GURJEET SINGH MANN: Good morning, everyone here, and my greetings to all of you. Today, I have the privilege to introduce a person who is so well known that he doesn't really need any introduction. I am talking about one and only one, Mr. Mark Lynas. But I have been told that I must briefly introduce Mr. Lynas.
Mr. Mark Lynas, as many of us know, is a renown author of several books on the environment, including High Tide, Six Degrees, The God Species. His newer publications are Nuclear-- to Why A Green Future Needs Nuclear Power. He is a frequent speaker around the world on climate change, biotechnology, and nuclear power, and was climate change adviser to the president of Maldives.
He is a visiting research associate at Oxford University School of Geography and Environment, a member of advisory board of the science advocacy group Sense About Science, and is a member of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council of Emerging Technologies. But I am most impressed by his lecture at Oxford Farmers Conference, which was held in January, 2013. That was, I think, his lecture from his heart to the hearts of millions-- farmers, environmentalists, biotechnologists, and everyone who is concerned with humanity around the world.
Mark will be talking a lot about biotechnology, and how these tools will be helping for a third or another Green Revolution, and taking forward the legacy of Dr. Norman Borlaug. Personally, I strongly believe that we need many more local additions of Mr. Lynas in India, in Bangladesh, in Pakistan, in Europe, who can talk to their natives in their native language. Because sometimes language is a barrier, and if we talk in Hindi in Haryana, and Punjabi in Punjab, the words are carried forward in a more efficient manner.
This will also help scientists who are opposed by anti-science people at any level. If I am-- so I am given some time more? I'd like to, because he is a world environmentalist, but I have observed environment and climatic changes around my village, around my city, around my states, in the last two or three decades.
On one level, he will be making the points more clear. But just in last about three decades, I have seen that my area-- Dr. Endo is here from Haryana; she knows my area very well-- was very dry area, and very hot in temperatures. We had sand dunes everywhere, and a lot of sandstorms, dust storms, going on every evening, all through the summer.
But in last 30 years, the climate has changed drastically. Now, the same area has no sand dunes. Is hot and humid, instead of dry and hot. This changed many cropping pattern or patterns.
It also changed what we had in the form of pests and insects. What we had in the dry and hot we don't have now, but we have new or emergent pests. For that, farmers had to change their cropping patterns. They had to adapt to the new challenges of the climate, which gradually they did. And sometimes they had to struggle a lot.
For example, with the cotton. When the cotton was being failed, we tried groundnut, peanuts, and corn and other crops while trying to find a solution for the cotton. Then when the Bt cotton arrived, it was a big, big help in tackling the pest problem.
But what I mean to say, that climate change sometimes we feel is a very long process, but I think just three decades is a very short period, if we see globally. There's such a change. Mr. Mark will let us know all about why this is happening, and what is the best for farmers, for the population, and how do you undo-- adapt to that new changes. Because we sometimes cannot arrest the changes at the speed.
I will now go for the details of my experiences with the new crops and Bt and all that. But I heard of Mark Lynas even when he was not in favor of GM crops. This is the point what I want to let you know. But suddenly when I saw that he is suddenly in favor of GM crops, then I read in detail about him.
And then I found that he must have introspected himself. That I had been liking Bt cotton, but a famous person like Mark Lynas had been saying things against such a technology. Not just me. So many of my farmer brothers. They may not be literate. They may not be English speaking. But they are very, very adapted to modern technology, especially seed technology, because this is the cheapest technology that you get in the form of new technology.
So when he changed his stance to pro GM crops and pro nuclear, then I thought that he has done an honest introspection about what he was doing before, and has come out with the facts more clearly. Before I move over to Mr. Mark, I'll share an Urdu Hindi [INAUDIBLE] with you. I'll roughly translate it also.
Roughly, it means, "if you hold animity, go to the extremes. So that if you become friends ever, no grudges are left." So I think that when Mr. Mark was against GM crops, he had seen all the anti things in that, and now I think he has no grudges left about the GM crops. Over to Mark.
MARK LYNAS: Well, thank you so much, Gurjeet Singh Mann, for that very kind and generous introduction. And I want to acknowledge, in particular, your own personal leadership role in bringing agricultural innovation through your own farming experience here to the forefront in India.
