Five Reasons Why Mark Lynas Is Wrong About GM Technology

Mark Lynas has garnered a lot of publicity recently in recanting his opposition to GM crops. He’s joined the growing bandwagon of renegade environmentalists – the so called ‘neo-environmentalists’, who include the likes of Patrick Moore, Steward Brand and James Lovelock – in adopting techno-fixer arguments about the necessity of high tech solutions to the world’s environmental problems.

I’ve read the text of his recent GM speech, and listened to his further defence of his views on the BBC’s ‘Hard Talk‘ programme, and I find his arguments unconvincing and spurious for five main reasons. Most of them turn on the point that the neo-environmentalists would have us believe their views are grounded in something they call “the science” but which on closer inspection turns out be an ideological and rhetorical use of the word “science”, and in fact a rather unscientific one.

And so, the reasons. Number one – Lynas says environmentalists accept the scientific consensus on climate change but ignore it when it comes to GM crops. It’s a false parallel. The science on climate change has shown in the face of much denial that climate change is happening and that it’s anthropogenic. What it hasn’t shown – and what it can’t show – is what, if anything, we should do about it, although it may help to clarify the implications of whatever decisions we take. By contrast, nobody has ever questioned that GM is a viable, implementable technology – the question is whether we should in fact implement it, on which “the science” is equally as impotent in its ability to answer as in the case of climate change. “The science” can address whether GM technologies are safe (probably, but maybe we shouldn’t be too hasty), whether they use more pesticides (yes and no), whether they will eliminate the problem of pests (no) and whether they will increase yields (maybe or maybe not). But it can’t tell us whether we should embrace the technology – though there are certainly plenty of scientists like R. Ford Denison, John Vandermeer, and the signatories to the IAASTD Report who have expressed their doubts – usually in relation to efficacy rather than safety.

Number two – well then, what can tell us? Revealingly, Lynas says he rethought his stance on GM when somebody asked him if he also opposed the wheel on the grounds of corporate control in the automotive industry. Let’s leave the question of corporate control to Point Five and enquire into the rather puzzling comparison Lynas makes between wheels and GM crops. So let’s imagine somebody inventing the wheel – maybe they reckoned it would make it easier for them to tote their harvest home, the invention worked, and the idea caught on. In other words, the invention tackled a specific problem faced by specific people at a specific time. Thousands of years later it’s easy for us to read back into that invention some kind of fateful historical decision that has culminated in our eight-lane highways and all the rest of it. But no such fateful decision was ever made, and the notion that it was is a kind of modern scientistic fallacy that has little to do with actual science. Turning a question of practical science (‘how can I solve this problem’) into a social ideology (‘the scientific solution of problems inherently constitutes social progress and is therefore a good thing’) is nothing more than an act of faith. If we adopt GM it should be because it solves a particular problem, not because it represents ‘progress’. Now, I accept that some people genuinely think GM does solve problems – though I suspect biotechnologists are heavily overrepresented in this particular category (Lynas’s tendency to value their opinion on GM more than anyone else’s seems rather like placing special value on turkeys’ opinions about Christmas in this respect). But if we’re going to implement GM technology, let’s debate exactly which problems it solves, exactly whose problems it solves (who are the winners and losers from its implementation), and whether these prospective solutions are likely to remain stable over time. Maybe, just maybe, cultures that deliberate actively about the paths they wish to take (like the Amish, for example, an easy target for Lynas’s derision) have something to teach cultures like ours that obsess over every new toy in the store.

Number three, to undertake that debate properly requires us to address the politics of the food system, and this is almost wholly absent from Lynas’s analysis. Take his well-worn example of golden rice, a transgenic crop with supplemental Vitamin A which can boost the health of vitamin-deficient poor people and potentially prevent blindness in children. The relevant political question Lynas doesn’t ask is why are these people suffering from Vitamin A deficiency in the first place? Could it be because their income or land access is so attenuated that they can’t afford to grow or buy the fresh vegetables that could otherwise provide the Vitamin A they need? And if so, whose interests are being served by promoting GM rice rather than, say, land reform? As Evan Eisenberg sagely wrote, it’s not the fiascos of biotechnology that we should fear, but its successes.

