Responses to The Repentant Environmentalist
Last week Spinwatch published an article about the claims of Mark Lynas to be one of the original founders of the anti-GM movement. Here its author, Jonathan Matthews of GMWatch, reports on the responses of Lynas and others.
It started on Twitter. The sociologist of science Alice Bell came under attack as soon as she tweeted a link to my article with the comment: 'Has history of Lynas' anti GM activism been overhyped? Important considering rhetorical power of 'conversion' to pro GM.' Bell was immediately challenged by two climate-sceptic supporters of Lynas, whose persistence would eventually lead her to complain of 'feeling bullied'.
In their wake came another Lynas' supporter, Keith Kloor, who promised a response to the article via his blog. This was after James Wilsdon, Professor of Science and Democracy at the University of Sussex, had tweeted to Lynas,'Instead of RT'ing swipes at @alicebell, why not respond to the substantive point?... That you've overhyped your role in the anti-GM movement for rhetorical & political effect.' Wilsdon also tweeted, 'Based on my knowledge of the past 20 years of UK GM politics, it's a fair piece. He's massively exaggerated his role'; and 'I'm no anti-GM activist. I just dislike people cutting fast and loose with the truth, while talking about evidence.'
The following morning Lynas opened up on GMWatch, tweeting: 'Dear @SoilAssociation and @wwwfoecouk do you still fund smear campaigns by @GMWatch ? ...Who pays for the lies?' When we asked Lynas to specify which 'lies', we failed to get a response. But when we referred him to the information about our funding already available on our website, he tweeted: "@GMWatch Sorry, but you're just an industry shill for Big Organic. Bye!"
The Soil Association informed Lynas that they had last paid GMWatch £200 in 2011 (mainly for subscription to our lists) but that didn't stop Lynas claiming in an interview published later that day on Keith Kloor's blog that: 'I found out today that they [GMWatch] are funded by the Soil Association, the main organic lobby group representing a $2.5 billion-a-year UK industry...' Lynas told Kloor that this showed the organic lobby were subcontracting GMWatch 'to do the dirtiest kind of attack jobs', by smearing people like him.
This claim is particularly ironic. Following Lynas’ Oxford speech I had emailed a good number of the scientists and NGOs who had strong reservations about GM crops to say I thought it was important that people respond to what Lynas was saying. This not only met with almost universal disagreement but the person who disagreed most strongly was the Policy Director of the Soil Association. Peter Melchett told me 'people like Lynas, who only represent themselves, get any power they have mainly from the reaction they provoke. Best to ignore!' I thought that naïve and after a further exchange of views, we agreed to differ. Subsequently, Lynas has exploited the silence of the large NGOs to suggest that they secretly agree with him.
Following a complaint made by the Soil Association to Discover, the magazine which hosts Keith Kloor's blog, about 7 lines of the text of Kloor's article were retracted (see the strikethrough text) and in an update Lynas apologised for what he had said about the Soil Association, while further smearing GMWatch: 'GM Watch has attacked me on several occasions, using the special brand of innuendo, half-truth and outright slander... which is their trademark. I was appalled that the Soil Association would have any links with such a disreputable outfit... I agree that it is not reasonable to assert that the Soil Association is in any way responsible for GM Watch's slanderous attacks on me through this small amount of funding, and I withdraw that allegation. I certainly apologise to the Soil Association for making a statement without sufficient evidence in the heat of the moment. GM Watch's slander is its own responsibility, and it should have to answer for it, not the Soil Association.'
An attack Lynas made on the Union of Concerned Scientists in the Kloor interview has also had to be retracted (more strikethrough text). Spinwatch, which published my article, has also asked for a retraction. Among other things, Lynas claimed Spinwatch was run by a red - 'a far-left academic' (in reality, it's run by an editorial board) who oversaw 'an ongoing anti-capitalist propaganda war'. David Miller of Spinwatch commented that these kind of claims were merely intended to shut down debate.
Lynas also went after Jim Thomas of the ETC Group, which monitors the impact of new technologies, presumably because Jim was one of those whose help with background on the early anti-GM movement had been acknowledged in my article. Lynas insinuated that the ETC Group were somehow connected to the Mexican nanotech bombings, while having to admit in parentheses that ETC not only doesn't support violence but had condemned the bombing!
Others to come in for attack included James Wilsdon for saying my article (described by Lynas as 'the GM Watch smear attack') was a 'fair piece'. According to Lynas, Wilsdon's comment in and of itself demonstrated that his 'sympathies' must be suspect. Prof Wilsdon, incidentally, was previously Director of the Science Policy Centre at the Royal Society. In the case of the GM-critical scientist Sue Mayer, Lynas told Kloor that he didn't know 'if she was involved in any of the crop trashing actions... I hope she will also apologize if she did get involved in damaging GM crops rather than attacking me for doing that.' But there has never been any suggestion (till Lynas made it!) that Dr Mayer, a veterinary cell biologist and member of the UK Government's former Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission, was involved in any 'crop trashing'. What's more, Dr Mayer hadn't criticised Lynas for apologising for trashing crops but for falsely claiming to have helped start the anti-GM movement, and for doing so to help promote himself and the interests of the biotech industry.
