Mark Lynas Responds to His Detractors

By Keith Kloor | January 31, 2013 11:44 am

It’s been almost a month since UK environmental writer Mark Lynas apologized for his prior anti-GMO activism. His speech, let’s recall, was an internet sensation. Many applauded Lynas’s change of heart (he is now firmly pro-GMO), plenty others jeered it, and more than a few rolled their eyes.

And everyone has moved on except anti-GMO campaigners. They remain quite angered by Lynas’s speech, which is understandable, since they were singled out by him for being irrationally zealous and anti-science. Maybe they feel their cause took a big hit, too, along with their credibility. Then there’s the sense of betrayal. Lynas was one of them. True, he had already made his conversion several years earlier, but this was different. Lynas’s speech was a moment of high drama in which he publicly renounced his own history and his former comrades. It was compelling. The story received worldwide attention.

But was it all true? Anti-GMO campaigners have lately mounted a campaign against Lynas. At the heart of it is a charge that he’s greatly exaggerated his role in the anti-GMO movement. One of the accusations, that Lynas has become an “ambassador for the biotech industry,” is recycled, which he has already rebutted when it first surfaced in 2011. But the other charges now being made against him would be damning if true. So I contacted Lynas and asked him to respond. What follows is my Q & A with him, via email.

KK: In your widely circulated speech from January 3rd, you said:

For the record, here and upfront, I apologize for having spent several years ripping up GM crops. I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid 1990s, and that I thereby assisted in demonizing an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment.

In recent weeks, some greens and anti-GMO campaigners have asserted that you overstated your role in the establishment of the anti-GMO movement. This week, a website called SpinWatch posted a lengthy article by the director of GM Watch (an organization opposed to biotechnology). He suggests that you played little, if any role in the anti-GMO movement. The article states:

Nobody we have spoken to among the many leading figures of the 1990s counts Lynas as either a founder or a leader. Indeed, if he was even involved in the grassroots actions of 1995-1996, then nobody we spoke to remembers it.

Now I recognize these are advocacy groups that have an obvious anti-GMO bias. They are undoubtedly not happy about all the publicity you’ve received lately. Still, these are serious charges that are now circulating via social media. I noticed that the British science writer and academic Alice Bell tweeted the SpinWatch article and asked:

So let me ask: Have you overstated your involvement in the anti-GMO movement? And if not, can you provide some specifics as to what you did as a founding leader of the movement? Who are some of the other leaders/high profile anti-GMO activists that you worked with and that can vouch for you? And what were some of the big protests/activities you were involved in? Please be as specific as possible, including dates.

ML: Certainly my role has been overstated in some of the media coverage. In my Oxford speech I merely said “helped to start” – I didn’t say I was the ‘founder’ or ‘godfather’ as some of the media pieces have asserted, rather amusingly. I wasn’t the most important person by any means, inasmuch as one can judge something as subjective as personal influence. And as the person in question whose influence is being debated, I’m doubtless not the best one to comment!

There is a real issue here in that I wish to respect the privacy of other individuals who were involved at the time, but may not wish their involvement to be public, particularly with regards to actions we did which involved criminal damage. So naming names of who was more or less important is not really a fair ask. With regards to Sue Mayer from Genewatch [a leading anti-GMO activist in the 1990s who accuses Lynas of misrepresenting himself] - I didn’t know if she was involved in any of the crop trashing actions; I don’t think I ever met her in fact. I hope she will also apologize if she did get involved in damaging GM crops rather than attacking me for doing that. Certainly she has spent much more of her life spreading misinformation on the GMO issue than I have, so I’m happy to give her due credit to her for all that effort.

One other name I might mention is Jim Thomas, who was then at Greenpeace, and really kicked this off in the UK so far as I remember, and was certainly more important as an early leader than I was. His own technophobic ideology remains undimmed – he is now at a group called ETC, which campaigns against innovation in many spheres, including nanotechnology for instance. They keep a low profile but are quite influential – see the recent Nature piece about their influence on the ‘anarcho-primitivist’ extremist groups behind the anti-nanotech/biotech bombings in Mexico. (No I am not accusing ETC of supporting violence – they rightly condemned the bombings.)

