Sunday, 03 February 2013 23:56

The repentant environmentalist: Part 1


The author Mark Lynas, who used to oppose GM crops, recently wowed social media with a speech supporting them. There have been a number of excellent responses from scientists and others challenging his arguments - see here, here and here. However, Jonathan Matthews of GMWatch considers whether the speech isn't best understood as a PR narrative.

In 2011 emails leaked to The Guardian newspaper showed that Europe's leading biotech industry lobby group, EuropaBio, was working to recruit high-profile international ambassadors as key players in achieving the industry's goal of getting a line drawn under the present GM debate - the critical first step in rolling back the regulatory and political obstacles to the industry's expansion.

The leaked emails identified half a dozen individuals who might potentially be involved. For the role to be effective, the emails made clear, it was vital that a GM ambassador be seen as independent. As a result, anyone taking on the role would not be paid directly, but would be assisted with media work and with securing speaking slots at major conferences.

The people named in the emails all denied to The Guardian that they had been recruited. All bar one were internationally-known figures of the likes of Sir Bob Geldof and Kofi Annan, and they generally had high level political connections. The exception was a relatively obscure writer on green issues.

If anyone was left wondering why the biotech industry regarded Mark Lynas as such a desirable PR asset, the answer became clear when he got up to make his speech supporting GM crops at this year's Oxford Farming Conference. After the text and video of the speech went up on his website, it caused a social media sensation, rapidly attracting 30,000 hits before crashing his site. 

Over the next few days, Lynas says, his conference speech was downloaded more than 130,000 times. And the impact has been global, with the speech being translated into a series of foreign languages, including Vietnamese. His support for GM crops has also been highlighted on blogs and even in newspapers around the world, and at one point Lynas announced that his speech was 'now trending at no. 2 on Fox News opinion'.

This impact might seem surprising given that Lynas has been vigorously flagging up his conversion to GM for several years now. He first set out his change of heart in a New Statesman piece back in January 2010, and again later that year in a controversial documentary on Channel 4 and an accompanying article in a national newspaper. He did the same again in his 2011 book The God Species and in a piece in The Times which proclaimed: 'I used to trample them in the fields. Now I see anti-science hysteria for what it is.'

In 2012 his support for GM crops became still more high profile as Lynas started speaking up for GM at events around the UK, taking to the stage in Edinburgh, for instance, to attack the Scottish Government over its non-GM policy. He also became much more active on the issue in social media, playing a high-profile role in opposing an anti-GM protest in Hertfordshire, and even helping to organize a small counter demonstration. That was followed by an article for The Sunday Times in which Lynas expressed his support for the view that those opposing GM would cause starvation in the developing world if they were allowed to succeed.

But while his Oxford speech added nothing to his already stated position, what drove the explosion of interest was the remarkable confession with which it started. Looking grave, Lynas explained how, having carefully looked into the science underpinning GM crops, he had come to deeply regret his involvement in anti-GM protests and particularly that 'I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid 1990s'.

It is this dramatic apology that has given such prominence to the rest of what Lynas has to say. As a Scottish farming paper put it, 'Mr Lynas' uncompromising [pro-GM] stance… has considerable credibility, as he was a self-confessed founder of the anti-GM movement'. People tweeted excitedly about the Damascene conversion of the "father" of the anti-GM movement. It seemed almost as mesmerizing as if someone had released a video of Simone de Beauvoir lacerating feminism, or MLK apologizing for the civil rights movement. Someone even compared it to the Pope renouncing Catholicism.

This wasn't the first time that Lynas had presented himself in the role of founder. He had made the same claim a month earlier in a talk he gave at the John Innes Centre in Norwich.  In its news release about the talk - Co-founder of anti-GM movement Mark Lynas calls for evidence to replace instinct in GM debate - the JIC explained that Lynas wasn't just a founding figure but had 'helped develop the anti-gm narrative still in use today.'

Similarly after his Oxford talk, the Harvard academic Calestous Juma wrote of Lynas apologizing for 'masterminding the anti-biotechnology campaign', while a blogger for Slate magazine explained, 'If you fear genetically modified food, you may have Mark Lynas to thank.'