I also want to acknowledge my new best friend, Jeanie Borlaug, chair of BGRI, and a real champion in continuing her father's legacy in this important area of food security around the world. And also her daughter, and Dr. Borlaug's granddaughter, Julie, who's not with us today, but has been both an inspiration and a practical support to me in preparing these remarks.
Now, ladies, gentlemen, distinguished delegates to the BGRI, three weeks ago, I was traveling in central Kenya, meeting smallholder farmers who were growing improved bananas using the tools of modern biotechnology. Their banana plantations were healthy because they had been able to obtain tissue culture plantlets from the Agricultural Research Institute in Kenya, rather than transplanting disease-carrying plantlets-- suckers-- as they were doing before.
Now, one of these farmers who had just one acre of land, and he had children to feed, he told me, much to my surprise, that he once met Dr. Norman Borlaug. Apparently, he'd been on a Kenyan delegation to the World Food Prize a few years ago, and his description of the event stayed in my head ever since. He said, "Meeting Borlaug was like meeting the president of the world." He told me that with a grin.
Well, Norman Borlaug wasn't president of the world, of course, and to my knowledge, he wasn't president of anything. But he achieved more in his lifetime to change the world than any official world leader I can think of, for at least the last half century. And that's why the Kenyan smallholder that I met remembered meeting Dr. Borlaug as one of the greatest moments of his life. Because he'd shaken hands with one of the greatest men who ever lived.
And we heard similar, very moving testimonials last night from farmers here in India, for whom Norman Borlaug touched their lives, and changed them for the better. Now, I'm generally a bit skeptical of hagiographic tributes, but with Borlaug, it would be difficult, it seems, to exaggerate his positive impact. As M.S. Swaminathan has put it, he said, "There's a saying in the Gita that, from time to time, God appears on Earth in disguise." When the world was in a serious food crisis, one of the godly forms who appeared was Norman Borlaug.
Unlike official world leaders, Borlaug achieved what he did not through formal political power, nor through lofty rhetoric delivered from high up on the world stage, but through rigorous science and sheer hard work. Science, in Borlaug's case, was meticulously crossing thousands upon thousands of different wheat plants in order to breed new varieties with greater yields, dwarfing characteristics, and a higher ratio of grain to total biomass.
Science, for him, also meant living alone in the research station he established out in Sonora, in Mexico, sowing wheat, out of season, initially by hand, with a hoe, with no electricity, no clean water, and with a dying child in a hospital far away in America. How many of us-- we should ask ourselves, how many of us would have worked that hard and made those kinds of sacrifices, even if we had known in advance, which Dr. Borlaug could not possibly have done, that we would end up saving a billion lives?
Now, we're gathered here today under the aegis of an international collaboration that bears his name, to continue Borlaug's lifelong battle with wheat rust. Rust wiped out his family farm's wheat when he was a boy in Iowa. And rust was the reason Borlaug initially established the research station in Sonora.
As we all know, he and his colleagues eventually succeeded in defeating wheat stem rust for many decades, until the emergence of the resistant race Ug99 at the very end of the last century. Although the progress of Ug99 has not been as dramatic as initially feared, susceptible wheat is still being grown all over the world, and forms a mainstay of humanity's food supply today. A fifth of all of our calories come from wheat, and the global harvest is now nearly 700 million tons per year.
While European wheat growers keep stem rust at bay with liberal applications of fungicide, this is neither ecologically sustainable nor financially desirable over the longer term. In South and East Asia, meanwhile, both of which produce more wheat than the whole of North America, most growers cannot afford to or do not have access to these fungicides. Billions of people, therefore, depend on susceptible wheat varieties that are sitting ducks, waiting for an epidemic of Ug99 to be blown over on the winds from the Middle East and from Africa.
I was given the mandate to talk today about using the tools of biotechnology to advance Borlaug's legacy. And I cannot imagine a more appropriate area where this applies than the question of tackling wheat stem rust. Borlaug was an unusual revolutionary, in that he didn't want his revolution to stop with him. He was a lifelong advocate of innovation, and a staunch supporter of biotechnology as the promising new frontier for plants breeding.
