Mark Lynas speech hosted by the International Programs – College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (50th Anniversary Celebration) , and the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, Cornell University
29 April 2013, 2.15pm ET
I think the controversy over GMOs represents one of the greatest science communications failures of the past half-century. Millions, possibly billions, of people have come to believe what is essentially a conspiracy theory, generating fear and misunderstanding about a whole class of technologies on an unprecedentedly global scale.
This matters enormously because these technologies – in particular the various uses of molecular biology to enhance plant breeding potential – are clearly some of our most important tools for addressing food security and future environmental change.
I am a historian, and history surely offers us, from witch trials to eugenics, numerous examples of how when public misunderstanding and superstition becomes widespread on an issue, irrational policymaking is the inevitable consequence, and great damage is done to peoples’ lives as a result.
This is what has happened with the GMOs food scare in Europe, Africa and many other parts of the world. Allowing anti-GMO activists to dictate policymaking on biotechnology is like putting homeopaths in charge of the health service, or asking anti-vaccine campaigners to take the lead in eradicating polio.
I believe the time has now come for everyone with a commitment to the primacy of the scientific method and evidence-based policy-making to decisively reject the anti-GMO conspiracy theory and to work together to begin to undo the damage that it has caused over the last decade and a half.
Despite the rapid progress made towards reducing poverty in many developing countries in recent years, high rates of malnutrition persist – and Vitamin A deficiency remains a persistent challenge. One cause for optimism is that new approaches to ‘biofortification’ are beginning to offer hope of improved strategies with the potential to save tens to hundreds of thousands of lives per year.
To recap, the problem, as described by the World Health Organisation:
“Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is the leading cause of preventable blindness in children and increases the risk of disease and death from severe infections. In pregnant women VAD causes night blindness and may increase the risk of maternal mortality.
An estimated 250 million preschool children are vitamin A deficient and it is likely that in vitamin A deficient areas a substantial proportion of pregnant women [are] vitamin A deficient. An estimated 250,000 to 500,000 vitamin A-deficient children become blind every year, half of them dying within 12 months of losing their sight.”
These numbers are striking, and show beyond doubt that tackling this problem urgently is surely one of our greatest moral challenges. With a quarter to half a million children going blind each year from vitamin A deficiency, and half of them dying within 12 months, this implies an annnual death toll of 125,000 to 250,000 children – a staggering mortality rate for this little-known affliction.
So what strategies might work?
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Dr. Nina Fedoroff is a leading geneticist and molecular biologist and a Distinguished Professor of Biosciences at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia, where she is establishing a new Centre for Desert Agriculture. She is also an Evan Pugh Professor at Penn State University. She has contributed to the development of modern techniques used to study and genetically modify plants. From August 2007 to July 2010, she served as the Science and Technology Adviser to the US Secretary of State and to the Administrator of the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Dr. Fedoroff is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the European Academy of Sciences, and is also a 2006 National Medal of Science laureate, the highest scientific honour that can be bestowed by the United States government. She was AAAS President in 2012 and is currently Chair of the AAAS Board of Directors.
Questions (by Mark Lynas):
1. You have read my speech to the Oxford Farming Conference. While it has attracted a lot of worldwide attention and support, it has also been attacked by some who make great play of their scientific credentials but who do not seem to actually be active in the plant science/molecular biology field. Since you are highly distinguished in this area, and indeed one of the pioneers of the field of transgenics, is there anything you think I got wrong which should be highlighted?
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Germany’s ‘Energiewende’ – or ‘energy transition’ – has been getting steadily more controversial. Hyperbole has been flying from all sides: enthusiastic greens have been celebrating Germany’s supposed success in generating half its electricity from solar power (not true) whilst nuclear advocates have been bemoaning the fact that the nuclear phase-out has led to soaring CO2 emissions (also not true).
The latest figures for electricity production have just been published by the Federal Association of Energy and Water Industries. Here they are, at a glance:
Here are the main takeaways for me.
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Response to UCS piece ‘Science, Dogma and Mark Lynas‘
This piece confirms my long-held opinion that the Union of Concerned Scientists is in dire need of a name change. I hold the UCS responsible for a significant proportion of modern-day global warming, thanks to its fiercely-held anti-nuclear ideology, which it has promoted via a dramatically unscientific campaign of fear for the last three decades, and which helped turn the US and other countries back towards coal dependency from the 1970s onwards.
Any scientists working for the UCS leave their credentials at the door. It is one of the most ideological of all the green groups, and the fact that the author of this piece takes issue with none other than the AAAS over the safety and efficacy of GMOs shows that it has no respect for scientific consensus in areas where real scientists conflict with its biases. The rest of the piece consists of personal attacks on me and a highly-skewed and selective scattering of references of the sort that any ‘climate denier’ would be proud of.
The fact that UCS moans about Andy Revkin and the media in general shows that they know they are losing the argument in wider society. They have given up arguing that GMOs are dangerous and scary, and instead nit-pick a couple of minor issues with my speech. They also insist that GM is unnecessary because conventional breeding is perfectly adequate, which betrays a complete disconnection with the scientific field of plant breeding and is a bit like saying that we don’t need forks because spoons are good enough for the job.
As I have said elsewhere, I feel strongly that NGOs like UCS taking anti-scientific positions on issues like nuclear and GMOs seriously undermines the credibility of their advocacy work on other environmental issues like climate change, where they do agree with the mainstream scientific position. They thereby undermine the wider effort against climate change in general, and probably serve to harm the environment overall. It is time for the UCS to confront the glaring inconsistency between supporting science in one area and opposing it in another.
I look forward to their opening up an honest and self-critical debate on this, rather than attacking others like myself who challenge green orthodoxy where it likely harms society and the environment.
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