Number four is a slightly more oblique version of the preceding point. Lynas appears to have no conception of feedback, rebound effects or constrained demand. Like many of his neo-environmentalist chums he desires a world in which people mostly live in cities and have food grown for them with highly intensive, ‘land sparing’ methods, thereby reserving more land for wilderness. The stupidity of this idea really needs a whole book to unpick. One starting point is the need to question whether a ‘land sparing’ agroecosystem of industrial monoculture plus wilderness is in fact ecologically superior to a ‘land sharing’ agroecosystem of small agroecological farms, which is far from a foregone conclusion. Another is to ask why Lynas considers it likely that the urbanised masses he wishes to see will have any interest in preserving the wilderness rather than, say, demanding more meat or biofuels, thereby continuing to push the agricultural frontier into the wilderness. Lynas dismisses as “simplistic nonsense” the Soil Association’s view of an “ideal world in which people in the west eat less meat and fewer calories overall so that people in developing countries can have more”.  Instead he imagines an ideal world in which per hectare crop yields can expand limitlessly in lockstep with increasing demand from populations untethered to any sense of local resource limitation. Simplistic? In a passing moment of lucidity elsewhere in his speech Lynas says “It is not enough to sit back and hope that technological innovation will solve our problems”. Quite.

Number five is where, suddenly, a flicker of political insight does momentarily inflect Lynas’s stentorian voice. His enthusiasm for GM is not, he says, mere apologia for corporate interests, as he’s a supporter of open source GM solutions. This ‘open source GM’ idea seems to be quite a favourite among neo-environmentalists, but a cursory inspection – or even a detailed analysis, perish the thought – of seed industry history gives no support to the narrative of unfolding democratisation and commons rights, and Lynas gives us no reasons to suppose that things will be any different with GM. And to be honest, perhaps that’s for the best. One good reason for concentrating control of seeds – in fact, the only good reason I can think of – is that without it the world of seed sales fills with hucksters, conmen and snake oil merchants. Can you imagine it? Dr Smaje’s magic GM beans – no pests, no fertiliser required, sow them overnight and you too can have a golden goose. Pest refugia? Pah – that’s for losers. Herbicide tolerance in weeds? Let your neighbours worry about it if they want to. Terrifying.

I could go on – I could mention Lynas’s embarrassingly ignorant attack on organic farming, his selective uses of statistics that are every bit as unscientific as those of the anti-GM zealots he excoriates, and so on and so on. But enough is enough. For what it’s worth, I don’t necessarily think that GM crops should never be used. I suspect in the future the whole hoo-hah about GM will be seen as a diversion from the real political issues about the food system, and GM technologies will be seen at best as just another tool in the box, not some kind of global saviour. In the mean time, I’d suggest that any given GM technology should not be used until the key questions have been satisfactorily answered. What problem is this solving? Who will benefit, and who will lose out? How is it likely to pan out in the long term? The answers to those questions will almost certainly prove very much more complex than Mark Lynas would have us believe.

14 thoughts on “Five Reasons Why Mark Lynas Is Wrong About GM Technology

    • Thanks for commenting on my thoughts, Graham – I’m flattered that you’ve expended around 1,000 more words than I used myself to write so voluminously on a post that you claim you can’t take seriously!

      I wish that I had the time to respond at greater length, but I really need to be doing some farming so I’ll have to be fairly brief.

      On my Point 1, you make a few interesting observations, but my initial impression is that you tie yourself in knots trying to disprove my basic contention that Lynas’s comparison between climate and GM science is a false one, but without much success.

      You may well be right that some of the research I linked to is questionable – a peril of trying to dash off a weekly blog in my limited spare time – but you’re silent on IAASTD, Denison and Vandermeer, which I find interesting. However, if we’re going to talk about red herrings, Lynas attempted to discredit organic farming on the basis that some people died eating organic bean sprouts – so I hope I can assume you’re equally sceptical about his own scientific credibility.