You can see why. By today's standards, Borlaug had to work blind, using guesswork, chance, and a lengthy process of elimination, with thousands upon thousands of wheat crosses, to try to get just the right genetic combination. Because this took so long, with only one growing season per year, he established his now famous shuttle approach between the Mexican highlands and lowlands and research stations more than 1,000 kilometers apart to squeeze two harvests into each year.
Today, the tools of modern molecular biology give plant scientists, if not quite 20/20 vision, a much greater insight into the genetic level of their work than Borlaug could even ever have imagined when he began his research in Mexico. Breeders can now work at the molecular level of individual genes, potentially eliminating the problem of linkage drag and the need for multiple back crossings to eliminate undesirable characteristics.
There's not much good, for example, in finding a Ug99 resistance gene, for example, if you have to cultivate and eat Bronze Age grass to make use of it. The two papers in the current edition of Science identifying the specific Sr35 and Sr33 rust resistance genes are, therefore, real landmarks, because they mean that resistance can potentially be transferred very quickly into multiple commercial varieties.
Hence the very clear conclusion by the authors, one of whom, at least, is with us today, that, to quote from one of the papers, "These identifications open the door to transgenic approaches to control this devastating pathogen, not least because both genes can also likely be stacked together to confer durable resistance, hopefully for many years to come."
Now, these are natural resistance genes from wheat ancestors and from early cultivars, but sooner or later the pool of genes may run out as the pathogen mutates once again. The war against the evolution of new resistance can never be won for long, and will require constant research and constant vigilance, as Borlaug himself urged. In future, therefore, we may need scientists to synthesize artificial genes, hopefully based on increased future knowledge about how the fungus operates and how other plants naturally resist it.
As we heard yesterday, Dr. Borlaug himself long held a dream that scientists would be able to identify how rice resists fungal rust, and then transfer the relevant genes into susceptible varieties of wheat. Better still, there is even greater potential, now that the wheat genome has been sequenced and substantially deciphered, dramatically expanding the genetic library that breeders can use in the future.
It's notable, and very admirable, by the way, that all this information was instantaneously made freely available on the web. This is a collaborative project, using science for the benefit of all humanity. And I cannot imagine a better embodiment of Norman Borlaug's philosophy than this successful joint effort.
But unfortunately, the progress of good science runs up against the hard rock of bad politics. As perhaps the world's most political food crop by virtue of its very nature in supplying our daily bread, wheat has so far been locked out of the biotechnology revolution. Although many new wheats have been developed using recombinant DNA, and even tested in field trials, not a single one has ever been made available to farmers.
Not because there was anything wrong with the new varieties, but solely because of the worldwide cloud of fear and superstition that surrounds the use of genetic engineering. Thus the most powerful tools offered by modern molecular biotechnology must seemingly be permanently discarded, not because of any rational assessment of the risks and the benefits, but because a tide of anti-science activism has drowned scientists and governments around the whole world in a tsunami of lies.
The recent international fury over the discovery of a few herbicide-tolerant wheat seedlings in the corner of a single field in Oregon showed how far mythological fears about GMOs bred from this same anti-science agenda has captured the media mainstream. The appropriate response to the Oregon fiasco should have been, who the hell cares? Yet instead, we saw a bizarre agricultural equivalent of a murder mystery begin to play out, while entire countries canceled their wheat shipments. Meanwhile, 800 million people are still malnourished through sheer shortage of calories, GMO or otherwise, and no one seems to care.
Make no mistake. This perverse pseudo-scientific debate is doing real damage in the world to the lives and prospects of millions of people. As Borlaug himself warned late in his life, after spending many of his declining years campaigning against the anti-biotech activists, quote, "If the naysayers do manage to stop agricultural biotechnology, they might actually precipitate the famines and the current crisis of global biodiversity that they've been predicting for nearly 40 years."
Well, though things have undoubtedly got worse in recent years with the rise of the anti-GM movement-- which, as you heard, I was a former member of-- it's perhaps reassuring in a way that Borlaug himself had to battle these same types of naysayers for every single improvement in the Green Revolution. As he remembered in his biography, there was massive opposition to bringing high-yielding wheat varieties into India in the mid 1960s. Quote again, he said, "Because I was American born and worked for the Rockefeller Foundation, the communists claimed I was opening a back door to renewed foreign domination. Through my machinations, Mother India would be forever dependent on American fertilizer and pesticides."