You mentioned SpinWatch, which seems to be a conspiracist website run by a far-left academic at Bath University called David Miller. They say they expose industry spin, but in reality they mount personal attacks on people who stand up for science on a variety of issues – they in fact create their spin in an ongoing anti-capitalist propaganda war, funded unwittingly by the UK taxpayer. I have been attacked in particular by GM Watch, which is run by someone called Jonathan Matthews, an administrator in a language school in Norwich, UK. I found out today that they are funded by the Soil Association, the main organic lobby group representing a $2.5 billion-a-year UK industry (http://www.farming.co.uk/news/article/6191 ). So basically the organic lobby subcontracts them to do the dirtiest kind of attack jobs, such as smearing me for non-existent industry links. They have also claimed I have ‘PR managers’ but have singularly failed to tell me who they might be, as I too would like to know! [Please see Mark Lynas's clarification of these statements in the update at bottom of this post.]

KK:  In addition to Alice Bell, another academic, James Wilson—who says he is “no anti-GM activist” —contacted me on twitter to say of the SpinWatch article:

Based on my knowledge of the past 20 years of UK GM politics, it’s a fair piece. He’s [Lynas] massively exaggerated his role.

Can you respond to this?

ML: I didn’t see James Wilson on any of our actions either. Perhaps he can tell us who he has interviewed in order to make that statement. Given that he says the GM Watch smear attack is a “fair piece”, I think his sympathies are clear unfortunately. If you want specifics, I did play the lead role for example in the office occupation of Monsanto in – I think – 1996 (I’m not sure of the exact date). That extended to even booking buses, printing leaflets and casing the place out beforehand. I also did a lot of media work, including live TV and radio interviews from the sites of crops were were destroying in the open daytime actions. And a lot of night-time crop trashing actions that I still don’t feel comfortable talking about, because of the other people involved. I don’t see any “massive exaggeration” here.

KK: Marc Tercek, the president of the Nature Conservancy, has written that he largely agrees (but “not entirely”) with your speech. However, when you said near the end, “the GM debate is over,” Tercek says: “That may overstate the case.” This line about the debate being over struck me, too, as a bit sweeping. Don’t you think there are legitimate issues still to be debated with respect to biotechnology, as Tercek and other sane heads in the green movement assert? If so, what would those issues be?

ML: I meant that in the sense of the safety of GM – the debate is certainly over with regards to that. As the American Association for the Advancement of Science [AAAS] recently said: “The science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe.” End of debate. I note the Union of Concerned Scientists even attacked the AAAS over that statement, which is extraordinary coming from a lobby group which purports to be pro-science and pro-environment. They even organized their own counter-statement from a tiny minority of scientists they could find, which reminds me of the infamous ‘Oregon Petition’ against the IPCC! [See Lynas's retraction of this in the comments section] So my plea to environmentalists is to respect scientific consensus where it clearly exists, as much on GM safety as on climate change. This does not rule out all dissent, but it does mean that scientists and others should not be vilified by environmentalists when they speak about this consensus.

Once we’ve got that out of the way, we can move onto real issues, as Marc Tercek suggests we should. These are things like: how can we increase productivity on marginal lands in poor parts of the world where farmers cannot afford inputs? How can ‘sustainable intensification’ be achieved in order to spare as much of natural ecosystems as is possible to protect biodiversity? How can GM best be used to further reduce insecticide and fungicide applications in the field, by making crops resistant? How can public sector agricultural innovation be rolled out to best support poor farmers in Africa and Asia? None of these questions have easy answers, and I don’t know any scientist in this area who claims that GM on its own is the great solution. But if we stop biotechnology because of what is little more than superstition, we will doubtless make the sustainability and food security situation worse.

I would finally highlight the Golden Rice issue. This could already be saving lives in the field in South and East Asia, as is already the case with the (non-GM) orange-fleshed sweet potato in east Africa. Up to 500,000 children go blind every year from Vitamin A deficiency, and a third of them die soon after. Given there are no safety issues, why are the anti-GM campaigners holding this up? I think it is no better than the campaigns against polio vaccination, which led to a resurgence in Nigeria and other countries when rumours spread about them causing infertility. We have a huge amount of work to do to reverse the damage of the 20-year misinformation campaign spread by people who thought they were helping the environment, and we need to get moving. 

