Why I will never be an ‘ambassador’ for the corporate biotech lobby

I was very surprised to be phoned up yesterday by a reporter for The Guardian, who asked for a comment on my decision to become a behind-the-scenes pro-GM ‘ambassador’ for EuropaBio, the European biotechnology business association. She sent through some leaked documents prepared for EuropaBio by a PR agency called Aspect Consulting, based in Brussels. These documents did indeed seem to be genuine – and my name was indeed on the list of “high profile individuals” who were supposedly interested in becoming ‘ambassadors’.

The Guardian duly ran a story on leak, including a comment from myself denying any involvement. I have since spoken to EuropaBio’s Director for Agricultural Biotechnology, Carel du Marchie Sarvaas, to seek some clarification of why my name came to be mentioned in association with this story. For background, here is what the letter from the PR agency said in the crucial sentence:

For your information, to date we have interest from Sir Bob Geldof, Lord Chris Patten, David Byrne, and former French Minister Claude Allegre and potentially the involvement of Mr Kofi Annan and Mark Lynas.

Mr du Marchie Sarvaas was extremely apologetic, and confirmed that my name should not have been on this list – no-one from EuropaBio, the PR agency or anyone else had approached me with the request to become an ‘ambassador’ for EuropaBio. This was simply an error: someone, somewhere had made a mistake, and my name should not have been linked with this industry initiative.

Update: EuropaBio has put a note on its website confirming that I was never approached by them.

This is all rather unfortunate, because mud tends to stick, and the best weapon the anti-GMO lobby has to beat me with for taking a different line on this is to put about the story that I am in the pocket of the big, bad biotech companies. I cannot blame the anti-GM campaigners, however, or the Guardian, for this: the fault entirely belongs with EuropaBio and its PR agency, who got themselves into a situation where the strongest and most persistent argument against GM – that it is simply a technology to increase to profits of big seed/agro companies like Monsanto – became centre stage once again.

I am happy that EuropaBio has apologised, but some damage will have been done. For me the great potential for GM technology lies mainly in public sector developments, to increase yields in developing countries via drought tolerance and pest resistant staple crops; to improve environmental outcomes with better nitrogen-use efficiency; more nutritional varieties of subsistence crops, and so on. I know increasing numbers of people – including in the environmental movement – now realise that GM is just a technology like any other, and that to reject it for superstitious or ideological reasons is potentially damaging both to the environment and to the interests of poorer people.

For the record, let me say loud and clear: I do not, and will never, work behind the scenes for any industry or interest group whose issues I comment on. And for the record, my only current income comes from books sales, the Maldives government (for my half-time role as advisor to the President, totalling about $1,500 a month) and the occasional paid lecture. That I would never work for industry should be obvious anyway, as such a thing would inevitably become public, and my credibility to speak as an independent commentator would in the eyes of everyone disappear.

I hope the biotech industry learns a lesson from this – that anything they do which could be seen as being an attempt to manipulate public or media opinion will inevitably come back to haunt them. It would be far better if they want to convince us all of the justice of their cause for them to speak through their actions, and via scientifically-published information rather than any PR campaigns.

17 comments

  1. Rob yorke says:

    Well said Mark. Re my recent Times letter, corporate patents are starting to expire. National conversation required to get public funds behind biotech trials.

  2. Tom says:

    Robust response Mark, and I agree about the public trials being essential. But I disagree that we can’t blame the Guardian for this. John Vidal’s journalism is often lazy these days and this was a complete non-story. Here is a PR company name-dropping in order to make themselves look good to their client. What do the Guardian think PR companies do? JV could have written about any sector of industry in this regard, so why did he choose GM? Because he wants to discredit the technology by association. Shame on that, and shame on the Guardian for running such a weak a page lead, and for printing pictures of three people who are not implicated!

  3. Mary says:

    Yeah, I saw this transpiring and I felt bad for the impacted people who had nothing to do with it. But I agree, it’s another mud-flinging that will do some damage nonetheless.

