An opponent of genetically modified crops changes his mind

Scientists are sometimes pictured by the media, or even by antagonists such as creationists, as completely resolute and inflexible with regards to their theories and assertions. But this is really not an accurate picture. Real scientists do change their minds, particularly when the underlying facts change. As economist John Maynard Keyes is reputed once to have said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?” (Actually, according to a columnist in the Wall Street Journal, the Keynes quote may be apocryphal, but it well illustrates our point).

An interesting illustration of a good scholar’s willingness to change his/her mind was shown on January 4, 2013, when Mark Lynas, an influential British environmentalist who had led the drive against genetically modified crops in Europe during the 1990s and early 2000s, announced that he had changed his views. Here is a brief summary of his remarks at the Oxford Farming Conference, held at Oxford University:

For the record, here and upfront, I apologize for having spent several years ripping up GM crops. I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid 1990s, and that I thereby assisted in demonizing an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment. … As an environmentalist, and someone who believes that everyone in this world has a right to a healthy and nutritious diet of their choosing, I could not have chosen a more counter-productive path. I now regret it completely.

In an interview with Keith Kloor, Lynas elaborated on his decision:

Well, life is nothing if not a learning process. As you get older you tend to realize just how complicated the world is and how simplistic solutions don’t really work… There was no “Road to Damascus” conversion, where there’s a sudden blinding flash and you go, “Oh, my God, I’ve got this wrong.” There are processes of gradually opening one’s mind and beginning to take seriously alternative viewpoints, and then looking more closely at the weight of the evidence.

Additional details, and some background on Lynas, are available in a New York Times article, in which Lynas says:

So I did some reading. And I discovered that one by one my cherished beliefs about GM turned out to be little more than green urban myths.

I’d assumed that it would increase the use of chemicals. It turned out that pest-resistant cotton and maize needed less insecticide.

I’d assumed that GM benefited only the big companies. It turned out that billions of dollars of benefits were accruing to farmers needing fewer inputs.

I’d assumed that Terminator Technology was robbing farmers of the right to save seed. It turned out that hybrids did that long ago, and that Terminator never happened.

I’d assumed that no one wanted GM. Actually what happened was that Bt cotton was pirated into India and roundup ready soya into Brazil because farmers were so eager to use them.

I’d assumed that GM was dangerous. It turned out that it was safer and more precise than conventional breeding using mutagenesis for example; GM just moves a couple of genes, whereas conventional breeding mucks about with the entire genome in a trial and error way.

But what about mixing genes between unrelated species? The fish and the tomato? Turns out viruses do that all the time, as do plants and insects and even us – it’s called gene flow.

So much for the inabilility of scientists to see the error of their ways. Now if only politicians could….

[Added 9 Jan 2013:] Some additional perspectives on Lynas’ “conversion” can be read in a New Yorker article.

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