I've heard similar fears voiced by anti-GM activists around the world numerous times. The undercurrent here seems to me to be a kind of reactionary nationalism that seeks to freeze entire countries in a state of underdevelopment and ignorance. In Kenya, I was personally accused, in a public forum in Nairobi, of leading a second wave of colonialism into Africa, even though I was sharing a podium with African scientists who developed African GM versions of African staple crops.
Africa is not ready for these new technologies, the opponents would chorus, whilst at the same time chatting into their Chinese-made cell phones and posting regular status updates on the American website Facebook. And some of the myths that they spread are not just scientifically unfounded, but obscene and offensive. When I was in Tanzania a fortnight ago, an activist-trained farmer in the central region of Morogoro stood up and declared that GMO crops were an American plot designed to turn people sterile, and to turn male African children into homosexuals.
I would have walked out, by the way, if that statement hadn't been made in Swahili, so I didn't understand it at the time. I looked into the funding of this group, by the way, and found that it draws large-scale support from European development charities for this purported anti-colonial agenda. And these charities have a mandate to eradicate poverty. Instead they're enforcing permanent poverty by ensuring that African farmers are denied the choice of whether to benefit from new technologies in agriculture.
Traditional is always best, these anti-GM activists insist, even if the traditional seeds are racked with disease, decimated by drought, and yield barely a tenth of what modern varieties might do. Productivity matters most, don't forget, for families who are fully dependent for their survival on what they themselves can grow.
Now, I've never met a malnourished anti-GM activist. Those who are short of food are the farmers themselves, trapped in an entirely organic, natural agroecological prison of rural poverty where they cannot afford fertilizer, irrigation, or pesticides, let alone commercial seeds. Their children were emaciated, and their futures were dim. That well-fed Westerners promote the continuation of this situation for misconceived ideological reasons, when I was in Tanzania, left me feeling almost physically sick.
Seeing this desperate situation and being able to do nothing about it was one of the most difficult experiences of my life. I wished in particular that Borlaug was still with us here today. Without him, we seem to be leaderless, trapped in a prison of political correctness that no one seems to dare break out of to tell the truth about the reality on the ground.
Borlaug was a true leader, because he led by example, not by giving orders. And he was prepared to learn from others, and remained open to new ideas until the very end of his life. But bad leadership was also his key challenge, as it remains our key challenge today in advancing his legacy.
Here in India, we have a moratorium on Bt brinjal, not as a result of any scientific analysis or data, but because of a myopic decision made by a single, very cynical and politically opportunist government minister. Ironically, for someone who professes to be guided by science in his separate concern about climate change, Jairam Ramesh failed to defend science in agriculture when called upon to do so, and in my opinion thereby betrayed the very principles he's mandated to defend.
Now, I don't know whether he lacked courage, or knowledge, or both, but Ramesh's decision has set back Indian progress in biotechnology potentially for many years. This has now led to the long charade of a Supreme Court panel deciding on the evidence of activists whether to accept the judgment of scientists, and providing yet another platform for failure in the process. This is all just fine for the anti-GM activists, of course, because for them, permanent delay is as good as a formal prohibition. Like the tobacco lobby many years ago, fear, uncertainty, and doubt are their main products.
We need leaders instead who stand up for science, and stand up for evidence-based policy making, and are prepared to lead from the front, not the back, as Agriculture Minister Subramanian did when welcoming Borlaug into India in 1964, in the teeth of opposition from traditionalists and from the rest of the cabinet. History shows Subramanian success, of course, which saw India's wheat harvest jump by 5 million tons in a single year. Had those with the leadership skills of Jairam Ramesh been in charge in 1964, the door would have been slammed in Borlaug's face, and there would have been no Green Revolution, and India might still be starving today.
Now, this is not to suggest that science is perfect, or that the only roadblocks come from short-sighted politicians and ideologically motivated activists. The scientific establishment has its own orthodoxies and rigidities, and Dr. Borlaug battled against them, often with varying degrees of success. He frequently said that the top scientists were the key barriers to progress, because they were too invested in the way that things have always been done, and too worried that new approaches will lose them influence and stature.
