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Mark Lynas and the GMO Debate

Lynas had been a leading voice against using genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in farming. When he found that a careful reading of the scientific evidence revealed that his previous opposition was untenable, Lynas said he was, in a word, sorry.
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Until a few days ago, the name Mark Lynas was little known outside the environmental community. An effective campaigner, Lynas has also written several well-received books, including Six Degrees and The God Species. He also has a knack for the dramatic, such as throwing a pie in the face of Danish political scientist and environmental skeptic Bjorn Lomborg.

Through all this, Lynas had achieved some success but was far from a household name. That may be about to change.

Last Thursday, Lynas gave a speech at a conference on farming at Oxford University. The response was immediate and overwhelming. Bloggers blogged, tweeters tweeted and Lynas's own website crashed under the onslaught.

Had Lynas revealed some dramatic discovery, or unveiled a path-breaking new campaign? No, he simply stated, in measured and scientific terms, that he had changed his mind.

Lynas had been a leading voice against using genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in farming. He was also sounding the alarm over climate change, and had immersed himself in climate science. When he belatedly did the same with GMOs, he found that a careful reading of the scientific evidence revealed that his previous opposition was untenable. At Oxford Lynas said he was, in a word, sorry.

It is a measure of the sorry state of many environmental debates that such a calm statement before a polite audience of academics would cause such a ruckus. This is not the place to debate the merits of Lynas's new position on GMOs, though I largely but not entirely agree with it. Lynas says at the end of his speech that "the GM debate is over." That may overstate the case; the real importance of Lynas's speech is that it in fact allows the debate to begin.

As Lynas argues quite convincingly, until now the arguments over GM foods were based not in science but in ideology, or worse, aesthetics. He is in a position to know, since he was one of the people making the ideological arguments and converting them into civil disobedience by tearing up experimental GMO crops.

Strip away the dogma, and we must confront the evidence. Are GMO crops harmful to human health? Can they increase yields and thus reduce pressure to clear more land for farming? Do the economics of developing new crops make sense, and can we develop sound regulations for their use? These are the questions we must address, often crop by crop, place by place. Lynas points to numerous examples, like golden rice, Bt brinjal (eggplant), or blight-resistant potato. This is where the debate must go; sweeping generalities will not help us.

Since I have become CEO of The Nature Conservancy I have learned that it is our passion and the passion of our supporters that make us effective. But sometimes that passion can be our undoing. So many of us, and others who are not associated with The Nature Conservancy or conservation want the same thing -- we want healthy lands, water and air, and we want wild places in which we can find inspiration. But we come to this vision of what we want with different values and beliefs. GMOs are one of those issues that expose the differences in our beliefs. Some of us are inherently optimistic about technology, and others distrust technology. GMOs embody that debate.

Let's not allow our beliefs and values to divide us. Lynas's talk and website were swamped with some embarrassingly vitriolic and harsh criticism -- because he opened a debate. That should never be the case. We are all stronger if we embrace science even when it surprises us by overturning some of our beliefs, and we are all stronger if we respect one another's views.

The tone of Lynas's speech is as important as its content. He is not picking fights or making attacks; instead, he lays out his thinking and the evidence on which it is based. This is a key lesson for the environmental community. Of course we want passionate debate and discussion about different strategies; this can only move us forward. We do not seek nor could ever achieve lock-step agreement, but when the debate loses all connection to science, the environmental movement suffers badly in the long run.

My forthcoming book Nature's Fortune lays out the case for investing in nature for the practical results that can be achieved. Like Lynas, I don't argue that ours is the only strategy or best strategy. As environmentalists we should be humble about our strategies; the point is to make credible progress toward a diverse and sustainable planet, not score ideological points. So we should welcome constructive criticism and new ideas, and commit to finding objective measures of our progress.

I recommend that we heed the advice of Yale's William Nordhaus -- one of academia's most pre-eminent thought leaders on environmental challenges: "We need to approach the issues with a cool head and a warm heart. And with respect for sound logic and good science."