Mark Lynas Q&A

Posted on October 01, 2013

Back

1. Historically, over the past 40 years, when and why did the first anti-GM movement come about? Is it because of science's lack of ability to explain how the GM process/technology works? The anti-GM movement has evolved over time. Different players, different strategies. Although North American markets were largely accepting of new GM varieties (cotton, soybean, maize and canola) that were introduced in the mid-1990s, the EU proved to be a greater problem. From 1996 onward, the anti-GM movement took a firm hold on the EU. In the 1980s, the ?rst groups to get involved were the German Green Party, Greenpeace-Switzerland, the UK Green Alliance, the UK Genetics Forum, the International Coalition for Development Action (following that, the Genetic Resources Action International (GRAIN), and the Intermediate Technology Development Group in the United Kingdom. By the mid-1990s, new organizations including Friends of the Earth-Europe, Greenpeace International, the British Soil Association, and Confédération Paysannes in France, joined the movement. Greenpeace International devoted ?fteen campaigners and a “highly dynamic campaign coordinator”, German journalist and former German Green Party politician Benny Härlin, to its new GM food campaign in 1996. This coalition of NGOs began their campaign against the technology when the first efforts were made to import genetically modified grains into European ports. The Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) crisis of 1996 in the UK only served to fuel the fires of the anti-GM movement. The approval of GM maize and rapeseed varieties in the EU in 1998 set off a series of major events that essentially reframed the debate on agricultural biotechnology from “a matter of scientific advancement and economic growth to one of public accountability and unforeseen consequences”. In early 1998, Prince Charles in the Daily Telegraph publicly criticized genetic engineers, suggesting that they are venturing into ‘realms that belong to God and God alone’. His public statement formally set science in opposition to faith in the media. Soon after, Arpad Pusztai reported the results of his ‘sketchy’ research on GM potatoes during an interview on the BBC and by 1999 UK fast food chains and retailers had banned GM ingredients. While many scientists have concluded that Pusztai’s research methodology was critically flawed and that no conclusions about the safety of biotech foods could be drawn from his data, it continues to resonate in the public debate. In mid-1999, the general public and policy makers “reacted in a knee-jerk fashion” to the monarch butterfly controversy that ensued after a one-page scientific brief by Losey et al was published in Nature. As a capstone to these events, and to close the decade, a de facto moratorium was proclaimed in the EU on new GM crops. - answer by Cami Ryan, U of S

2. What if there was a disease to kill all meat animals and plants. What would happen to the human population? If the human population started dying, would there be a herbal cure? There are many herbs used for medicinal purposes by people around the world, but since herbs are plants, in this imaginary scenario there would be no herbs alive to cure anything! Let's hope that this never happens.

3. What are your thoughts on neonicotinoids, seeds with pesticides built into the plant? This chemical is then in the pollen and is destroying the bee population. It seems that the bottom line is: we don't know yet. The only consensus out there seems to be that there needs to be more research done. Most studies suggest there are a number of factors at work. The varroa mites are a problem, as well as loss of some types of wild vegetation that bees live on, lack of genetic diversity among the bees themselves, and of course pesticides. Neonics *may* be a contributing factor, but evidently there is no science to support that - as yet, anyway. - answer by Michael Robin, U of S

Here are a few links: USDA and EPA Release New Report on Honey Bee Health Colony Collapse Disorder: An Introduction Science Collapse Disorder -- The Real Story Behind Neonics And Mass Bee Deaths USDA and EPA Release New Report on Honey Bee Health

Here's a blog on neonicotinoids from a beekeeper/ biologist/blogger: http://scientificbeekeeping.com/neonicotinoids-trying-to-make-sense-of-the-science-part-2/

4. Does GMO affect bees, birds and wildlife? 6.What do you see as the cause of the increase in cancer/disease in our world? Are there really MORE incidences of cancer and disease in the world or have we just gotten better at diagnosing them and reporting on them? Are there other factors at work here? Dr. Joe Schwarcz of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society states that as far as epidemiology is concerned, rates of cancer are stable, overall, with some types of cancer slightly increasing and others decreasing. According to Schwarcz, some childhood cancers are up but nobody knows why. Cancer is a family of diseases. There is no “cure all” for cancer, despite what some websites, books or snake oil salesmen might try to tell you. Causes of cancer are diverse, complex and, for the most part, misunderstood; speculating as to ‘cause and effect’ of cancer is limited at best. When we ask the question about perceived higher incidences of cancer, we need to consider the question and the results in a broader context. We live 30 years longer, on average, than we did even a hundred years ago. When people live longer, they are more apt to die of diseases like cancer or diabetes. Cancer Research UK states that more than three quarters (77%) of cancer deaths occur in those aged 65 and over and more than half occur in those aged 75 and over. Fifty years ago, people were dying of afflictions like polio, small pox, measles, mumps, rubella, etc. very early in life. Over the past several decades scientists have developed vaccinations for many of these diseases and, in some cases, many have almost been completely eradicated. People also died from malnutrition or starvation. For example, think about the potato famine where almost 1 million people in Ireland died in the mid 19th century. It is important to note, as well, that we live in an age where the Internet and social media platforms allow us immediate access to information (and (mis)information). So, it might *seem* that cancer rates are rising but maybe we just have access to more information and more narratives around cancer. Anecdotes are not data; not all of that information is factually accurate. What is clear is that our scientists need to do more work on cancer research and we need to think more critically about what we see and what we read. - answer by Cami Ryan, U of S