    And yet the fact that anti-science anti-vaxxers lead US organizations is somehow fine on this topic. Go figure.

  4. JanP says:

    > “-the best weapon the anti-GMO lobby has to beat me with for taking a different line on this is to put about the story that I am in the pocket of the big, bad biotech companies.”

    Think the better weapon is that it appears you do not understand the subject and that you are wrong on facts.

    You do not understand the environmental damage caused by GMOs.

    You do not understand the social problems created as two or three corporations controlling the worlds food chain.

    You do not understand that GMOs have failed to deliver the claim of GMO companies.

    You also loose credibility with attempts of ridicule against anti-GMO people: “big, bad biotech companies.” Monsanto has bribed officials, lied in adverts, prosecuted for dumping toxic chemicals. The list is very big. This is not an ethical company — but you wish them to control our food.

    Then you do not need understand that organic is proven to work with no harm to environment and no need fossil fuel chemicals and poison.

    I think this is no surprise that GMO propaganda lobby would like employ you.

    • patsi says:

      can’t help but agree with Jan.

      why are you so surprised at Industry thinking you’re a friend? You take their line all the time, just as the pro-nukes lobby is quoting you all over Europe, while people at Chernobyl continue to die.

    • julien says:

      First of all, I want to apologize for my french as you say in english. I am french student and I could make a couple of mistakes …
      Just want to tell that GMO are not as bad as you told before. Like science, the problem is not the GMO ( except if your tomatoe is a genius of crime ) but how humans deal with it. I agree that there is a bad repartition of the GMO selling and distributing, but once more we can not blame GMO for that but industries and of course humans. If we blame GMO, you can also blame skyrocket, which has been created fist for military use and not exploring space… more simple your computer which help you to write this comment.
      I can not say I totally agree with Mr Lynas, because there is in fact problems for differents reasons with GMO. But instead of talking about GMO, we better discuss about humans. Our species is the common point , the crossroads between all the problems that we can meet in all scientific uncover.
      GMO is not exclusively use for food producing as I hope you know, it is used in other domain, like medicine… so why would we not forbid blood transfusion because it has cause AIDS ? We can not tell that GMO have been totally mastered but there’s a lot of progress to do in that way and I don’t think that to give up GMO is a true solution.
      I think you know every thing I just told because you wouldn’t speak if it wasn’t the case, but instead of being “reac” as we say in french, it will be better for you to be more subtle. I will be very happy to not buy GMO, but my greengrocer don’t want to sell me a tomatoe for a correct price because there was too much rain last year for example… and if it wasn’t the exceed of rain, il would have been the leak of it which would had cause the rise of the prices. Don’t forget that GMO is not so old and perhaps we need of a bit more experience to correctly deal with it.
      Maybe one day, tomatoes will eat us with sauce and salt, but until then I don’t think it’s a real danger , there is so much trouble more dangerous for our planet to deal with before like nuclear plant, water contamination, greenhouse effect, etc… and the more funny in all of this is that the origin of all this problem is once more the same …. humans.
      Without damage, a risk is not a risk and without risk, science is not… we will talk about it in fifty years when GMO ( and their consequences) will be ( or not ) mastered.
      Sorry if I made a lot of mistake.
      PS : please don’t talk about the water as a combustible instead of fuel because H2O is a greenhouse effect gaz as the so “bad” CO2… hope you don’t drive cars because you will be a destroyer too…

  5. crf says:

    As a public service, you ought to consider suing EuropaBio.

    Or this PR company, if not another, not having an incentive to change their practices, will again make a similar slanderous mistake.

  6. Theo says:

    Well to all intents and purposes you have become an ambassador Mark, albeit an unpaid one. I don’t see why you should be embarassed that Europabio mention your “potential” involvement. Do you remember how, when we were campaigning together against Monsantos GM crops their PR firm Burson Marsteller talked about the need to target leading thinkers and get them on side as exponents of GM rather than try and tackle opponents head on with their own corporate PR. Seems that you are now one of the outcomes of that strategy, although you would like the work of promoting and developing GM to be publicly funded. Actually, I guess the whole industry would be happy to see the rest of us subsidising them in this way.