But while Lynas says he co-founded the anti-GM movement in 1995, the first wave of resistance to the possible uses of genetic engineering in food and farming began two decades earlier in the mid-1970s. By the early 1980s concerned US scientists and academics had founded the Council for Responsible Genetics, and by the late 1980s a US network called the Biotechnology Working Group was meeting regularly to plan joint strategies and actions regarding the new technology. It was composed of approximately 20 national and local NGOs, and included regular participation by representatives of the European Greens and an Australian NGO, GenEthics. By the early 1990s the Consumers Union and the Union of Concerned Scientists were also on the case.

Concern over GMOs had also begun to appear on the international policy agenda in the years running up to the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, which called for the establishment of a Biosafety Protocol. It was also at Rio that the first international workshop on GMOs took place. Among those addressing it was Vandana Shiva. This is worth noting because Lynas implies in his speech that it was the movement that he supposedly co-founded in the UK in 1995 which "exported" GM opposition worldwide. In reality, concerns over GM in food and farming were already well established on the world stage.

In 1993, for instance - the same year that Vandana Shiva published her book of writings from the previous decade, Monocultures of the Mind: Biodiversity, Biotechnology and Agriculture, the Indian geneticist Suman Sahai founded her organization Gene Campaign. Other leading figures in the Global South who by that time were already active on these issues, often with their organizations, included Martin Khor of the Third World Network (Malaysia), David Hathaway of AS-PTA (Brazil), Nicky Perlas of the Center for Alternative Development Initiatives (Philippines), Sarojeni Rengam of PANAP (Malaysia), Tewolde Egziabher (Ethiopia), Camilla Montecinos (Chile), Devinder Sharma (India) and Andrew Mushita (Kenya).

Resistance was similarly well underway in the UK. Scientists were to the fore. Among the key figures were Dr David King, and Dr Sue Mayer, the science director at Greenpeace UK, who began work in 1990 on GM and related issues around the patenting of genes and living organisms, often in coordination with other European campaigners. Other parts of UK civil society were also engaged. In 1992, for instance, the development charity Practical Action (then ITDG) and the New Economics Foundation organized an international conference in London - The Gene Traders: security or profit in food production, which concluded that GMOs were 'likely to work against the interests of small farmers'. It was events like this that laid the groundwork for the vibrant campaign of opposition that exploded a few years later when GM soya started arriving in the country and Monsanto launched its UK advertising blitz.

After hearing how Lynas was portraying himself, Sue Mayer contacted him to say, 'I think I can lay claim to having been one of the leaders of the campaign in the UK thoughout the 1990s and until 2007 when I left GeneWatch. It's strange that although we did speak on the phone once in the late 90s we never met and I missed the fact that you helped start the anti-GM movement!!' Mayer added, 'I think this is a very misleading claim and you should feel ashamed of yourself. I wouldn't normally worry about people puffing themselves up like this but I am concerned that you are letting this be used to promote yourself and the biotech industry.'

Mayer is not alone. Nobody we have spoken to among the many leading figures of the 1990s counts Lynas as either a founder or a leader. Indeed, if he was even involved in the grassroots actions of 1995-1996, then nobody we spoke to remembers it. Nor does he appear to have been at the founding meeting of the Genetic Engineering Network (GEN) in early 1997. That's not to say that he wasn't involved as a committed participant in some of the meetings and protests that followed, including ones involving ripping up GM crops. There is no doubt that he was, but his role does not seem to have been especially prominent even in these.

And beyond the non-violent direct action network that Lynas became part of there was a much broader movement of concern in which he had even less significance. In the UK this involved not just mass membership environmental organizations like Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts, but consumer groups - most notably, the Consumers Association, development organizations like Christian Aid, Action Aid, the World Development Movement and War on Want, and organizations involving scientists and academics like the Genetics Forum.

What's more, any serious interest in the GM issue on Lynas' part seems to have been relatively short lived. Despite making his living as a writer on green issues, none of his books touched on GM before he began to support it. He did, as he mentions in his speech, write a short piece attacking GM for The Guardian website as late as 2008, but in an interview last year Lynas admitted that this was something he 'dashed off in 20 minutes without doing any research.'