      On my second point, the argument in favour of GM because it represents generic ‘progress’ is ubiquitous. It’s implicit in Lynas’s speech – or take a look at Berezow and Campbell in the ‘New Scientist’ of 02.02.13 on “embracing technological progress such as GM crops”. For me, this is not a straw man argument at all, and I think my position is pretty clear – people can say we should do things because they represent ‘progress’ if they like, but they shouldn’t pretend that this view is ‘scientific’. Your comment about the Olmecs (of North America, not South America) is a fine example of the kind of spurious reasoning about the nature of ‘progress’ that disfigures debates in this field. And take another look at what Lynas said about the Amish, and what I said about them. If it’s true that they’re using GM crops, then that supports my position a whole lot better than it does Lynas’s.

      On my Point 3, what I see in your post is a lot of bluster with little substance and, as with Lynas, the unedifying sight of a wealthy well fed westerner professing anger at another wealthy well fed westerner out of a posturing concern for the global poor. First of all, if Lynas had said that golden rice may be useful as a palliative measure to reduce VAD until the underlying problems were tackled systemically by land reform and income redistribution then I wouldn’t have had much of a problem. But he didn’t, and so I stand by my comments. Second, I defy you to find anything I’ve said that claims everything was great in the old days before capitalism came along. I can’t see your ‘let them eat broccoli’ and ‘why don’t they go to their local wholefood shop’ comments as anything other than a wilful misinterpretation of my argument. For all that, like many people you seem so entrenched in the ideology of progress that you find it unimaginable there’s anything to be learned from other ways of doing things, including ways that were used in the past. But you don’t offer any rational arguments for this view – you just jeer. And your dismissal of land reform and income redistribution as ‘tired leftist ideology’, suggests that your concern for global poverty doesn’t run too deep.

      On my Point 4 it’s not an obvious fact that the world cannot be fed without industrial agriculture, but an unsubstantiated assertion. Likewise with your point about ruralisation (of course it would be a disaster if all city dwellers started small rural farms as of now, just as it would be a disaster if we immediately turned all agricultural production over to the existing GM crops – but is anyone seriously arguing that we should do either?) Bear in mind that Lynas says it’s ‘simplistic nonsense’ to argue for less livestock production and redistribution. So effectively he seems to be expecting technology to deliver EU or US levels of prosperity to an expanded future global population without an expansion of the agricultural frontier. That will require a lot more than your 20% EU potato yield increase – a figure that I wasn’t previously aware of, but if it’s anything like Lynas’s 30% wheat yield increase based on a small greenhouse study, I’m not holding my breath. On your transition point – what proportion of the urban population of, say, the UK or the US are Greenpeace members? And taking just those engaged eco-citizens who are members, how does their per capita ecological footprint or carbon emissions compare with those of, say, a peasant farmer in sub-Saharan Africa?

      My Point 5 really shouldn’t be so difficult to understand. In an ideal world, I think it would be preferable if there were no restrictions on seed exchange – existing controls are dangerously limiting to biodiversity and grower innovation. However, I can see that in practice this would lead to some problems, so – as with many things in life – there’s a need for a compromise which will always be difficult to get exactly right. But the general trend in the seed business has been towards more corporate control, and I don’t see much evidence for the open source approach Lynas champions. I think your claim that GM technology is only in the hands of large corporations because anti-GM campaigners have raised the licensing bar beyond others’ capabilities is spurious, but I’d be interested to see your evidence.

      You’re right that I fail to show GM isn’t just another technology that can be used for plant breeding, because I suspect that’s exactly what it is – in other words, it’s not some kind of magic technology which will save global agriculture and feed the poor, as the likes of Mark Lynas would have us believe. Ultimately this debate isn’t about science vs ideology, which is always a false opposition. It’s about choosing what kind of agricultural systems will best underpin a just, sustainable and attractive world in the long-term. For all the efforts of GM apologists such as yourself to position yourselves as victimised champions of the poor, the truth is that you’re in the driving seat, you have the ear of the decision-makers who matter and in all probability you will have the chance to test your vision of the future long before people like me do. I’m open to the idea that I could be wrong, but my suspicion is that you will create a more divided and less sustainable world, and that ultimately it will be small-scale, low input producers who will have to pick up the pieces.

