Running on fumes

A former anti-GM crusader indicts those who reject the scientific consensus and demands of food security

The debate is over, and "you are more likely to get hit by an asteroid than to get hurt by GM food". So said British environmentalist Mark Lynas at the recent Oxford Farming Conference, dramatically revoking his own statements of over two decades. His speech was both a mea culpa and an analysis of the ways in which a movement instinctively suspicious of technology and capitalism has been allowed to hold back research and production of GM crops around the world. Such recantations are inevitable, given that much of that movement is now running on fumes. Report after report has established that GM foods are as benign as any other, in both public health and environmental terms. Given the enormous and growing demands of food security, and the constraints of land and water, not harnessing science with solid regulation to produce more food is the real act of irresponsibility.

Those who demonise GM foods are now a clear minority that has set its face against science for its own reasons, not because of any clear-eyed consideration of the public good. They have, in fact, politicised any truth about biotech. Peer-reviewed scientific evidence is dismissed, regulatory agencies declared untrustworthy, every advocate of GM food written off as a corporate shill. And yet, science has persistently disproved them they did not lead to a dependence on chemicals, they saved farmers money on inputs, "terminator seeds" were a hoax.

India's experiments with genetically engineered crops encapsulate this confusion. Despite being a big biotech beneficiary with the Green Revolution, seeing the gains of Bt cotton, the environment ministry under Jairam Ramesh imposed a moratorium on Bt brinjal, assuming that rigorously tested scientific evidence was on par with the prejudices of activists aired at the public hearings he instituted. Open field trials on cotton, corn and maize in certain states have been subject to the same controversy, in Parliament and in Supreme Court committees. Given that those who want organically grown food are free to do so, they have no right to deprive all too many others of the nourishment they need.

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