Mark LynasBy highlighting the environmental and social benefits of crops developed with genetically modified organisms or GMOs, farmers and other proponents have the opportunity to persuade consumers around the world that the technology is both safe and essential, according to Mark Lynas, a former GMO opponent who has become a leading supporter of the technology.

"You can win these debates if you frame them in the right way and if you pose the right questions," Lynas said last week during a keynote speech at the 2014 Iowa Farm Bureau Federation annual meeting in Des Moines.

The science on the safety of GMO crops is very clear, as Lynas found after careful research that ultimately changed his mind about the technology. "This is not a battle between different facts; it’s a battle between facts and fiction used by opponents."

Real-world benefits

However, instead of simply relying on science to battle well-funded activists, GMO proponents need to point out that the technology is helping the environment by reducing the need for pesticides and the pressure to put marginal land into production, said Lynas, an environmental writer from England.

For example, he said, an im­­proved eggplant variety, developed with genetic engineering, is allowing farmers in Bangladesh to dramatically reduce pesticide applications. Biotech varieties could also help African farmers battle pests that attack bananas, cassava and other staple crops.

But, Lynas said, GMO opponents have convinced governments in Africa and other parts of the developing world to ban the technology.

"They have found solutions to crop problems; they can’t be used by farmers," Lynas said. "This is causing real harm because people’s lives are being destroyed by this disease."

Another promising biotech crop is golden rice, which was developed to add critical vitamins to white rice, the basis of diets in many countries. But the development of the crop, which could save the lives of 1 million children a year, was significantly slowed when activists destroyed test plots in the Philippines, Lynas said.

Another key advantage of crops developed with GMOs is that their increased productivity eases pressure to cultivate environmentally sensitive land, Lynas said.

"The efficiency of land use is one of the things you don’t hear much about, but it is critically important," Lynas said.

Studies have shown that if agricultural technology was frozen at 1960 levels, as many GMO opponents advocate, nearly all of the world’s land would have to be cultivated, Lynas said. "You’d have no rain forests left or other environmentally sensitive lands."

While opponents of biotech can be countered, they should not be underestimated, Lynas warned. "The flames of misinformation are constantly fanned by worldwide groups that are now worth hundreds of millions of dollars."

Lynas should know. He once was one of the leading opponents in the United Kingdom and participated in destroying research plots, disrupting lectures and smearing scientists.

However, he realized through his own research that plant biotech is a safe and valuable technology.

"The scientific evidence was clear about GMOs; they are safe. There is really no room for dispute about this if you want to stay on the right side of the science," Lynas said

Now as a prominent backer of GMO crops, Lynas said he finds many reasons to be optimistic.

"We have the tools that we need to solve many of environmental and sustainability problems," he said. "But we can only do that if people who are pessimistic by nature don’t block the scientific development that can empower farmers."