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Standing up for sense on GMOs

 Mark Lynas, once a leading opponent of GMOs, now sees the technology as an essential tool for the environment and for feeding a growing world population.
You’ve got to admire a man who has the courage to stand up for what he knows is true, even if it means admitting, very publicly, that he was once wrong.

Mark Lynas, a well-known British climate change campaigner and author, was a vocal opponent of genetically modified (GMO) foods when the technology first was commercialized in the 1990s. He even admitted to ripping up GMO crops in protest.

But earlier this year, Lynas surprised the environmental community by announcing that he is now an avid supporter of GMOs.

Recently, Lynas told a packed audience at the World Food Prize in Des Moines that GMO plant breeding technology can help solve many of the world’s most pressing environmental issues, while helping to feed a growing global population.

Lynas explained that he changed his mind about GMOs when researching his books on climate change. “I realized that I didn’t understand molecular biology. I didn’t understand any basic information (about GMOs). It was all coming from activist groups, so I lived in a bit of bubble,” Lynas said.

Through his research, Lynas learned about the environmental benefits of GMOs. Because of GMO crops, farmers today use less pesticides, fuel and other inputs, he explained.

“As an environmentalist, I would like to see a reduction in agrochemicals …,” Lynas said. “If you improve the genetics of the crops, you don’t need to use insecticides and other crop protection chemicals. That, to me, is the way forward for somebody who is concerned about protection of the environment.”

Lynas said his recent travels to Africa also opened his eyes about the need for GMO technology. He visited with farmers in Tanzania, who are struggling with a virus that threatens to wipe out the cassava plant, a staple in the native diet.

Scientists have created a GMO cassava variety that’s resistant to the brown streak virus. But farmers aren’t allowed to plant the GMO cassava because of regulations “based on superstition,” Lynas said.

He noted that thousands of research studies worldwide have shown that GMO foods are safe for humans and the environment. “There is no evidence underlying just about every allegation that is made against genetically modified organisms,” he said.

“I’m all for diversity. I’m all for agroecology. I’m all for organic farming,” Lynas continued. “But at the same time, if some farmers want to use (GMO) crops that are resistant to pests and that reduce their use of pesticides, then they should have the option to do that.”

And that same choice should apply to consumers like you and me. If you want organic, it’s easy to find.

But we should also keep Lynas’ message in mind: GMO technology must remain a “tool in the toolbox” to reduce the need for pesticides and combat plant diseases that threaten to wipe out crops.

We can’t let misguided fear prohibit a technology that can benefit so many people who don’t have the luxury of choice.

If you want to learn more about GMOs, I recently discovered the Biology Fortified website (http://www.biofortified.org/), an excellent, unbiased source for GMO info. You can also get expert answers to your GMO questions at www.gmoanswers.com.

Written by Teresa Bjork. Teresa is senior features writer at the Iowa Farm Bureau.