Last week, environmentalist Mark Lynas presented an articulate and painfully honest apology for his significant role in starting the anti-GMO movement in the 1990s. He said that it was the most successful campaign in which he has ever been involved, but after finally looking into the science, he now deeply regrets what he and others accomplished. While it is gratifying to have a figure like Lynas make such a turn-about, it does nothing to mitigate the damage of which this anti-science movement has perpetrated on humanity and the environment. Ideally, such a dramatic reversal will induce others in the movement to rethink their positions. but this sort of openness to letting the science speak into bias is likely to be rare.
Lynas is right that anti-GMO campaigners have been extremely successful at blocking, delaying, or destroying potential crop improvements via biotechnology. Lynas had a lot of ground to cover in his speech, so he only gave four examples of the ways that his previous movement has achieved its ends:
- In Europe, politicians influenced by the anti-GMO movement ignored the input from their own scientists to adopt hyper-precautionary and obstructive regulatory barriers to the technology. They have thus limited the ability of their own farmers to satisfy more of the substantial demand that the region puts on global food supplies.
- The European stance has greatly influenced the policies of many developing nations in Africa and Asia. Such “rich world thinking” denies poor farmers the advances that could significantly improve their food security. See Robert Paarlberg’s excellent summary of this phenomenon in his book “Starved for Science.”
- Phobia-driven (or publicity-seeking) vandalism by anti-GMO extremists has delayed or halted several crop innovations by destroying experimental field plots (e.g. Greenpeace “actions” against biotech wheat, or the destruction of a French field trial of grape rootstocks).
- The anti-GMO movement has intensified the regulatory environment so that the cost of biotech crop development now requires the resources of a large company. This reduces the potential contributions from smaller start-ups, academics or government sponsored programs.
Beyond what Lynas described, there are other mechanisms by which the anti-GMO movement has frustrated biotech crop progress. The threat of controversy generated by anti-GMO campaigners leads to various forms of brand protectionism which can become a non-regulatory barrier to technology adoption:
- The threat of protests has been most effective when applied to companies with major consumer brands and enough market leverage to dictate what happens for a given crop. The classic case of this phenomenon was how MacDonalds, in three phone calls to major frozen French fry producers, put an end to biotech potatoes in the US and Canada. Potatoes are an extraordinarily difficult crop to improve through breeding because of their complex genetics and vegetative propagation. Biotechnology was a promising way to deliver traits for important pest issues as well as quality and health benefits, and the major potato buyers knew it. However; the risk from brand-damaging protests drove the decision.
- The specter of consumer backlash (fanned by anti-science propaganda) concerned major wheat importers/millers in Europe and Japan. Their response was to threaten to boycott all North American wheat if a single acre of commercial GMO wheat was planted. US and Canadian growers, faced with such a significant drop in export sales, reluctantly asked Syngenta and Monsanto to halt their biotech wheat programs. For the future the US, Canadian and Australian wheat industries have all decided to block any future blackmail threats by doing a simultaneous launch of biotech wheat when and if it becomes available. In the mean time there has been a multi-decade delay for positive technologies for one of the most important of global food crops.
- Anti-GMO campaigning has made the entire topic of “GMOs” sufficiently toxic that the growers/marketers of many crops wish simply to avoid any impact on their crop’s “brand” in the consumer market place. This is what we are seeing today in the US/Canadian apple industry where a small, grower-based company has developed an innovative, consumer oriented trait. The nervous industry has reacted quite negatively because of concerns about the apple “brand” even though those biotech apples would only reach the market advertised specifically as biotech-improved. This sort of thinking has also effectively blocked the use of biotechnology to solve problems in grapes as well as in most other fruit and vegetable crops.
There is a long and growing list of agricultural, environmental, and health improvement that “could have been” if the anti-GMO movement had not been so effective. Some of these are only “nice to haves” like a fine wine. Some of them are significant advances such as potatoes that ward off their major insect and virus pests. Some of them are things like wheat which is less likely to have mycotoxin contamination. Some of them are things that could enable poor farmers to produce more local food with less need for inputs or more resistance to environmental stresses.
What Mark Lynas realized is that it is just as detrimental to the future of humanity to ignore the scientific consensus on crop biotechnology as it is to ignore the scientific consensus on climate change. The fact that there are groups successfully blocking rational action on both these fronts presents a synergistically dire threat to efforts to feed humanity.
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GMO protest image from University of Washington