    • Mark Lynas says:

      Well Theo, I won’t try to persuade you, because you told me not so long ago that you were unpersuadeable… so any amount of evidence I might amass on this won’t do me any good I suspect. I’ll have to take on the chin what you say about being an ambassador, though I doubt I’d have got a more sympathetic hearing if I was taking the shilling…

      Stay well,

      Mark

    • Scott says:

      Which is worse? Destruction of the environment because you are being paid and are raising a family or whatever and need the money just to survive? Or advocating destruction of the environment for free? I would have more respect for you if you at least took the money.

      And don’t even try to pretend your work as an advocate for the environment somehow removes your guilt or washes the blood off your hands. It is a drop in the bucket. (or out of the bucket) lol.

      Your own guest expert told the truth, at least part of the truth.

      “The problems of agriculture are many: from an ecological perspective, there just isn’t anything as destructive as agriculture. But none of them have to do with the techniques used to modify the plants.”- Dr. Nina Fedoroff

      Now Nina also called organic a hoax. Understandable since it isn’t her field and she doesn’t know anything about organic. But she is right about GM as a technology. It has nothing to do with it directly. It is only that evil people have gotten a hold of that technology and now for all intents and purposes control it.

      Bring a soil scientist as a guest speaker and ask them if organic methods show improved soil or if they are a hoax. ;) He may or may not be an expert on GM crops, but he surely can tell you about the web of life in the soil of an organic field compared to a GM corn or bean field that has been sterilized with Glyphosate and systemic pesticides etc. See for yourself.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BpjNoSGYSPc

      So change your stance on GM crops. That’s fine. That technology theoretically could be put to good use. Even take money from the lobby if you need it. But please reconsider your stance on organic. Don’t loose your purpose in life of being an advocate for the ecology. The very idea of a so called environmental activist being in favor of the practice your own guest expert agrees is the single thing most destructive to the environment on the face of the earth, is naturally going to make people question you, even former friends and allies.

      There shouldn’t be much of a problem with that. Pretty much any sane person can be against nuclear weapons. That doesn’t mean that everyone necessarily should be against nuclear power. (done safely) It is a different debate where sane and ethical men can also have different opinions.

      The same stance can be made on GM crops (done safely). If the GM is used in the most destructive to the environmental system ever devised. Then sure protest it. But if the GM is used to heal the land and ecology then let it be used. Again, sane and ethical men can debate that. They can’t ethically debate the slow and steady sterilization of the planets ecosystems, which is exactly what GM’s are being used for now.

      Any technology can be used for good or for evil. Right now GM’s are being used for evil and the further destruction of our planet just as surely as any nuclear bomb and they need to be stopped. If at some theoretical future date they can be used safely for good, so be it. We can deal with that theoretical future when it arrives.

      I really believe you completely missed the ball on this one Mark.

      Remember, organic can completely sequester ALL the carbon ever released by industry in 10 years or less. Organic can significantly clean up the waterways. Organic can completely restore the biodiversity in the soil in only 3-5 years. And most importantly Organic can produce MORE food per acre for a hungry world. What that means right now is that much of the rain forests can be replanted.

      Why would you even consider standing in the way of that?

  7. Shelly says:

    It is always easy to cave in to power than to stand up for a belief.

    It is funny how making a plant itself a herbicide/pesticide better than spaying them. At least you can wash it off in the later case. With GMO, every cell of the food you eat contains herbicide, also antibiotics that come with the GMO process.

    The GMO industry is based on profit, market share, and control. It fails in delivering any meaningful result it promised.

    Technology itself has no wrong, it’s the people using it.

  8. Scott says:

    It may have been a mistake to include you on the list. But there is no doubt the list exists. And that is exactly what people have been saying all along.

    It is actually kind of ironic that without even being on the list, you have in fact picked up much of their talking points anyway, including some that are completely false/deceptive.