In among all the attacks, Kloor asked Lynas to 'provide some specifics as to what you did as a founding leader of the [anti-GM] movement'. But Lynas said that because his activities had been organized covertly he had to maintain confidentiality for the sake of the others. He did come up with one 'specific' though: 'I did play the lead role for example in the office occupation of Monsanto in – I think – 1996 (I'm not sure of the exact date). That extended to even booking buses, printing leaflets and casing the place out beforehand.' As James Wilsdon has since commented on Twitter: 'There still seems to me to [be] a substantial difference between having "helped to start the anti-GM movement", as claimed in his Oxford speech… And "the lead role...in the office occupation of Monsanto in – I think – 1996... "'
But even what Lynas says about his involvement in the Monsanto protest is open to serious question. I asked several people who had known Lynas well at the time, how reliable his account was. They pointed me to a report from the Genetic Engineering Network (GEN) that showed Monsanto's office had been occupied by protesters in 1997. (This is, in fact, consistent with what I said in the article - that nobody I'd spoken to remembered Lynas being involved before '97, even though the anti-GM campaign was underway in the UK by 1990 at the latest.) They all said Lynas didn't play the 'lead role' in the event. One said, 'He was not a key player though I expect he was there. Key roles would be planning, driving, getting in, fending off police, talking to workers and media interviews. He wasn't doing any of that. He probably did some press and web work afterwards.' Another agreed, 'It would be a huge overstatement to say he 'led' the office occupation.' He said all the key details of planning and even the writing of the press release had been done 'by a group of us'. The GEN report refers to an interview 'live from the occupation' with 'Theo', but makes no reference at all to Lynas.
Someone else said they thought the Monsanto occupation was the first direct action that Lynas had been involved in, and another agreed that at the time Lynas was 'out of his comfort zone' with direct action and 'just wasn't first and foremost a direct activist or speaker.' Yet in his recent BBC Hardtalk interview with Lynas, it is said not only that he led the Monsanto occupation but that he led the direct action protests in the UK. Lynas offers no correction to the interviewer. And, of course, it also needs to be remembered that these kind of protests were just one strand of a much larger movement of resistance to GM in the UK and beyond, which involved many people from the wider environmental community, the development community, the scientific community, as well as consumer groups, and in this wider anti-GM movement Lynas seems to have played little if any part.
In the Kloor interview Lynas does concede that his 'role has been overstated in some of the media coverage' which, he says, had 'rather amusingly' described him as 'the founder' or 'godfather' of the anti-GM movement. But these claims haven't occurred independently of Lynas. The 'godfather' claim, for instance, is made in an American TV interview with Lynas where again he could easily have offered a clarification, but he didn't, just as he offered no correction to Kloor when Kloor in his interview referred to him as 'a founding leader of the [anti-GM] movement.' And let's not forget that these claims that Lynas apparently finds amusing aren't coming out of nowhere - they all stem back to Lynas describing himself as one of the founders of the movement.
All of this matters for two reasons. Firstly, as James Wilsdon has indicated, Lynas has claimed his conversion to GM is all about learning to respect the evidence. So what are we to make of someone who, in Wilsdon's words, frames that claim by 'cutting fast and loose with the truth'? Secondly, nothing Lynas is contributing to the GM debate is novel. His arguments are not new - indeed, they are pretty much standard fare among the more aggressive GM promoters. He also has no special expertise in relation to the GM debate. So he would be a fairly inconsequential figure in that debate if it weren't for one thing - the way in which his contribution has been packaged.
The packaging holds the key. All the excitement has been generated by his self-portrayal as an important figure in the anti-GM movement who has undergone an extraordinary transformation into a GM evangelist. But if the claim that he was important is known not to be true, that changes everything. After all, there were thousands of people actively trying to stop the introduction of GMOs in the mid-1990s and some doubtless have changed their minds, as they have every right to do, just like Lynas. But it's not newsworthy. Headlines can only be ensured for a renunciation involving a major figure. Germaine Greer renouncing feminism, for example, would attract notice, but someone who was active for a while in women's groups in the 1980s and then largely lost interest, would find it hard to command that attention. This is presumably why Lynas and his supporters are defending his 'history' so aggressively. It's also presumably why Lynas spends so much of the Kloor interview attacking those who have questioned his role, rather than providing any counter evidence. It's also revealing that Lynas complains so vociferously about a 'smear attack' while engaging in smears so readily.
In Part 2 of The Repentant Environmentalist I will be looking at how the PR packaging of Mark Lynas is used to smuggle in some seriously bad science.