      • Thanks for your response Chris:
        Point 1) Yes, I think Lynas is also partly wrong on this, but as said in my post, but not for the reasons you think: there is no real contradiction between the Green’s apparently pro-science stance on AGW and anti-science stance on GE, they are merely promiscuous with the science and are happy to use it when it serves their ideology: alarmism about impending doom due to AGW (on which the science is not settled btw- yes, warming, but not catastrophic) feeds into exactly the same ideology that fuels the anti-GE movement: human technology and the hubris of “progress” will be our undoing. We need to power-down and revert to simpler and more localised ways of living.- a very dangerous belief: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/collideascape/2013/02/12/debates-on-sustainability-are-distracted-by-eco-babble/#.URuF3-j0UXy

        You are correct that in neither case is there a straight line between the actual science and policy. However, you are wrong in the same way that Lynas is wrong imo- this is because from a scientific point of view, the issues are quite different, with climate change being orders of magnitude more complex and multi-layered in its policy implications than GE; the latter is after all just a technology- this is the core of my point: your argument against GE amounts to nothing more than the arbitrary application of the precautionary principle, which is really no argument at all. To test this, replace “GE” with “Polytunnel” or “Tractors” or some other technology used in farming.

        I respond to the IAASTD report in my podcast on GE here: https://skepteco.wordpress.com/podcasts/
        All they really say is that they dont see GE as playing a very big role; but there really is lots of evidence to show otherwise- I point to some of this via my links, here is another article by Prof. Ronald: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2011/08/11/genetically-engineered-crops/. I think one problem is though that you distrust this evidence, you have already decided that evidence from biotech scientists is biased!

        Point 2) I have made it clear that I agree that we need evidence -which I have pointed to above, and space precludes me going more into, for the benefits of GE, not just vague concepts and promises of “progress”, but you have not made any case that I can see against it. Clearly, GE can do things other forms of plant breeding are unable to do, and much quicker. Eg a new GE var. of blight-resistant potato can be developed in a few months with GE, when it takes 10-15yrs with conventional methods. In what way is this not “progress” ? How is reducing the use of pesticides and using less toxic herbicides, increasing farmer income and boosting yields not progress? How could drought-tolerant and flood-tolerant crops not be seen as progress ? You seem ignorant of the history of plant breeding, without which there is not farming of any kind. Another example is GE Papaya in Hawaii which not only saved the Papaya industry there but also saved the organic non-GE Papaya: http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/feb06/aaas.gonsalves.papaya.sd.html

        Lynas has just confirmed to me on Twitter that he was not aware that the Amish grow GE tobacco and corn. But how that supports your position- that Lynas is wrong about GMOs- when you also explicitly use the Amish as a group who “cultures that deliberate actively about the paths they wish to take” is a mystery.

        Point 3)- you ignore my point. It is not either/or. The suggestion that ” if Lynas had said that golden rice may be useful as a palliative measure to reduce VAD until the underlying problems were tackled systemically by land reform and income redistribution then I wouldn’t have had much of a problem.” is ridiculous. If you want to make a political point about land reform, then go ahead- I dont really see that you are, other than as a stick to beat the humanitarian Golden Rice project with. They are separate issues. Apparently you justify Greenpeace’s despicable actions on the grounds that people who work on Golden Rice are not also, at the same time, campaigning for “land reform”. It seems inescapable to me that if the vitamin A enhanced rice had been developed by any other method than GE there would be no campaign against it. But instead of campaigning themselves for “land reform”- a ambitious large political ideal I think you would agree- Greenpeace and the rest of the anti-GE movement spend large amounts of time energy and money purposefully trying to block the development of a technology that could help thousands right here, right now. And they have so far succeeded, at the likely cost of thousands of lives. I hope they are proud of themselves.

        You may have missed this link in the comments on my blog:
        http://www.ifmr.co.in/blog/2013/01/30/why-dont-indian-farmers-grow-more-fruits-and-vegetables/

        Point 4: I dont get your point here at all. We will have to disagree if you think industrial agriculture can be replaced by small farms. (Should I be suspicious of you taking ths stance, since you are a small farmer?) That seems naive and unrealistic given that nearly all the food we eat in the rich world is from industrial ag, and the developing world is moving in that way as well. Your position does seem to be about keeping the poor poor, in line with Vandana Shiva’s ideology. New plant breeding, GE or otherwise, is essential to improving yields and sustainability- but you want to block this. Well done. You seem to be making my point for me re environmental transition- of course Greenpeace membership as a % of the population as a whole is tiny, but the % of Greenpeace members from the educated urban majority likely very high; and of course they have much higher carbon footprints and much higher standards of living than the poor in SSA. What is your point?