    The most obvious deception being that GMO’s have increased food production. As of yet no GMO has increased average production of any commercial crop. Sure they project it. It is possible in some future scenario. But as of yet it simply doesn’t exist.

    On the other hand organic production per acre is on the increase and the most modern organic methods are already far in excess of conventional Ag, with no sign of slowing down as of yet.

    Makes you wonder what the real agenda is….selling patentable GMOs? or actually increasing food production.

    • Scott says:

      Peter,
      I am just as passionate about promoting organic. I won’t criticize someone for passion. I will criticize Monsanto for being an unethical company though.

      Just remember, Technology in general and GE technology in particular is neutral. It is neither good nor evil. The use of technology by people is what decides if GE will be put to good use or evil use.

      Banning GMOs from Organic simply means GE will less likely be put to good use. It has the opposite effect as the anti-GMO crowd want.

  9. Elizabeth says:

    Maybe your name shouldn’t have been on the list – but it does seem as if you are doing industrry’s PR for them.

    Saying that no-one has been made ill by GM is false logic, and an idea based on the idea that people would fall ill as soon as they put a GM food in their mouths. GM food has only been in the food chain for 10-15 years, and even now is only 15% of the US diet.
    The problems that independent scientists have observed in test animals are slow to develop, and might not develop into illnesses for 40 years or more. And GM food is not labelled, so if widely eaten foods cause increases in already existing conditions, how will anyone make the link? All doctors would be able to say is that “there’s a lot of it about”.

    This is similar to declaring that tobacco was definitely not carcinogenic, because no-one had developed cancer from it, after only 10-15 years of use, when it can take 40 years or more to develop lung cancer, if tobacco had been newly introduced now, .

    The policy for GMOs appears to be “don’t look, don’t find” in terms of research into long term safety. We were assured for years that tobacco was safe. And it eventually turned out that the manufacturers had been suppressing information, failing to do the research needed, or gearing research to not find problems, to hide the harm done.

    Even the GM industry’s own research has found increased levels of toxicity and other differences in the organs of test animals, who have been fed GM crops,but have announced that these would not lead to long term harm.
    How can they possibly know that without further testing? These are assumptions, not good science. The scientific response would be to repeat the research, and to do it for longer – and to have it done by scientists free of vested interests. And also to do this testing before subjecting the population to potential slow poisoning. These crops could well ultimately do more harm than good.

  10. One may not be employed by the big companies but if your comments support their interests, then you become an automatic ally and they would like to have you close to them. Even if just associating with you if doing os will add value to their hunger for profits. It has been said many times and in different fora that the world does not need GMOs to feed its population. GMOs will make the situation worse. What the world needs are food production systems based on better ecosystems. GMOs destry the ecosystems.

    • Mark Lynas says:

      There is nothing on your website about your funding sources. Please be more transparent. This should be standard practice for all NGOs conducting political advocacy work.

  11. Lana says:

    Hi Mark, I totally agree with your stance on GMOs. I have recently been working in a climate vulnerable developing country (no names here) conducting a workshop on adaptation to climate change for an international organisation. I do not wish to give details due to the risk of attacks from certain idiotic green groups. The government of that country is publicly-funding research using biotechnology which has produced climate tolerant varieties of crops, tolerant to climate extremes (drought, flood and salinity) as well as nutrient-enhanced varieties. The scientists I have talked to said this has reduced the time for developing resilient crops from 15+ years to under 7 years, thus saving money and time. There are no other side-effects; the advanced technology is simply being using to develop these adaptive strains faster than with traditional crop breeding. These crops are already saving lives through improved nutrition and crop yields for millions of the poorest smallholders. The research is publicly funded and seeds are publicly distributed so no corporations actually profit. The seeds are being shared through south-south cooperation. However we are not hearing these fantastic success stories – because the government is afraid of a negative media backlash from ill-informed green groups. One scientist told me they felt the research is being delayed by excessive bureaucracy. They are not able to use international finance for it, either, because of negative media perceptions in donor countries. Thank you for speaking out.

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