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.