        Point 5) Clearly the giant biotech companies have benefited hugely in some ways from the punitive regulations which are legal restrictions that cost millions and many years to overcome- this does not apply to other forms of plant breeding, only GE – independent biotechs, universities etc have no hope of bringing a trait to market without support of multinationals . The inevitable result has been to increase monopolies, and many useful traits have been left on the shelf. The same tactic has worked very well in opposing nuclear power. Costs increase rapidly due to regulations and delays; the opposition then cries “Look! Failure!”

        You claim that GE proponents “are in the driving seat”. Would that this were true. The truth is, GE has been effectively banned in Europe, by extension (threat of trade embargoes) in most of Africa (who really need it) and severely restricted in N. America. Your attack on Golden Rice- a humanitarian project in which seeds will be donated free to farmers who will be free to save their own seeds- shows that corporate control is not your concern at all, but that you have an ideological opposition to a technology that will obviously make far more difference in the developing world than in the well-fed west.

        Nev

        You repeat that Lynas or others see GE as a “magic bullet”; none thinks that. But all of farming- everything you do on your small farm- is technology. To support blanket bans on GE technology is as nonsensical as blanket bans on polytunnels or drip irrigation or tractors. These are every bit as necessary for big industrial ag as GE might be.

        Conversely, you fail to understand what GE actually is: not a “system of farming” but a method of plant breeding. I debate these issue constantly with small-scale ag proponents, they seem to equate GE with RR and Monsanto -I have already explained most GE seeds are from a few big players; but there is no reason at all why they would not also play an important role to improve the sustainability and yield of small organic farms as well. This would be the view of Ronald and Adamchuk, the authors of “Tomorrow’s Table”. http://scienceblogs.com/tomorrowstable/

        You are clearly aligned with the ideological woo of the permaculture movement and the Soil Association. The small organic Happy Farm is important, but you are deluded if you think this is what is going to play a major part in feeding the 9billion we will have in a few decades. The back-to-nature lifestyle is only appealing in wealthy countries where we have to luxury of industrial ag to stave off famine and support from all kinds of technology.

        • Graham, my self-imposed rule with these blogosphere arguments is to continue with them only if I feel I’m learning anything useful or if there seems to be some potential to reach an illuminating point of compromise with my interlocutor. I don’t see much potential here on either front, and I find your position unconvincing. However, I will very briefly attempt to clarify four points.

          1. Lynas uses the Amish as an example of a people who froze their technology in 1850. I use them as an example of a people who choose which technologies to adopt on the basis of how those technologies serve their wider goals. So if the Amish are using GM crops but continuing to eschew other modern technologies, I take that to be exemplifying my view of them rather than Lynas’s.

          2. I think ‘progress’ in this area can only usefully be understood in the somewhat technical sense of ‘does this technology enable me to achieve my goals more easily than other available technologies?’ On that score, some of the things you list as progress in relation to GM crops would clearly count if they prove themselves long term – and that’s fine by me. Others inhabit the realm of historical/economic speculation. Consider the conceptual gulf between your point about the speed with which plant varieties can be bred using GM techniques and your point about the Olmecs.

          3. You’re right that GM is a method of plant breeding and not a system of farming. But it’s a method of plant breeding with an elective affinity to a system of farming and to social ideologies that I consider problematic. That’s why I’m not necessarily opposed to the use of GM crops, but I’m opposed to the way that you and Mark Lynas construct the issues.

          4. Clearly you want to read some kind of Arcadian back to nature ideology into my position regardless of what I actually write. It’s a pity you won’t read what I say rather than what you think I say. In my view your preferred approach is much more likely to keep the poor poor than mine, but I think this debate would generate considerably more light if wealthy westerners stopped using it to grandstand their credentials as self-appointed defenders of the poor.

          Anyway, thanks for commenting on my blog.