Science has failed to produce leaders of Borlaug's caliber, unfortunately. Leaders who are determined to get past political roadblocks. Instead, I keep meeting scientists who are quietly frustrated. Who continue with their laboratory work, seemingly in psychological denial of the fact that the current political and regulatory climate means that their new genetically improved crop varieties can never be grown outside the laboratory. Outside the walls of a screenhouse, or outside the high fences of a 24-hour guarded field trial.
Today, science is under assault, and the quiet life is no longer an option. As the researchers at IRRI have recently discovered with the vandalizing of their Golden Rice project, if you don't go to them, they will come to you. The activists will use every weapon, fair means or foul, physically destroying research if necessary, locking up the courts, publishing propaganda in the press, all to stop agricultural biotechnology.
Those scientists who work in this sector aren't there by accident, and I know that they're not attracted by the high rates of pay. They're doing it because they believe in what they're doing. Plant breeders I meet are passionate about their work and its potential to benefit society. And yet society, for some reason, refuses to hear their message, and the researchers in turn seem unsure about how to respond.
As I know personally from the climate change arena, scientific training does not lead easily to victory in propaganda battles, and the use of emotive language. The very skills which, I think, make a good scientist, are unfortunately a fundamental source of weakness in a debate with winners and losers. It's therefore time, perhaps, to change the paradigm.
Scientists must be clearer that the debate on GM is over, and that there is no meaningful discussion within the scientific community about the inherent safety of genetic engineering, any more than there is about the reality of climate change. Just as climate change deniers do, anti-GM activists will always find someone who claims scientific credentials in order to battle against biotechnology. The onus is therefore on the scientific community as a whole to organize, and to clearly communicate a consensus position, not just once, but repeatedly, as the field evolves.
We also need to somehow change a situation where conducting perfectly safe transgenics work is always shut away in Level 2 biosafety facilities as if they were developing germ warfare, and subject to regulations which threaten enormous fines and lengthy jail sentences if a single fragment of modified DNA ever leaves the laboratory under anything but the strictest conditions. As [? Calesta ?] [? Steumer ?] has argued, the entire framing of GM regulation as coming under the aegis of biosafety and biodiversity is wrong. By the way, [? Calesta ?] [? Steumer ?] is a former chair of the Biodiversity Convention. And he says clearly that there's no inherent threat of GM crops to biodiversity, any more or less than there is from any other cultivated species.
The issue is the agricultural system, not the genotype of the particular cultivar which is grown. And the actual data suggests that the current generation of GM crops have been good for biodiversity. This particularly applies to Bt crops-- Bt cotton in particular-- which, combined, have reduced insecticide applications by 500 million kilograms since 1996.
So I think we need to address this constant confusion between genetic diversity and the gene pool of cultivars on one hand, and the natural biodiversity of wild species on the other. Too many activist groups call themselves biodiversity campaigners when they do nothing but promote low productivity agriculture, which overall worsens biodiversity impacts through the inefficient use of land.
We also need to work much harder to break the erroneous public perception that biotechnology is somehow umbilically linked to chemical monoculture. This is actually the opposite of the truth. Instead, the trend that we see is away from chemistry in crop protection towards biology in crop protection. This means moving away from chemical sprays which kill non-target organisms and damage biodiversity, and towards biological traits like Bt, which are highly pest-specific.
Here, the industry structure itself is arguably at fault. I want to see biotech seeds being a truly disruptive technology to free farmers from the necessity to purchase chemical pesticides. Most importantly, perhaps, we need to break out of the verbal and mental straitjacket of the GMO.
Perhaps it's now time to abolish the terms GM and GMO, and for the world to catch up with the scientific reality that there's no monolithic category of GM or non-GM plant breeding. Instead, there's a whole spectrum of different ways for identifying, copying, editing, transferring, cloning, and synthesizing genes, which in turn utilize a variety of interrelated ways of modifying the genome.
As has been said repeatedly for many decades, everything we eat is genetically modified-- excuse me-- it has a living origin. And the only way to breed new varieties of crops is to modify genes by one approach or another.
For example, if these rust resistant strains Sr33 and Sr35 are stacked into commercial varieties of wheat, everyone, of course, is going to be asking, but is it GMO? And of course the answer should be, it's not the process that matters, but the characteristics of the plant that you produce. Because there's absolutely no evidence that the modern techniques used to transfer genes are dangerous in any way.
