thought I was on Team Science – now I was like: ‘Nooooo, what do you mean it’s a bad idea to smash up labs and destroy field experiments?’ It was a bit like that Mitchell and Webb sketch where they’re two SS officers, and they look around and they’re like: ‘Wait a minute, our caps have got skulls on them ... are we the baddies?’”
“No such actions were ever even considered”
That UK environmentalists have resorted at times to uprooting experimental GM crops is well known and nobody denies it. Indeed, it has even been successfully defended in court on the grounds that preventing flowering and cross-pollination has stopped the contamination of non-GM crops in the vicinity. But Lynas’s talk of targeting and even smashing up research laboratories didn’t tally with anything I’d ever come across in over a quarter of a century of monitoring, researching and reporting on the GMO debate, so I asked some of the key figures in the UK’s anti-GMO movement of the late 1990s what they made of it.
Theo Simon, who Lynas in his book Seeds of Science says is “one of the UK’s most highly respected direct activists”, confirmed my impression that there simply were “no recorded incidents of labs being damaged [by anti-GMO protesters] in the UK during the period that Mark was part of the GMO opposition movement – or since.” He went on: “I was in the thick of the most radical action planning at that time, and I can assure you that no such actions were ever even considered by the movement in which he [Lynas] played a mainly administrative role.”
Delivering propaganda gifts
Theo Simon said targeting labs would have made absolutely no sense because they are contained environments and the whole focus of the direct-action protests was to stop the release of GMOs into the open.
“Mark never fully understood the biohazard argument against GMOs,” Theo Simon told me. “But the people in the fields removing GM crops were always acutely aware of biosafety. The main purpose of our direct action was precisely to prevent cross-contamination of the gene pool, even de-contaminating our clothes after actions, and none of us ever considered recklessly damaging or even approaching a laboratory.”
The biocontainment point was also emphasised by Jim Thomas, another leading figure in the UK’s anti-GMO movement of the 1990s and someone Lynas praises in Seeds of Science for his “integrity and honesty”. Jim Thomas said, “The point was always about stopping release, i.e. open air planting.”
Dr David King, a molecular biologist and former Editor of GenEthics News, who was active from the very start in the campaigns against GM crops, as well as human genetic engineering, also confirmed my impression.
“I think that Mark Lynas is making things up to suit his narrative,” he told me. “If he claims otherwise, he needs to give specifics because I don’t remember anything like this ever happening. Certainly nothing was ever publicly reported and the pro-GM scientists would have made a great fuss about anything like that. It would have been a gift to them.”
Mark Lynas has delivered that propaganda gift – without a lab ever needing to be damaged.
“It was like Maoist China”
Smashing up labs is not the only thing in his Warsaw speech that is completely made up. There is more of the same when Lynas goes on to describe the moment in his life when he “realised there was a need to rebuild the environmental movement from the ground up”. This radical realisation dawned on him, Lynas tells his audience, when he saw the unbelievably intolerant reaction of his fellow environmentalists to his announcement of his conversion to supporting GMOs:
“It took a few years for me to pluck up the courage to go public, and when I did, with a speech on GMOs at the Oxford Farming Conference in 2013, the response was immediate.
“Now I was a Monsanto shill, photoshopped onto a thousand Facebook memes. Friends and colleagues I had worked with for years actually signed statements of denunciation. It was like Maoist China. In the street in Oxford people wouldn’t look at me, or would even literally cross the road.”
This sounds a searing experience. But in reality, almost every element of Lynas’s narrative is fabricated.
Lying by numbers
Fabrication 1: Far from it taking until 2013, as Lynas claims, for him to “pluck up the courage to go public” about his support for GMOs, by the time of his Oxford speech he had been vigorously flagging up his change of heart on GMOs for a good three years. He had done this over and over again – in newspaper and magazine articles, in a TV documentary, in his book The God Species, as well as in public talks and on social media. He even took part in a pro-GMO counter demonstration.
Fabrication 2: Fabrication 1 makes the Maoist-style denunciations Lynas says his friends and former colleagues signed onto appear to be a response to learning of his support for GMOs. But that support was not remotely news to anyone who knew him, because by that time Lynas had been publicly talking and writing about why he was now pro-GM for several years. So that was not what upset them about his speech.
