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The Repentant Environmentalist Mark Lynas is a PR Stooge for the Biotech Industry

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Genetic Engneering page and our Millions Against Monsanto page.

In 2011 emails leaked to The Guardian newspaper showed that Europe's leading biotech industry lobby group, EuropaBio, was working to recruit high-profile international ambassadors as key players in achieving the industry's goal of getting a line drawn under the present GM debate - the critical first step in rolling back the regulatory and political obstacles to the industry's expansion.

The leaked emails identified half a dozen individuals who might potentially be involved. For the role to be effective, the emails made clear, it was vital that a GM ambassador be seen as independent. As a result, anyone taking on the role would not be paid directly, but would be assisted with media work and with securing speaking slots at major conferences.

The people named in the emails all denied to The Guardian that they had been recruited. All bar one were internationally-known figures of the likes of Sir Bob Geldof and Kofi Annan, and they generally had high level political connections. The exception was a relatively obscure writer on green issues.

If anyone was left wondering why the biotech industry regarded Mark Lynas as such a desirable PR asset, the answer became clear when he got up to make his speech supporting GM crops at this year's Oxford Farming Conference. After the text and video of the speech went up on his website, it caused a social media sensation, rapidly attracting 30,000 hits before crashing his site. 

Over the next few days, Lynas says, his conference speech was downloaded more than 130,000 times. And the impact has been global, with the speech being translated into a series of foreign languages, including Vietnamese. His support for GM crops has also been highlighted on blogs and even in newspapers around the world, and at one point Lynas announced that his speech was 'now trending at no. 2 on Fox News opinion'.

This impact might seem surprising given that Lynas has been vigorously flagging up his conversion to GM for several years now. He first set out his change of heart in a New Statesman piece back in January 2010, and again later that year in a controversial documentary on Channel 4 and an accompanying article in a national newspaper. He did the same again in his 2011 book The God Species and in a piece in The Times which proclaimed: 'I used to trample them in the fields. Now I see anti-science hysteria for what it is.'

In 2012 his support for GM crops became still more high profile as Lynas started speaking up for GM at events around the UK, taking to the stage in Edinburgh, for instance, to attack the Scottish Government over its non-GM policy. He also became much more active on the issue in social media, playing a high-profile role in opposing an anti-GM protest in Hertfordshire, and even helping to organize a small counter demonstration. That was followed by an article for The Sunday Times in which Lynas expressed his support for the view that those opposing GM would cause starvation in the developing world if they were allowed to succeed.

But while his Oxford speech added nothing to his already stated position, what drove the explosion of interest was the remarkable confession with which it started. Looking grave, Lynas explained how, having carefully looked into the science underpinning GM crops, he had come to deeply regret his involvement in anti-GM protests and particularly that 'I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid 1990s'.

It is this dramatic apology that has given such prominence to the rest of what Lynas has to say. As a Scottish farming paper put it, 'Mr Lynas' uncompromising [pro-GM] stance  has considerable credibility, as he was a self-confessed founder of the anti-GM movement'. People tweeted excitedly about the Damascene conversion of the "father" of the anti-GM movement. It seemed almost as mesmerizing as if someone had released a video of Simone de Beauvoir lacerating feminism, or MLK apologizing for the civil rights movement. Someone even compared it to the Pope renouncing Catholicism.

This wasn't the first time that Lynas had presented himself in the role of founder. He had made the same claim a month earlier in a talk he gave at the John Innes Centre in Norwich.  In its news release about the talk - Co-founder of anti-GM movement Mark Lynas calls for evidence to replace instinct in GM debate - the JIC explained that Lynas wasn't just a founding figure but had 'helped develop the anti-gm narrative still in use today.'

Similarly after his Oxford talk, the Harvard academic Calestous Juma wrote of Lynas apologizing for 'masterminding the anti-biotechnology campaign', while a blogger for Slate magazine explained, 'If you fear genetically modified food, you may have Mark Lynas to thank.'

But while Lynas says he co-founded the anti-GM movement in 1995, the first wave of resistance to the possible uses of genetic engineering in food and farming began two decades earlier in the mid-1970s. By the early 1980s concerned US scientists and academics had founded the Council for Responsible Genetics, and by the late 1980s a US network called the Biotechnology Working Group was meeting regularly to plan joint strategies and actions regarding the new technology. It was composed of approximately 20 national and local NGOs, and included regular participation by representatives of the European Greens and an Australian NGO, GenEthics. By the early 1990s the Consumers Union and the Union of Concerned Scientists were also on the case.

Concern over GMOs had also begun to appear on the international policy agenda in the years running up to the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, which called for the establishment of a Biosafety Protocol. It was also at Rio that the first international workshop on GMOs took place. Among those addressing it was Vandana Shiva. This is worth noting because Lynas implies in his speech that it was the movement that he supposedly co-founded in the UK in 1995 which "exported" GM opposition worldwide. In reality, concerns over GM in food and farming were already well established on the world stage.

In 1993, for instance - the same year that Vandana Shiva published her book of writings from the previous decade, Monocultures of the Mind: Biodiversity, Biotechnology and Agriculture, the Indian geneticist Suman Sahai founded her organization Gene Campaign. Other leading figures in the Global South who by that time were already active on these issues, often with their organizations, included Martin Khor of the Third World Network (Malaysia), David Hathaway of AS-PTA (Brazil), Nicky Perlas of the Center for Alternative Development Initiatives (Philippines), Sarojeni Rengam of PANAP (Malaysia), Tewolde Egziabher (Ethiopia), Camilla Montecinos (Chile), Devinder Sharma (India) and Andrew Mushita (Kenya).

Resistance was similarly well underway in the UK. Scientists were to the fore. Among the key figures were Dr David King, and Dr Sue Mayer, the science director at Greenpeace UK, who began work in 1990 on GM and related issues around the patenting of genes and living organisms, often in coordination with other European campaigners. Other parts of UK civil society were also engaged. In 1992, for instance, the development charity Practical Action (then ITDG) and the New Economics Foundation organized an international conference in London - The Gene Traders: security or profit in food production, which concluded that GMOs were 'likely to work against the interests of small farmers'. It was events like this that laid the groundwork for the vibrant campaign of opposition that exploded a few years later when GM soya started arriving in the country and Monsanto launched its UK advertising blitz.

After hearing how Lynas was portraying himself, Sue Mayer contacted him to say, 'I think I can lay claim to having been one of the leaders of the campaign in the UK thoughout the 1990s and until 2007 when I left GeneWatch. It's strange that although we did speak on the phone once in the late 90s we never met and I missed the fact that you helped start the anti-GM movement!!' Mayer added, 'I think this is a very misleading claim and you should feel ashamed of yourself. I wouldn't normally worry about people puffing themselves up like this but I am concerned that you are letting this be used to promote yourself and the biotech industry.'
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