At the moment, in Europe and elsewhere, you could end up with a crop with an identical genome, and yet the process for producing it would lead to either permanent regulatory limbo in the transgenic case, or an immediate free pass in any other. Now that scientists can so easily and quickly sequence genomes, they can prove that transgenic techniques working at the molecular level are far less disturbing to the genome than chemical mutagenesis, for example, and even more benign, also, than the major disruptions caused by what is now known as traditional plant breeding.
So what is GMO? Is it using a zinc finger nuclease, which targets a mutation to a specific gene guided by its nucleotide sequence? Is that GMO? It isn't called that now. Is polyploidization doubling the number of chromosomes GMO? That isn't labeled, either.
Of specific interest to this meeting is combining Sr33 and Sr35 genes into a single cassette and inserting them into a wheat embryo-- is that GMO? Because it's called that at the moment, because we added a gene. But we're talking about wheat genes being added into wheat, so why the big fuss?
You could, of course, plausibly do this conventionally as well, but it would take years, you'd have serious linkage drag, and stacking the resistance genes would be next to impossible. And by the time you got the new varieties out there to farmers in the field, it would be 2024, and the rust would probably have evolved a way around it already. This is why, in my view, scientists should begin to insist that regulators and others move out of the simplistic GMO or non-GMO trench warfare.
How the plant is modified is not important. What's important is what its properties are. If the plant is a familiar one, like wheat, and you added one trait, like a gene for a protein that you know isn't toxic or isn't allergenic, then the plant is merely the sum of what you started with and what you added. Not some strange new Frankencrop. If we're to unlock the potential for modern molecular techniques to fully contribute to improving and protecting the wheat crop in particular, then we have to break out of the GMO prison.
Now overall, this matters today perhaps more than it ever did before. In the 1960s, Norman Borlaug faced opposition from ecologists who argued that feeding a growing population was neither necessary nor desirable. Better to let a few millions die now, went the argument from Paul Ehrlich and Garrett Harding, in order to stop the teeming masses breeding yet more millions in the future, and further growing the future world population. Morally repugnant this may have been, but you still hear echoes of similar arguments being advanced in some circles today.
And let's not forget that Borlaug himself was extremely concerned about population growth. He may not have been a Malthusian, but he was certainly no cornucopian either. He knew that just leaving everything to the market would be a recipe for failure, and that feeding a rapidly growing population required dedicated and determined research over many years, combined with wider efforts to reduce population growth.
In his acceptance speech for the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize, Borlaug warned that the agricultural breakthroughs for which he was being honored would only provide a brief window of respite from the challenge of providing food for a growing world population. Thanks to the Green Revolution, that window stayed open for longer than perhaps he anticipated. But today it may well be starting to close. So Borlaug bought us 50 years, but what will we do now?
For wheat specifically, the rate of population growth and human population has been nearly double the rate of yield improvement. And in some parts of the world, yields have not just stagnated, but declined. Overall, according to the latest research, we need to increase total food production by at least 100% by the middle of this century. For the current rates of yield improvement across all major food crops will see us fall about 50% short of this target.
India alone is going to have to feed 400 million more mouths in the next 30 years or so. A billion more people will join the population worldwide within the next 12 years. The fastest population growth rates, incidentally, correspond closely with the areas of the developing world that have the lowest rates of agricultural productivity.
So the conclusion is, biotechnology is a necessary but not sufficient component of any global response to this challenge. Using biotechnology will not guarantee success, but refusing biotechnology may well guarantee failure.
And we know what failure looks like. It looks like those children I met two weeks ago in East Africa, whose families' cassava crops are dying in the fields from viral diseases, while resistant and healthy cassava varieties are locked in the lab because they're demonized as being GMO.
We celebrate Norman Borlaug today because for him, despite multiple setbacks and personal and professional challenges, failure was not an option. Plant breeders now need to reclaim some of this indomitable spirit for the battles that lie ahead, whether against wheat rust, anti-biotech denialists, or backward-looking politicians.
Let's therefore be clear. If we're to win the battle for food security, we need our researchers to be free to use all of the tools of modern science. We need our farmers around the world to be free to choose which varieties of crops they wish to grow. And we need our policymakers and the media to lead society away from the pervasive cloud of negative mythology and denialism that's held back agricultural progress in recent years.