  1. Pingback: In defence of Mark Lynas: Five Green Herrings and the Amish « SkeptEco

  2. I’m happy to be linked to your well-reasoned and balanced post, but the particular link you used doesn’t directly address my views on the limits of biotechnology. A link to my published work might be better. Here I’ve linked to a paper whose abstract includes “The sophistication of natural selection’s innovations contrasts with the relatively simple changes (e.g., increasing the expression of existing genes) readily achievable by today’s biotechnology.”

    I’ve taken the “land-sparing” side in at least one debate, but this is another case where “the science” doesn’t speak with one voice.

    Your photo reminds me of my brother’s farm, though more of his is under plastic.

  3. It is you retro-romantic reactionary guys who are in the driving seat: http://www.foodnavigator.com/Science-Nutrition/Genetic-engineering-It-s-a-technology-not-an-ideology
    GE is just a tool like any other, like your computer, it can be used for good or bad. What we are talking about here is the difference between a complete ban, which extends in effect to most of Africa, with a case-by-case process of regulation on the same level playing field that applies to other breeding methods; it the anti-GE movement that is fueled by ideology of blocking progress, not the other way around.

    • …”you retro-romantic reactionary guys blocking progress” is about as ideologically-fuelled a phrase as it’s possible to imagine!

  4. Re Denison: the paper he mentions above questions the ability of GE to create true drought resistance, which could be true, but drought resistance seems to have been achieved to some extent with Monsanto’s Droughtguard corn: http://www.biofortified.org/2012/08/monsantos-gm-drought-tolerant-corn/

    His book looks interesting but Im not sure how what he says ties in with what you say or showing Lynas to be wrong in any way. GE is plant breeding- it can be used for a vast range of different traits for any system of farming.

    and Vandermeer: the site linked to begins “Neoliberal environmentalist Mark Lynas…” which suggests this is about politics not science;

    Vandemeer’s piece is an astonishing mush of sneering and patronizing remarks about Lynas’ failure to comprehend science, but provides very little science itself: his only substantive point is about the surficant in Roundup which can be hazardous to amphibian life; so it has to be used carefully and correctly; but this is an issue of an ingredient of a herbicide which is otherwise one of the safest herbicides. Campaign against the surficant, or even the use of RR technology if you must; this is a far cry from a complete ban on the technology of GE orshowing it to be useless. Farmers are not stupid- they want to grow GE because of the benefits it provides, just like they want hybrids.

    Vandemeer is just scare-mongering for political gain here. He worries about unintended consequences but provides no evidence of environmental harm caused by use of GE, it’s just vague waffling. He references the UCS who say there is little evidence for increased yields. I have provided some via Prof Ronald’s articles above; for Bt cotton see http://gmopundit.blogspot.ie/search?q=increased+yields

    The UCS also wrote a response to Lynas here: http://blog.ucsusa.org/science-dogma-and-mark-lynas/ They reference the IAASTD; and Benbrook- debunked here: http://appliedmythology.blogspot.ie/2013/01/the-muddled-debate-about-pesticide-use.html
    They talk about “debating points” and claim Lynas is trying to close the debate down- but really Lynas is saying there is no scientific reason to ban or delay unnecessarily the use of this technology, nor do the UCS provide any. The scientific issues will continue, but this is obviously made much harder in an over-regulated environment- much more severe than for other breeding methods whatever they claim about the costs of getting through regs (still millions).

    Lynas responds to the rest here: http://www.marklynas.org/2013/01/response-to-ucs-science-dogma-and-mark-lynas/

    You say Lynas’ point about the deaths from organic bean sprouts is spurious, but the point is this does happen and it is a higher risk with organics for obvious reasons: but there is no scaremongering campaign against organics; if there was, that one incident would probably be the end of it. Noone has died or got ill or suffered any health effects from eating GMOs; the industry would likely be finished if there was even a single case, given that the opposition is so vocal and powerful.

    These issues need to be considered in the context of a well-funded campaign (eg Greenpeace: $100m/annum just for propaganda) of misinformation; Vanadana Shiva is the most prominent leader and demonstrably spouts misinformation for years; the organics movement and the alternative medicine industry are also behind this http://skepteco.wordpress.com/2012/09/02/the-truth-about-the-terminator/ So there is clearly a powerful ideological movement, and I think you are much more influenced by this than you are admitting.

