Lynas continues to build his career as an aggressive promoter of GMOs. Jonathan Matthews reports
In the first programme in a new Radio 4 series, Why I Changed My Mind, Mark Lynas talks to Dominic Lawson about why he changed his mind about GM crops. It's a cosy conversation, but a very misleading one.
The programme takes a wrong turn right from the start when Lawson introduces Lynas as someone “who made his name as one of the most aggressive opponents of genetically modified organisms”. This description is entirely understandable given that Lynas has repeatedly promoted himself as a significant figure in the anti-GM movement, even describing himself as one of its "founders".
But as some of Britain's best known environmental campaigners have made clear in a joint public statement, such claims are entirely bogus. Lynas never was a founder or leader of the anti-GM movement. Indeed, he's been described as "More like a johnny-come-lately carpetbagger."
Lynas first made his name, in fact, not in relation to GM at all, but as a writer of books on climate change. This helped him gain a platform for writing about other environmental issues, although he rarely wrote about GM – it was something he quickly seemed to lose interest in. At least, that was the case until his change of mind on GM in 2009, which is when the floodgates began to open.
Dominic Lawson presents his speech at the Oxford Farming Conference in 2013 as an extraordinary moment of revelation, when Lynas first went public with his pro-GM views. Lynas plays up to this, telling Lawson how nervous he was before coming out in that speech. But in reality Lynas had been vigorously flagging up his support for GM crops in articles, speeches and TV appearances for several years before Oxford. The only real difference was that his Oxford speech was much more theatrically contrived, with Lynas casting himself as a penitent sinner who'd suddenly found the light by discovering science. As a result it had a much greater impact, helping launch Lynas on his new career.
Lynas tells Lawson he now works on the GM issue "to the exclusion of almost everything else”. That's unsurprising, as the publicity generated by his Oxford speech won him the patronage of Bill Gates, the world's richest man, whose Foundation enjoys notable synergies with Monsanto, a company in which it invests heavily. The Gates Foundation has even set up a faux academic position for Lynas at Cornell, as well as providing him with other notable platforms for promoting the technology, not least in the developing world.
Lynas uses such opportunities to promote GM with some seriously bad science. In the Lawson interview for instance he claims that "by and large" GM "can and has reduced agrochemical use”. In fact the evidence suggests that by and large GM crops have done the exact opposite. That's hardly surprising, given that the vast majority were developed by the world's biggest manufacturers of agrochemicals, and the most widely cultivated GM crops were developed for use with their pesticides. The Bt crops that are regularly touted as having reduced pesticide use actually are pesticides, with the difference that the pesticide is built in, not sprayed on. And many Bt seeds are also treated with bee-killing neonicotinoids!
But that's not the kind of awkward reality that Lynas likes to dwell on when promoting GM. More typical is what he tells Lawson about his visit to Tanzania. Lynas tells him how he met malnourished farmers there whose cassava crop had failed even though there was a GM cassava available that "could be being deployed now”. But again this is misleading. The development of GM cassava has been beset with difficulties, despite being hyped as a life-saver for more than a decade and a half. By contrast, conventional (non-GM) plant breeding has been quietly producing virus resistant cassavas that are already making a remarkable difference in farmers' fields in Africa, even under drought conditions. Yet while Lynas was in Tanzania, he actually claimed, "There are no conventional ways to achieve virus resistance"!
Lynas tells Lawson that he's paid a terrible price for his change of heart on GM and recounts tales of old friends cold-shouldering him or telling him he's damaged their faith in humanity. But as someone who's talked extensively to a good number of his friends and associates, I know that they're aggrieved with him not for changing his mind but for the aggressive misrepresentation they feel he engages in. They also feel he's building his career not just by puffing himself up but by denigrating his former allies.
And although Lynas tells Lawson that his views on GM are now based on science rather than ideology, this is the opposite of what he confided in a talk he gave at Imperial College in 2012, where he admitted that the technological approaches he now advocated were not based on science so much as "my own politics and my own subjective judgements". These, he told his audience, had become more "pragmatic”.
The nature of that pragmatism can be seen in what he told a Guardian journalist in 2011: "Is the green movement a leftwing, anti-capitalist movement? Mark Lynas believes it is, and that those who style themselves as greens should be marginalised and allowed to die off so that they can be replaced by a new breed of market-friendly environmentalists like him."
This helps explain why Lynas is an attractive figure to a staunch right-winger like Dominic Lawson, a former editor of The Spectator and The Sunday Telegraph. What adds irony to their supposed alliance for science is that Lawson, like his more famous father and his brother-in-law Lord Monckton, is a denier of climate science.
Lynas used to tell people that there was no more important issue than climate change and that was why he'd largely lost interest in GM. Now he cosies up to the likes of Lawson as he builds his new career as a GMO propagandist.