And the Guardian article seems to have been a serious departure from the norm. Of around 50 pieces by Lynas to be found onthe Guardian website, it seems to be the only one about GM crops. Similarly, of the 90 or so pieces he's written for the New Statesman, there don't appear to be any specifically about GM crops... before he changed sides.

Yet following his Oxford speech, readers of Huffington Post were told by Mark Tercek that 'Lynas had been a leading voice against using genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in farming.' And according to Jon Entine, 'Britain has been at the forefront of the anti-GMO movement and Lynas has been its philosopher and spokesman.'

Lynas does nothing to correct these wildly misleading claims. In an interview with the TV channel RT America, for instance, Lynas does not demur in any way when the interviewer says to him, 'You really became one of the Godfathers of this movement.' When I mentioned this to a long time observer of the global GM debate, the technology and development expert Patrick Mulvany, his response, like Sue Mayer's, was one of astonishment: 'Godfather? More like a johnny-come-lately carpetbagger.'

Just how completely peripheral to the anti-GM campaign Lynas really was can be gauged from what he says in his speech about the so-called "Terminator" technology intended to create sterility in GM seeds. He uses Terminator as an example of his 'cherished beliefs' about GM that turned out to be mere 'green urban myths'. 'I'd assumed that Terminator technology was robbing farmers of the right to save seeds', he tells his audience, but then when more recently he started researching the real facts about GM he discovered that, 'Terminator never actually happened.' Yet anyone deeply involved in the anti-GM campaign of the 1990s would be likely to know about the high-profile campaign waged to make sure Terminator was never inflicted on farmers.

This campaign became so successful that by 1998 CGIAR, the most influential agricultural research network in the South, had adopted a policy against the use of Terminator. And by 1999 the campaign had even extracted a widely reported pledge from Monsanto that it would not commercialize Terminator. In 2000 the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity recommended a de facto moratorium on the field-testing and commercialization of any terminator seeds.

So how could "a leading voice" in the anti-GM campaign fail to know about one of its most striking victories? Whatever the answer, portraying himself as a repentant founder of the anti-GM movement has helped make his speech more than just a passing Twitter sensation. And the impact has been the greater because of the clever way in which Lynas stages what he has to say.

As Mark Tercek says of the man who once shoved a cream pie in the face of Bjorn Lomborg and made sure he had a film crew on hand to record it, 'Lynas has a knack for the dramatic.' He is also a compelling storyteller. And these elements seem to be at play in his mea culpa. Many people watching the speech have formed the impression that this is an extraordinary moment in which Mark Lynas finally confronts his past as a protester and founder of the anti-GM movement, leading to his heartfelt apology. But, as we have seen, Lynas was not only not a founder but he has been speaking and writing about his change of heart on GM, including apologizing for his past, for years.

In fact, only the month before when addressing his Norwich audience, which included a significant number of farmers and GM scientists, he told them in a relaxed, and almost jokey fashion, that he thought he might have been to the John Innes Centre before to trash their GM sugar beet trial. At one point he does use the words 'I do apologise', but he doesn't look the least bit somber and the delivery is so arch that the audience responds with laughter. But by the time of the Oxford conference this had been transformed into the 'painfully honest apology' that tore through social media and moved one blogger to ask 'In the history of environmentalism has there ever been a bigger mea culpa than that given here by Mark Lynas?'

Certainly, there has probably never been a better staged piece of environmental repentance. But, as we shall see, the "repentant environmentalist" has become a standard PR trope, and one that is almost always dependent on sleight of hand and exaggeration to conjure up its magic.

Jonathan wishes to thank Andy Stirling for the title, and Prof Phil Bereano, Dr Sue Mayer, Patrick Mulvany and Jim Thomas, among many others, for their help with background on this article.

Jonathan Matthews

Jonathan Matthews is the founder and director of GMWatch and has written numerous articles on the politics and spin around GM crops. He is a contributing author to Thinker, Faker, Spinner, Spy: Corporate PR and the Assault on Democracy, eds Dinan and Miller (Pluto Press).