    It would be great if you were to distance yourself from this, perhaps with a follow-up post on “5 Reasons why Greenpeace are wrong about Golden Rice” ?

  5. Aaaargh, OK Graham against my better judgment I’ll reply to you this time, but I’d find it much easier to engage with you if you could overcome your self-righteous anger – I dislike the way that blogs so readily turn into these male ego parades.

    I agree with you that Vandermeer’s response to Lynas is a little sneering and patronising – it reminds me somewhat of your responses to me, though it’s rather more delicately put! I suppose if I’d spent my career doing empirical scientific research only to find someone like Lynas appropriating the mantle of ‘science’ in order to legitimate a particular political stance on agriculture (as per my points one and two in my original post) I’d probably find it hard not to sneer. I think what matters isn’t Vandermeer’s response to Lynas but his research on agroecology. As Ford Denison sensibly says, the science doesn’t speak with one voice on the land sparing issue, and ain’t that true of most things.

    I don’t think Steve Savage debunks the Benbrook study, but I’ve had some interesting conversations with him about GM – I find him a more nuanced and open-minded advocate of GM and industrial farming than many other bloggers out there, and therefore a more persuasive one.

    On glyphosate, yes the surfactants are an issue but the bigger issue is herbicide resistance – not specifically a GM problem, but specifically a conventional agriculture problem. It seems to me that agriculture of every description is essentially a battle to keep one step ahead of the weeds and the pests, which humanity is unlikely to win long-term. I happen to think that we’ll lose the battle more quickly and with more drastic consequences the more we put our eggs in the industrial farming basket. I could be wrong, but nothing you’ve so far said convinces me otherwise.

    On organic farming, I’m not sure why you think it’s obviously higher risk – conventional farmers spread muck like there’s no tomorrow, if that’s what you’re thinking. But if you can cite some convincing evidence that the relative risk of food poisoning or other poor health outcomes is higher in organic than conventional food on a like for like basis, I’d be interested. Dominic Dyer tried that line in a New Scientist piece a while back, but his evidence didn’t stack up. Not that I hold any particular brief for the Soil Association or the organic movement.

    Clearly you think GM and agro-industry is a scared little minnow in the face of the massively funded and systematic onslaught of the organic or anti-GM movement. I see it the exact opposite. Perhaps both of us need to get out more. But at least you’ve got Owen Paterson on your side.

    On the issue of poverty, since you claim income redistribution is ‘tired leftist ideology’ I can’t take your claim to be concerned about the poor very seriously – and likewise if you’d devoted any space in your posts to the socioeconomic context of poverty rather than the potential yield increases associated with GM crops. You simply aren’t a spokesperson for the global poor any more than I am. It would be nice to be able to ask historical and contemporary peasantries whether they’d rather have 20% higher seed yields or freedom from seigneurial dues. I think I know what the majority opinion would be, though of course I might be wrong. And once again, if Mark Lynas is advocating golden rice as a pragmatic palliative measure prior to longer term systemic remedies such as income redistribution and/or land access then I wouldn’t have a problem with that and I would happily withdraw my remark that he doesn’t address the politics of the food system. But that’s not what he did in his speech, and I find your comments on this point mere bluster. Not either/or? How much golden rice do you eat? You yourself seem to be advocating for golden rice and against ‘leftist’ income redistribution – see how that works politically? A child can get all the Vitamin A it needs from eating half a carrot a day. Let them eat broccoli? Damn right.

    What I think I’ve learned most from debating with you is how deep a hold the ideology of progress has on the public imagination, so that it becomes almost impossible to question any emerging techno/social aspects of production without inviting jeering charges of being a ‘retro-romantic reactionary’ or whatever. The fact that I don’t support contemporary industrial farming doesn’t mean that I think there was some Arcadian past to which we have to return. Guess I’ll have to think about how better to circumvent that false opposition, but since you have a degree in sociology I’m surprised that you don’t have a more nuanced understanding of how ideologies work historically.

  6. Hi Tom – interesting article. Meanwhile the debate has continued on Strouts’ ‘Skepteco’ blog…though he is yet to respond to my last posting there. Ah the joys of reaching out to people through the blogosphere.

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