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Yesterday I was surprised and disappointed to read an interview with Mark Lynas in the Buenos Aires Herald, entitled ‘Scientists agree transgenic crops are safe’ in which Lynas was given a platform to spout propaganda, largely without critique from the interviewer, Fermín Koop.
Obviously, as a staunch believer in the freedom of the press, I have no problem with the Buenos Aires Herald’s decision to run the piece, but as Lynas receives much uncritical exposure from the mainstream media, particularly on a subject that is very close to home in Argentina, I felt the article could not go unanswered.*
Mark Lynas, for those who don’t know him, is a British environmental activist who made a dramatic U-turn on 3rd January 2013 when he told a sold-out audience at the Oxford Farming Conference that he was sorry. Sorry that he’d maligned genetically modified (GM) crops. Sorry that he’d helped “to start the anti-GM movement” (something widely refuted by many in the movement, who say it long pre-dated his involvement). Sorry that he’d “demonised” a technology that could be used to benefit the environment. He put his revelation down to the “discovery of science”.
His “conversion speech” was widely picked up by the media and he has since been held up by global biotech corporations as their star, the person to read on the subject. However, leaked documents from 2011 detailed a plan to fracture Europe’s green movement by recruiting high-profile, seemingly independent ambassadors to lobby for more GM-friendly policies. The documents came from Brussels-based EuropaBio, Europe’s largest biotech industrial group.
Nobody knows if Lynas sold out: despite him being named as one of the industry’s “top targets” in the leaked documents, he vehemently denies that he has secretly become an industry spokesperson. However, since his epiphany he has become a globe-trotting activist-cum-journalist, peddling misinformation (such as that published by the Buenos Aires Herald) about the benefits of transgenic crops to anybody who listens.
Lynas puts his conversion down to “science” but the numerous talks he has given often lack an independent scientific basis, and many scientists have spoken out against his arguments. As Dr. Brian John Past, a professor of geography from the University of Durham said: “[Lynas’ arguments are] so far away from scientific reliability that it is actually quite cringe-making.”
In fact, his arguments read, funnily enough, exactly like the arguments touted by the agroindustry itself in dismissing those who are against genetically modified organisms (GMO). That is the same agroindustry who invited him to talk to at the Buenos Aires congress ‘Maizar’, held yesterday at the Four Seasons Hotel, the sponsors of which read like a who’s who of global – and local – agribusiness.
So let’s have a look at his arguments. I have picked up on a few of Lynas’ “science-based truths” from his interview in the Herald:
Myth 1: ‘GM crops around the world have largely reduced the use of pesticides’
To answer this, I will simply use the science that Lynas holds in such high regard, and quote from a widely regarded, peer-reviewed study published in 2012 looking at the use of pesticides in the US during the first 16 years of GM crop use:
“Contrary to often-repeated claims that today’s genetically-engineered crops have, and are, reducing pesticide use, the spread of glyphosate-resistant weeds in herbicide-resistant weed management systems has brought about substantial increases in the number and volume of herbicides applied … The magnitude of increases in herbicide use on herbicide-resistant hectares has dwarfed the reduction in insecticide use on Bt crops over the past 16 years, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.”
As virtually 100% of GM crops planted worldwide have been engineered to be used with herbicides or contain insecticidal toxins – or both, according to industry data – superweeds develop resistance to GM crops and their associated pesticides, and as a result farmers resort to more chemical use, not less.
If that wasn’t evidence enough, just last month a report was published which concluded: “The world’s most widely used insecticides have contaminated the environment across the planet so pervasively that global food production is at risk.”
Myth 2: ‘Glyphosate is pretty benign to human health (…) Let’s not invent scary stories about this’
Ok, Lynas. Let’s not invent them. Let’s again use some peer-approved scientific studies to prove that they’re not benign. For example, Argentine molecular biologist Andrés Carrasco’s investigation, published in Chemical Research in Toxicology magazine in 2009, which proved the adverse effects of glyphosate on embryos.
Or last year’s exhaustive review on the toxic effects of glyphosate, which demonstrated the adverse impact on humans, listing how the herbicide inhibits the activity of cytochrome P450 enzymes, which “can remarkably explain a number of diseases and conditions prevalent in the modern industrialised world. Its effects are insidious, because the long-term effects are often not immediately apparent.” The paper goes on to conclude that glyphosate could plausibly lead to infertility, and contribute to a number of diseases, including cancer, developmental malformations, autism, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s, among others.
