News » Citydesk

Mark Lynas at Boise's Egyptian Theatre: Why GMOs Aren't 'Frankenfood'


Mark Lynas shaking hands with an audience member at the Egyptian Theatre - HARRISON BERRY
  • Harrison Berry
  • Mark Lynas shaking hands with an audience member at the Egyptian Theatre
Environmentalist Mark Lynas drew gasps at the Egyptian Theatre Tuesday evening when he told the audience that denying scientific consensus on GMOs is the same as denying climate change or the safety of vaccines.

"People aren't forming their opinions based on empirical evidence," he told the audience Tuesday evening at the Egyptian Theatre. "The science has a tough time confronting emotion."

Lynas' talk, titled "GMOs are Green: How One Environmentalist Changed his Mind" and sponsored by Food Producers of Idaho, cited scientific consensus on the safety and benefit of GMOs and the scientific community's ongoing struggle to convince the public that food engineered on a genetic level aren't "frankenfoods," as evidence that the obstacle to feeding a hungry planet are counterproductive preconceived notions about GMOs.

Case in point: Lynas was once a staunch anti-GMO crusader but in 2013, issued a mea culpa to farmers and scientists for the destruction of test GMO crops and other activities at the Oxford Farming Conference. He told the Tuesday night audience how prior to his conversion, he hadn't read a single peer-reviewed paper on the safety or benefit of genetically modified crops, and that making his apology was one of the hardest things he'd ever done.

"It's a very difficult thing to change your mind. If people didn't insist on pursuing failed policy, the world would be rather a better place," Lynas said. 

In the last two years, Lynas has traveled the world learning about how governments swayed by popular sentiment regarding GMOs are impeding efforts to improve the lives of poor farmers, particularly in African and Asian countries. In Uganda, the government has banned illness-resistant bananas despite a widespread blight. In eastern Tanzania, the government has banned a virus-resistant cassava plant. Golden Rice, rich in beta carotene, could improve the health of millions of children in southeast Asia, but anti-GMO sentiment is preventing it from reaching the market. Lynas showed a clip of activists destroying a test crop of the plant being studied by scientists. Chastising what he called "the antis," he challenged those in the Boise audience to check scientific peer-reviewed literature before forming opinions on the subject.

"Try to go a bit beyond the University of Google," he said.

Crops can be modified to have enhanced nutritional value, anti-insect properties and a resistance to drought, heat and other conditions, which means farmers use less pest- and herbicides—chemicals that harm people and the land they farm. 

"The impact on their health and environment is profound," Lynas said.

During a question-and-answer period, audience members asked about GMOs and science in general. 

"I question at times what the scientific community does," said Dr. Alice Blake, who cited the Tuskegee experiments and others as examples of scientific malfeasance. She worried that GMOs could be a grand-scale experiment conducted on the public, rather than a tool to fight world hunger.

"[Food] is now a product. It is a mechanical device. This genie is now out of the bottle," said one audience member who identified himself as John Q. Public.

"We hear all these stories about cooking the books. How can we believe science anymore?" asked Terry Jones, a farmer from Weiser.

Boise Weekly caught up with Jones following the Q&A to ask him what he thought of Lynas' talk. Jones said he has been growing insect-resistant corn for 15 years and that in that time, the price of a bag of seed has increased from $60 to $200, and while many factors may have contributed to the increase in seed cost, Jones said he has reduced the amount of water and weedkiller he uses on his crops, and harvesting has become more efficient. He said he came to the talk a skeptic on climate change, and Lynas was his "enemy" but he found common ground on GMOs.

"This gave me an opportunity for me to hear from somebody I think is credible," Jones said. "I grow GMOs; I'm grateful for it."