To my mind, it would be a betrayal of Borlaug's legacy if we don't allow scientists to use the tools of biotechnology to advance future food security. And I hope all of you will join today with me in pledging that you will not let that happen. Thank you very much.
I think we're doing what's traditionally known as a Q&A. But feel free to make any lengthy comments that come to mind.
GURJEET SINGH MANN: Thank you, Mark. Any questions from the audience? I hope there must be several questions. Shall we get a microphone?
MARK LYNAS: Do we have microphones? Over there-- over there, on the--
GURJEET SINGH MANN: Left side. Just check it.
RAVI SINGH: Thank you. Thank you for the nice presentation. I am Ravi Singh, from CIMMYT in Mexico. And my question to you, what kind of suggestions you can offer to a scientist and public to be able to reverse the negative trend, which is already quite deeply ingrained in this society. You know, when you talk to people, if not 90%, at least 80% people will say no, we don't want GM food. So what suggestions can you give us?
MARK LYNAS: Well, that's probably the most important question facing us today. I think what's happened with GM is probably the single greatest science communications failure of the last half century. How come I grew up as a young-- well, I'm not so young now-- environmentalist, believing that GM crops were somehow a monumental threat to the environment? How come science failed to inform the environmental movement in a way which got environmentalists on side for this major scientific endeavor?
So we've now had 15, 20 years of mythology promoted around the world on biotechnology, and hundreds of millions, probably billions of people, have come to believe the stories about GM which are not just wrong in part, but overall, the precise opposite of the truth. Now, having taken a decade to establish this monumental lie, you're not going to overturn it in 24 hours, or even a year or two. It's going to take a very long, a very determined, and very well organized campaign by science to set the balance right and to set the story straight at every single level, locally, nationally, and globally.
And I think science can only do this-- and by the way, I should acknowledge that there is, of course, a lot of diversity within the scientific community about different aspects of this. So I'm not arguing there should be a monolithic single science story. But perhaps look at the way that the climate change field has been organized. We've had the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which of course itself has become a lightning rod for a lot of the politics and ideology, but has successfully communicated a very clear position on where the evidence base lies for the science of climate change.
Now we need similar levels of clarity and organization, I think, from the biotechnology community. How you get to that process I would leave others to discuss. But I think when it comes to communications, it's important to organize science in such a way that scientific perspectives can be brought to the fore of the media coverage at the very beginning.
And that requires straightforward, practical things like instant response in the media. Providing, quote, "straight [INAUDIBLE] stories" leading the media agenda. Having databases of journalists, so that scientists can communicate with them directly. And also, I think, science working across different disciplines. So rather than just having a single biotech science institute to communicate with the media, you'd also bring in medicine, you'd bring in natural sciences, and so on, and bring all of these aspects together.
I think the Science Media Center in the UK is a good model, and there's other science media centers elsewhere as well, for how this works. And I think our own media debates and media landscape in the UK has become much more fact based, as a result of what the Science Media Center does. And that's just a very small number of people working closely with scientific experts from across these disciplines talking regularly with the media. That's what it takes, and it's made a big, big difference.
AUDIENCE: I enjoyed your talk.
MARK LYNAS: Could you identify yourself, please?
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE], Indian Council of Agricultural Research. From your presentation, one thing is very clear. The Bt brinjal got hijacked in India with a single person decision. Which is partly true. And this is important truth.
Now, this decision could have been reversed if that person could have supported or favored science-based decision of [INAUDIBLE]. Now, it is this particular recombinant DNA technology science, I don't think it can be done democratically. It cannot be done with the mass communication. It has to be accepted and taken at the highest level.
And the scientists first need to take a decision for a country, or a large country like India, to how these things should move. Later part, scientific arguments need to be communicated to the people. I'd like your opinion, please.
MARK LYNAS: Well, thank you for that observation about Jairam Ramesh's role. I think the voices of two constituencies were missing when that debate was carried out. And it's almost now too late to do anything about the technical evaluation committee, or the way that this process has now run into the sand in exactly the way the activists wanted it to. Because the odds were stacked at the very beginning by the way the process was organized at the behest of certain activists, who themselves had, as I understand it, monumental conflicts of interest in exporting organic food, and going directly to the very top of the political landscape here in India.
