The Science of Sustainability

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Raj Patel is a writer, academic, and activist. He is the author ofStuffed 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 ReaderVisionary 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,”
at the Oxford Farming Conference. “I now regret it
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.

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