Here in Argentina, there have been numerous cases linking herbicide spraying to increased miscarriages and cancer, such as the case of Ituzaingó in Córdoba. The case made national headlines through the tireless work of the group Madres de Ituzaingó, who later received the backing of the Red de Médicos de Pueblos Fumigados, whose tests have shown that the rate of cancer in rural areas where herbicide spraying takes place is at 30-36%, versus Argentina’s national average of 18%. Unfortunately, to the advantage of the producers of glyphosate, proving a direct connection is a long-term task, as the effects of the herbicide take time to show. However, the facts themselves would lead even the most conservative observers to conclude that glyphosate is certainly not “benign”.
Additionally, as weeds become more resistant to glyphosate, more and more is needed to be effective in killing weeds, increasing its use.
Myth 3: ‘An organic agriculture system would be a disaster for the environment’
This claim denies 10,000 years of history that say the opposite.
Organic farming is mentioned here as it if were a new, untested system, rather than the system that has been the norm for feeding the planet for the past 10,000 years, ever since humans first became less nomadic and more sedentary. And during the vast majority of those 10,000 years, this style of ‘organic’ farming worked completely in harmony with the environment. It is only over the last two centuries, since the industrial revolution, and – to a greater extent – since the end of World War II that such farming has been increasingly displaced by the heavy use of chemicals to fertilise land used ever-more intensively.
These chemicals run off the land and into rivers, eventually finding their way into the oceans; they are responsible for marine dead zones around the mouths of the planet’s great rivers.
The chemicals are also at least partly responsible for mass deaths of birds and bees, who we rely on to keep our eco-systems reproducing. An organic system encourages birds and bees to pollinate, whereas a GM-led system relies on seed producers and chemicals to do the same. Industry insiders are not ignorant to this problem – researchers at Harvard University have developed Robo-Bees, tiny drones the size of a honeybee that could be used to pollinate crops in the future.
Mass, industrialised agriculture is, in fact, the system that is a “disaster for the environment”, as it is not sustainable in the long term. Conversely, an organic agricultural system is actually the only long-term, sustainable farming option we have – 10,000 years of history prove that.
Myth 4: ‘[Organic production] is much less productive, so if you want to feed an entire population you have to destroy the rainforest. A mass extinction of natural species would take place’
Taking this statement by parts, firstly that organic production is much less productive. The main problem with this statement it that it is simply not true. Localised, organic systems have been feeding the world for centuries. And a study published last year by the UN, called ‘Wake up before it’s too late‘, concluded that the only way to feed the world is to revert to a system of small-scale, organic farming.
It is the transgenic system that is less productive (studies prove GM crops have not increased yields), particularly as the system encourages farmers to grow commodities and not food. The crops being grown, particularly here in Argentina, are mainly used to feed the animals that we then eat (soy exports for pigs in China, for example) or are used to create biofuels. The huge agricultural expansion that has taken place here – and around the world – has not led to greater production of food for human consumption.
Another problem with the current model is that massive waste is inherent in the huge industrialised production systems – between 30-50% of food produced is wasted. This number is much higher than previously, when smaller, localised systems were in place, and is partially down to “quality” or “aesthetic” controls put in place by multinational supermarket chains.
Going on to Lynas’ second point, that rainforests would need to be destroyed in order to feed an entire population. Again, it is actually industrialised agricultural system that has led to mass destruction of the rainforest. Just in South America, the primary cause of deforestation is agriculture, and that agricultural expansion has been for one of two things: planting of GM crops, or clearing space for cattle to be grazed (the vast majority of meat from cattle raised this way is exported, as locally-consumed meat is largely feedlot-raised).
Finally, various organic agricultural techniques, such as permaculture, have been shown to have a higher rate of production-per-hectare – up to double or triple the yield – than industrialised agriculture.
Myth 5: ‘GM crops are actually better for the environment’
I don’t think there is any need to elaborate much on answering this, as if anybody has taken the time to read the above paragraphs, we can call this what it is – misguided judgement at best, or quite possibly just an outright lie.
*The Buenos Aires Herald offered me a guest column to respond to their interview, but I felt the space available was not large enough to fully expand on my points, so I declined their offer.