The greener portions of the Web were abuzz this morning with the 'conversion' of UK environmentalist Mark Lynas from anti- to pro-GMO campaigner, centering especially on a takedown by Tom Philpott at Mother Jones of many of Lynas's arguments.
The good news is that the organic vs. GMO debate is generally growing more nuanced and particular, moving in from the extremes of "only GMOs can feed the world / GMOs will kill us all!" As Philpott points out, Lynas does make a couple of salient points about the opposition. But he proves apparently unable to counter detailed rebuttals to some of his own newly-streamlined "feed the world" claims. Check this passage dealing with Doug Gurian-Sherman points critiquing Lynas, which the latter called "a couple of minor issues with my speech." But, says Philpott, these points
are, in fact, fundamental. Lynas' pro-GMO arguments hinge on the idea that GMOs are necessary because other ag technologies and methods aren't up to the task. But that's just not true. Gurian-Sherman counters that conventional breeding actually outpaces genetic engineering when it comes to increasing crop yields. And he points to the work of Iowa State University scientist Matt Liebman, who co-authored a peer-reviewed 2011 paper (along with a USDA scientist among others) showing that diverse crop rotations along with nitrogen-fixing cover crops maintain crop yields while drastically reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers and herbicides while leaving groundwater cleaner.
The argument over the best way, with all factors considered, to improve agriculture to benefit humankind is not going to be over anytime soon. A Stanford study got major coverage this past fall for its declaration that organic
offers no advantage. But the scope of the study seemed to many to rely on organic cherry-picking and ignored questions that would be more difficult to fit into the anti-organic rubric. As Mark Bittman put it in the New York Times, "the study was like declaring guns no more dangerous than baseball bats when it comes to blunt-object head injuries." He goes further to quote executive director of the Columbia Foundation Susan Clark:
“The researchers started with a narrow set of assumptions and arrived at entirely predictable conclusions. Stanford should be ashamed of the lack of expertise about food and farming among the researchers, a low level of academic rigor in the study, its biased conclusions, and lack of transparency about the industry ties of the major researchers on the study. Normally we busy people would simply ignore another useless academic study, but this study was so aggressively spun by the PR masters that it requires a response.”