5. What is being done in biotechnology to produce more efficient animals and disease resistant animals? From an input to output viewpoint. Animal protein production is very expensive in modern agriculture. When one considers water consumption, feed consumption, housing, heating, and other inputs we may put more energy into animal protein production than we get out. Nevertheless, consumers demand for high quality animal protein continues to rise as the middle class population grows. This puts increasing pressure on producers to meet market needs with finite supplies of land, feed, and water. Biotechnology, modern management and a focus on animal husbandry can help meet the challenge. Speaking specifically to biotechnology, there has been a growing body of Research and development on feed conversion, selecting animals that grow to market weight faster and with less feed intake. There are also research programs that are trying to identify livestock that are either resistant to infectious disease, or who respond favourably to vaccination. - answer by Reno Pontarollo, Genome Prairie Related article

6. Productivity improvement is important to all industries. Are you suggesting agriculture / GMO industry be treated differently with respect to regulatory oversight, research funding, etc. relative to other industries? All agricultural products (GMO or otherwise) must meet defined regulatory standards. However, there are additional costs associated with the development of GMO crop varieties as the prototype material needs to be intensely tested and evaluated under contained and then confined conditions. These field sites cannot subsequently be used for commercial production for three years. The costs associated with regulations have thus made it prohibitively expensive for public organizations (e.g. universities) or small companies to develop commercial lines of GMO crops. - answer by Wilf Keller, Ag-West Bio 

7. Science and technology has allowed us to increase our global population. People are living longer and we have advanced and evolved as a society. How is it that we are expected to use the same farming system of 14,000 years ago? I have never understood this pull to the so-called nostalgic past that some people view as “simple” and “idyllic.” Maybe it is because I spent so much of my time growing up on or near the family farm and living in farming communities. My grandmother immigrated to Canada and settled on a farm in Western Canada in 1928 right before the Great Depression hit. As a child, I listened to her stories about the Dirty Thirties: mass crop devastation, starving families, and food supplies that were all but choked off. If things weren’t rough enough already, along came World War II. Those were difficult times. I guarantee you that if my Grandma was alive today, she would amazed (in a good way) at how much modern agriculture has progressed over the past few decades. Not only from a productivity standpoint and in how quality of life has changed on the farm, but also how plentiful and diverse our food supply is. I think that Mark Lynas said it best (and I paraphrase): “Where do we draw the line? If the pull to the past is so important – a return to what may be deemed as ‘simpler’ or more ‘grassroots’ approaches to farming – then why aren’t organic farmers using horses instead of modern mechanized equipment in their daily practice?” Speaking of which, I always like to refer to our traditional Amish friends who are determined to preserve their way of life. These are folks that have completely rejected any form of mechanization. The Amish communities have no phones, they don’t use any machine powered equipment nor do they have televisions. But they have wholly adopted genetically engineered technology and crops as part of their farming practices. Check out this BBC video (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/7742471.stm) where pig farmer Jimmy Doherty talks to a Pennsylvania Amish farmer – Gideon – about why he uses GM crops. “We have to keep farming in a way that is both profitable and practical… We are not opposed to GMOs. It’s just a tool that we use in the same way as we use pest control.” – Gideon, Amish farmer. - answer by Cami Ryan, U of S

