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The already heated debate about genetically modified (GM) foods in India has intensified thanks to a dramatic change in stance by environmentalist and author Mark Lynas,who now says GM crops are the answer to global food security. While India awaits two crucial reports on the topic, we interviewed Lynas and noted ecologist Vandana Shiva (who remains anti-GM foods and has borne the brunt of Lynas’s attack) to see what they have to say. Excerpts:
“My main concern is to defend farmer choice. You’ll never convince people like Vandana Shiva that GM crops can have beneficial uses as her opposition is faith based, unscientific. She’s accused me of being in Monsanto’s pay, an outright lie....”
Actually my change of view is not as drastic as it sounds from some media reports. I wrote about the enormous potential environmental benefits of both genetically modified organisms (GMOS) and nuclear power in my last book The God Species, which was published nearly two years ago. In that book, I outlined how a rejection of technology by the environmental movement is short-sighted, and harms the interests of both the poor and the environment generally.
My change of mind on this was driven very much by the science. I had earlier written books on climate change which were well-received by scientists, and I realised that holding an anti-science position on biotech was incompatible with my position on climate, so I spent a great deal of time examining the scientific literature. That is how I discovered that most of the opposition to GM is based on mythology and fear-mongering, some of which I helped start over a decade ago when I also did not properly understand the technology in the same way that most activists still do not.
There have been no recalls or withdrawals of GM food on the basis of public health, so far as I know. This has instead been about regulations not being followed in some cases, particularly in Europe, which has an almost medieval attitude to GM in the sense that no amount of risk analysis will convince politicians under pressure from the green lobby to approve GM crops. I am not saying that there should be no regulations, but that they should be applied equally on all new crops. Scientists are very clear that there are no additional risks from GM.
My main concern is to defend farmer choice. The organic lobby insists that no GM should be grown anywhere, in effect removing the choice from all other growers. I want to see different farming systems coexist according to the preferences and choices of the farmers. It should be up to them to decide what seeds to choose, not up to politicians and self-interested ideological ngos. GM is not the single solution to anything. It is necessary but not sufficient on its own. Like any improved seeds, it can only be one part of a broader package.
You will never convince people like Vandana Shiva that GM crops can have beneficial uses because her opposition is faith-based and unscientific. She has accused me of being in the pay of Monsanto, which is an outright lie. Instead, I would challenge her to produce accounts for all the lucrative speeches she gives to sympathetic left-wing audiences in western countries, who are really the main market for her brand of reactionary politics and why she spends so little time in India.
(Lynas is an environmentalist and an author on climate change policy and science based out of Oxford.)
“Lynas's turnaround is not guided by science, for science is not like Nestle's instant coffee.... In contrast to claims of the agri-chemical industry and its spin masters, GMOS do not increase yields, nor do they reduce chemicals use.”
You can have a conversion in religion, not in science. Scientific expertise is created over decades with much research, training and investigation. Mr Lynas’s turnaround is in fact not guided by science, because science is not like Nestle’s instant coffee.
GMOS are not part of sustainable agriculture. The International Assessment for Agricultural Science, Technology for Development (IAASTD) carried out by 400 top international, inter-disciplinary scientists over six years, on the basis of peer-reviewed, published literature, recognised that neither the Green revolution, nor GMOS can offer a solution to hunger, only agroecology can. The UN Summit of Rio+20 also recognised that agroecology has the highest potential to address the challenges of hunger, poverty and sustainability. agroecology is the science of understanding ecological processes between soil, biodiversity, water, climate, sun.... Probably Lynas is ignorant of the cutting-edge science of agroecology and epigenetics, given that “educators” for his “scientific conversion” are stuck in the old paradigm of reductionist, mechanistic science.
We need innovation to move beyond an agriculture shaped by the war industry. After the war, the chemical warfare industry mutated into the agri-chemicals industry, saying that without chemical fertilisers and pesticides, we would have no food security. Today, that same industry is bringing us GMOS to sell more herbicides through pushing herbicide-resistant crops like Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soya and corn. And contrary to the claim of the industry—and their spin masters like Lynas—GMOS do not increase yields and do not reduce chemical use. (See the report of Global Scientists and Citizens on the state of GMOS on Navdanya’s website www.navdanya.org). What is slowing down GMOS is not regulation, but its failures. Instead of controlling pests and weeds, GMOS have given us super-pests and super-weeds. In any case, biosafety regulation is an international law. It has been put in place by the UN and its members. The biotech industry and the US government have been trying hard to dismantle and subvert biosafety laws.
Biosafety is only one aspect of the GMO issue. Another more important aspect is that it is a crude and inefficient technology for addressing food and nutrition. Golden Rice provides 70 times less Vitamin A than our curry patta, sahjan, coriander. A second very serious aspect is that the only reason GMOS are being introduced is to patent seeds and collect royalties. This is what the industry said clearly at a 1987 conference on the new biotechnologies to whichI was invited. Our work over the last 30 years has shown that biodiverse ecological farmers produce more food and nutrition than chemical monocultures, including those that use GMOS.
(Shiva is a New Delhi-based activist and founder of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology.)