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Realizing the Vision

Utne Reader Visionaries share their latest projects, ideas, and visions for the future.

The Science of Sustainability

 Organic Corn photo by Ivan Walsh  

Raj Patel headshotRaj Patel is a writer, academic, and activist. He is the author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System, and the New York Times and international bestseller, The Value of Nothing. He has also published widely in the academic press, with articles in peer-reviewed philosophy, politics, sociology, science, and economics journals. Patel is currently working on Generation Food, a multimedia project about reinventing our global food system. He was named an Utne Reader Visionary in 2009.

Editor’s Note: Earlier this month, longtime anti-GMO activist Mark Lynas changed his mind about genetically modified foods. “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,” said Lynas at the Oxford Farming Conference. “I now regret it completely.”
What caused the change of heart? Lynas “discovered science.” While outlets like Slate reported this news with approval, Raj Patel questioned Lynas’ assumption that science and sustainability are mutually exclusive. Below is Patel’s response, reposted with permission from his blog.  

It was such a non-issue that I really didn’t want to write about it at all. I didn’t know who Mark Lynas was and didn’t know that he had changed his mind about genetically modified crops from being an opponent to a fan. But, clearly, it was a slow news week. The killing and the rape and the corporate crime and the climate change had been successfully reported. So a range of news outlets decided to give Lynas the air time he wanted, following this speech.

Frankly, there’s not much to read. Mark Lynas opposed GM crops because he thought they were bad but now he has ‘discovered science’, and that makes him a better environmentalist and a supporter of the pesticide industry’s sale of genetically modified crops and it possibly makes him regret studying politics and modern history.

In general, it’s a good thing that people discover science. It usually means they’ve left behind dogma in favour of peer review and data. In this piece, scientist John Vandermeer welcomes Lynas to science, and looks forward to Lynas’ reading more science in the future. After all, some of the most reasoned arguments against GM crops come from those who have embraced science for far longer than Lynas. GM Free Cymru and The Union of Concerned Scientists note, though, that Lynas hasn’t really given up on the dogma, seeming to have swapped his old prejudices for the kind of pro-business platform that’ll keep him flush with industry conference honoraria for the next year or two.

There’s really not much more to be said. It could be that Lynas will, like Bjorn Lomborg, noisily muddle from one position to another, trailing the scientific debates by a decade, but anticipating the winds of conservative thinking by a month or two. Ultimately, though, it matters little. While Lynas embarks on his journey from knee-jerkery to scientific neophyte to, we hope, scientific sophisticate, science and sustainable farming are demonstrating both that GM crops are irrelevant in feeding the world, and that they’re the worst among many far better alternatives. Which is a far more interesting story to report than that Mark Lynas has read a book.

Image: Organic corn, photo by Ivan Walsh, licensed under Creative Commons.