UPDATE:  The UK Soil Association has strenuously objected to how Mark Lynas characterized its relationship with GM Watch. Peter Melchett, the policy director for the Soil Association has written in an email to Discover:

The article, referring to a Mr. Lynas, alleged: “I have been attacked particular by GM Watch, which is run by someone called Jonathan Matthews, an administrator in a language school in Norwich, UK. I found out today that they are funded by the Soil Association the main organic lobby group representing a $2.5 billion-a-year UK industry (http://www.farming.co.uk/news/article/6191 ). So basically the organic lobby subcontracts them to do the dirtiest kind of attack jobs, such as smearing me for non-existent industry links”.

 Mr. Lynas knew this to be completely untrue, because before you published this article, he had been told by a colleague of mine that the Soil Association subscribes to GM Watch, for access to their email lists and for use of their database, and that our last subscription was £200 paid in 2011.  The clear implication of your article is that the Soil Association ‘funds’ GM Watch, which was known to be untrue, and that the express purpose of this funding was to “do the dirtiest kind of attack jobs, such as smearing” Mr. Lynas.  These are self-evidently untrue and damaging allegations, for which there is not a shred of evidence, and I therefore ask, without prejudice, that you, on behalf of Kalmbach Publishing Co and Keith Kloor, immediately and publicly withdraw these allegations and publicly apologise for them.

Mark Lynas responds: Since my Oxford Farming Conference speech began attracting attention GM Watch has attacked me on several occasions, using the special brand of innuendo, half-truth and outright slander (such as the oft-repeated and fictitious association of myself with EuropaBio) which is their trademark. I was appalled that the Soil Association would have any links with such a disreputable outfit, and when the SA’s staff member Tom Macmillan told me in an email that “we support and subscribe to GM Watch” (at 10.37am on 31 January) I immediately sought further clarification, asking “exactly how much support GM Watch has received from the Soil Association?” Macmillan did not reply. At that stage I made the statements in a Q&A with Keith Kloor. These were a reasonable supposition given the information I had just received. 

 In a Twitter exchange later that day, the Soil Association repeated that they “do support and subscribe to GM Watch”, and once again I responded asking to “confirm financial amounts paid to GM Watch and when” (at 12.12pm on 31 January). The Soil Association later responded that “we paid £200 in 2011″ (at 3.52pm on 31 January). Now that we have this information, I agree that it is not reasonable to assert that the Soil Association is in any way responsible for GM Watch’s slanderous attacks on me through this small amount of funding, and I withdraw that allegation. I certainly apologise to the Soil Association for making a statement without sufficient evidence in the heat of the moment. GM Watch’s slander is its own responsibility, and it should have to answer for it, not the Soil Association.

[The cover of Mark Lynas's 2011 book.]
  • Joshua

    Interesting, Keith, as to the additional crossing out. I would comment more, but don’t want to be “obsessive” nor accused of “trolling.” (And yes, I am guilty: I broke my promise. Maybe I am an obsessive troll after all!)

  • http://twitter.com/Angelmountain5 Brian John

    On the matter of Golden Rice, Lynas says: “Given there are no safety issues, why are the anti-GM campaigners holding this up?” This is a lie. There are major safety issues over Golden Rice, as Lynas must know if he has done all the scientific reading which he claims has helped him to change his mind about GM. Ever since Golden Rice was developed, scientists have been asking for the safety of Golden Rice to be demonstrated through properly controlled toxicology studies using animals. No such studies have ever been conducted (so far as we know) or reported. If the safety research has been done by Syngenta or the Golden Rice Project, why do we not know about it? This is a GM crop and it has never been properly characterised in the literature, let alone tested. It has never been submitted for regulatory approval. Why? I’m sorry, but the scientific community I belong to considers that if this product has never been shown to be safe, we had better assume it is dangerous. Will Lynas now retract that statement?

  • petesh

    The corrections in this piece have established that Lynas exaggerates, at a minimum. His reference to “someone called Jonathan Matthews” is also remarkable. Matthews founded GMWatch in 1998, and its email list has been an invaluable resource for over a decade, not to mention the subject of attacks from pro-GM publicists. Either Lynas is ignorant or disingenuous, but neither reflects well on him.

  • kkloor
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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, a senior editor at Cosmos magazine, and adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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