8. If GMOs are so safe, then why are companies spending so much on preventing labeling? It is wrong to assume that companies that back the “say no to labeling of GMOs” lobby because they are ‘hiding’ something, or that there is something inherently unsafe about GMOs. The whole notion of GMO labeling is often oversimplified. It’s not as straightforward as slapping a label on a can and calling it a day as some might lead you to believe. Many labeling advocates assume that there are only two (sets of) actors involved, ‘Big Ag’ and ‘Big Retail.’ But that’s not the case. The agricultural and food production value chain is long and complex and includes many private and public sector actors: research labs, seed companies, farmers, elevator/managers, grain handlers, transport companies, importers and exporters, processors, wholesalers, retailers and restaurants. If mandatory labeling of GMOs is enacted, costs (identity preservation, administrative and other) would be incurred all along the value chain.Make no mistake – those costs will be passed along to the consumer. Food prices will rise. In addition to increased food costs, labeling of GMOs would have other effects. According to the results of a recent study conducted by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Juanjuan Zhang, consumers assume that the government knows more than they do about the safety of the food supply. “[Thus] if the government requires labels on food, consumers will suspect something is wrong with it,” Zhang states. A GMO label runs the real risk of looking like a warning label. That would be misleading to consumers. Thousands of scientific studies of the safety of “GM” foods have been conducted worldwide. More than 600 peer-reviewed studies have been gathered, attesting to the safety of GMOs, and many of those studies have been carried out by independent academics and publicly funded research institutes. Mandatory labels are reserved for products that carry a documented health risk, such as allergens, or in cases where products represent a substantive change in nutritional composition. This is, in fact, what existing FDA labeling policy requires. Scientific evidence affirms that GMO foods are indistinguishable from foods produced through traditional methods. Labeling them would be misleading for consumers and labels, by law, cannot be misleading. If people really want to avoid eating GMOs, they can. They have the option of eating foods labeled ‘organic.’ This alone pretty much makes GMO labels redundant. In saying “no to labels,” companies are protecting consumers from misleading information, and protecting the industry from having to incur unnecessary costs which would eventually be passed along to the consumer. It’s important to note that these things are never one-sided, so let’s flip this whole discussion on its genetically modified head. What about the other side of the GMO labeling debate? It is heavily funded and supported by folks and organizations that have a ‘dog in the fight.’ Joseph Mercola was the main financial contributor to the Prop 37 campaign in California last fall. Here’s what he has to say: “Personally, I believe GM foods must be banned entirely, but labeling is the most efficient way to achieve this.” – J. Mercola And from Ronnie Cummins, Director of the Organic Consumers Association: “How – and how quickly – can we move healthy, organic products from a 4.2% market niche, to the dominant force in American food and farming? The first step is to change our labeling laws.” https://www.commondreams.org/view/2012/08/02-0 So, is the labeling initiative really about providing information for the consumer or is it a first step in the lobby to outright ban GMO foods? (- answer by Cami Ryan, U of S. Much of the content of this response comes from Cami’s guest blog post “What’s in a GMO Label” on the Independent Women’s Forum site.)

9. Given that “never before have so many people known so little about so much” how are such a wide variety of cultures to come to an agreement on the safety and utility of agbiotech? Remember food and food production are highly personal and steeped in respect for tradition. Agreement amongst different jurisdictions should be based on scientific evidence and information regarding the development and safety of any new products. Developing agreements (e.g. cultivation of GMOs) will also require time and patience in consensus building. This will also require engagement of respected neutral organizations such as the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. An example of a cross cultural agreement is WEMA (Water Efficient Maize for Africa) which includes both developed and developing nations and public and private sector organizations. - answer by Wilf Keller, Ag-West Bio

10. Realistically speaking, how much land is required for organic farming to feed seven billion people? Crops produced organically generally yield 20 per cent less than conventional crops. Therefore, at least 20 per cent more arable land would be required to feed 7 billion people. - answer by Wilf Keller, Ag-West Bio

11. Do you see an increasing trend in farmers in North America losing agronomic and plant husbandry knowledge and ability in the last 30-40 years? We do not see an increasing trend among farmers in losing agronomic and plant husbandry knowledge. In fact it is the opposite. Today’s farmers are very knowledgeable in areas of agronomic practice (including soil management), utilization of fertilizers, crop genetics and marketing of their products. These producers proactively use information from a range of reliable sources. They attend conferences regularly and are directly connected to resources provided by producer associations, universities and provincial governments. - answer by Wilf Keller, Ag-West Bio  

More on the Golden Rice project: “It has now been clearly demonstrated that, contrary to what detractors from the technology would have liked us to believe, Golden Rice is more than capable of providing the necessary ß-carotene to the target population. A group of 68 Chinese children aged 6-8 years were fed Golden Rice, spinach, or administered a given amount of ß-carotene in oil. Blood samples were analysed to determine how much of the ß-carotene was actually being extracted from the food or the oil. The latter is known to be the most effective way to present this vitamin to the human organism. The result was that ß-carotene in Golden Rice is as effective as pure ß-carotene in oil and better than that in spinach at providing vitamin A to children. A bowl of about 100 to 150 g cooked Golden Rice (50 g dry weight) can provide about 60% of the Chinese Recommended Nutrient Intake of vitamin A for 6-8-year-old children. The detailed account of this trial can be read in a paper published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.