Fabrication 3: In reality, no “statements of denunciation” were signed by Lynas’s friends and former colleagues. What they did sign, together with some of Britain’s leading environmentalists, like Tony Juniper, Jonathon Porritt, Tom Burke and Peter Melchett, was a single very measured briefing that was intended to set the record straight with regard to – wait for it! – misleading assertions made by and about Mark Lynas. Rather than being a Maoist-style “denunciation” of his views, it was actually a fact-checking statement aimed at debunking false claims made in and after his Oxford speech.
Reality check: The founder myth
The explosive impact of Lynas’s Oxford speech in 2013 was driven by the sombre public apology for having “helped to start the anti-GM movement” with which he began. Although in reality he had only ever been a relatively minor player in a movement that had started long before the late 1990s, it was Lynas’s “very dramatic but essentially fabricated reinvention of his own biography” – to quote James Wilsdon, professor of science policy at the University of Sheffield – that so captured people’s imaginations.
The idea that a leading opponent of GMOs was now tearing into the very movement he helped pioneer created a social media sensation and led journalists and other commentators to wax lyrical about the Damascene conversion of “a self-confessed founder of the anti-GM movement”, to quote from just one of many such reports.
Lynas would eventually try to distance himself from this founder claim, blaming it on the media without acknowledging that it originated squarely with his own assertions that he had “helped to start the anti-GM movement” and was “one of the founders of the early movement”.
Initially though, he showed no desire at all to check the myth he had created – never demurring in any way, for instance, when interviewers described him as one of the “leaders” or “Godfathers” of the movement. And when I wrote an article comprehensively debunking such claims, Lynas went into full denial mode, angrily accusing me of “lies” and “slander”, not to mention being “an industry shill for Big Organic”.
But in his 2018 book Seeds of Science, in which he tries to adopt a more measured tone, Lynas actually admits the claims about his prominent role in the anti-GM movement were untrue – without ever admitting that he was the one who set that ball rolling. In fact, he even admits the accuracy of the fact-checking statement:
“When many of those I had worked with in the UK during the 1990s, including Jim Thomas, Theo Simon and various other senior people from Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, signed a statement saying that they did ‘not recognise Lynas’s contribution [to the anti-GM movement] as being significant in the ways it is being represented’ I found if anything that I rather agreed with them.”
That admission, of course, didn’t stop him four years later in Warsaw from misrepresenting that same signed statement he found it difficult to disagree with as a “denunciation” of his views reminiscent of “Maoist China”.
Pit scientists against activists – and demonise the activists
In his review of Lynas’s Seeds of Science, Glenn Davis Stone, the anthropologist and writer on agriculture and biotechnology, says Lynas’s whole shtick is “to promote the conceit that the GMO wars pit scientists against activists” and “to whisk from view the enormous body of critical peer-reviewed natural-science and social-science literature on the topic”.
In any case, because “the positive case for GM crops is not that easy to make”, Stone says, a “more effective strategy is to attack GMO critics”. And the more unreasonable you can make them look, the better the strategy works. So if you can claim to have been one of their leaders, you are perfectly placed to engage in what Stone calls “discursive ventriloquism – appropriating your opponents’ voice to cast their position in an unfavourable light”.
In the case of Lynas’s Warsaw speech, that means claiming, on the basis of your own first-hand experience, that GMO critics have the closed minds of a bunch of brainwashed Maoists and are so anti-science they go around smashing up laboratories.
This kind of discursive ventriloquism, Stone says, provides “combustible fuel for exasperation with GM critics (what’s wrong with you Greens, even your leaders admit your thinking is off the rails!).” He goes on, “Add the fact that he [Lynas] is an engaging writer, and you have a potent weapon for the biotech industry and a ticket for many speaking invitations and a gig working for Cornell’s Gates-funded ‘Alliance for Science’ GMO media project”.
Mr Misinformation: Arbiter of truth
Finally, it’s important to note that Lynas’s misinforming of the media and the public isn’t restricted to rewriting history and demonising the environmental movement. Stacy Malkan, who investigates and reports on pesticide and food industry PR and lobbying operations and tracks many of the key players, says of Lynas, “I've been writing about environmental health science for over two decades and I have honestly never seen so many academics take the time to write detailed specific critiques of a writer’s work as they have done with Mark Lynas, to point out his many errors”. You can find multiple examples of their scathing criticisms of his inaccurate and unscientific claims in her fact sheet about him.
Yet despite his horrendous record, this is the man the Alliance for Science are promoting as an expert on misinformation and whose research they are touting around media outlets and governments, particularly in Africa, to alert them, in Lynas’s words, to the “huge problem” of “misinformation about GMOs” and the need for the media to “stop publishing false claims on this subject spread by anti-science activists”.