Now, the two lobbies that were missing, the two constituencies that were missing in that political debate, whose voices should have been there putting pressure on the key ministers at the time, were number one, science, and number two, farming. Now, the organization as a farmers landscape, as far as I know, is very fractured. There's literally seems to be hundreds of groups who all call themselves farmers associations, and claim to represent farmers.
Now, perhaps this isn't surprising for a country which has hundreds of millions of people working in agriculture. But at the same time, I would have thought that the right to have the choice of what seeds to plant would be a fairly important perspective to bring forward, rather than having a national prohibition on an entire agricultural technology on the basis of what is no more than superstition.
The second voice that should have been much more clearly is, of course, the voice of science. And as I understand it, too many scientists, particularly in the public sector, who are the ones who are seen as independent, rather than those who are already working in the commercial industry, felt constrained by the nature of their employment as state public servants from campaigning openly and publicly, and using the media to get the scientific perspective across much more clearly at the beginning. But I think people will have to stand up and be counted, because if you don't do that, then your entire life's work gets shot away from underneath you.
So that's maybe the lesson for next time. The problem with any single decision, like with Bt brinjal, is it holds up an entire sector, which is what the activists are now trying to do in the Philippines as well, with the court case on Talong, and of course the attacks on Golden Rice. If you can stop a single thing-- and remember, delay is as good as a prohibition, as I say-- then you can have a situation where the whole field is plunged into a level of uncertainty.
Again, this happened in Kenya, post-Seralini, with that awful pseudo-scientific study with rats and cancer. What happened was that the public health minister, who herself is a cancer survivor, was given this story by activists, and believed that somehow her cancer had been caused by GMOs. She went into a cabinet meeting and demanded that there be a moratorium. And the president agreed at that point.
So then there was a moratorium across all of Kenyan research. All of the agricultural system was thrown into complete chaos and disarray. The regulator wasn't even consulted. And there's a biosafety regulator now in place in Kenya. And no one even knows what the situation is, and no one's doing anything about it. And so a single thing, a single piece of misinformation, a single roadblock can cause enormous problems here, which is precisely why science needs to be at the forefront of how we can tackle this.
GURJEET SINGH MANN: Please send the microphone.
MARK LYNAS: He has a microphone.
SANJAY RAJARAM: Sanjay Rajaram, consultant with ICARDA. I live in Mexico. I was just wondering what is the rationale that we support-- I mean, we have already accepted certain biotech crops, like cotton, soya beans, and maize, but we don't accept other ones. So what is the rationale in that one?
MARK LYNAS: I think the crops, the GM crops that were accepted, were the ones that slipped in under the radar before the anti-GM movement really got going. So that would be soya, of course, and maize in particular. I think part of the origin of this, and one of the things which, if I think back, turned me into an anti-GM activist, was the issue of herbicide tolerance. Because this did appear to be a clear connection between chemical dependent monoculture and this new technology of genetic modification.
Now, of course we know now that there's umpteen different applications of biotech, which may necessitate chemical use, or hopefully can eventually reduce and eliminate it. So it's a very complex picture. But the roadblocks which have appeared since then have forbade us from moving any further with most of the rest of the crops.
You know, I would like to see vegetable-- horticultural products made available which have biotech applications. Even for me as a very small-scale potato grower-- and I mean small-scale in the sense that it's about four square meters-- every time we have a wet, warm summer in the UK, I would lose the whole crop from late blight. Commercial growers, of course, use fungicides to a pretty dramatic extent-- something like one application per week throughout the growing season. So that's 14 or 15 doses of fungicide to tackle a late blight.
Now, small-scale growers, and of course organic growers, can't use this. So what are we to do? Well, we lose the crop. And in fact my dad, who's an organic grower himself and grows potatoes, wrote to the organic certification body, the Soil Association in the UK, and said, why can't I have a GM potato, which is blight resistant? Doesn't need any chemicals. That seems to me to be fully organic.
And they wrote back, saying, well, it's because of Monsanto, and blah de blah de blah. They had no arguments. Because there are no arguments. Actually, biotech is the one thing that could make organic work.
So I think the thing is to somehow get the message out that these applications can have nutritional benefits. They can bring the things that organic was trying to do, in terms of a more agroecological approach, to the forefront. And that's something which might resonate with consumers, and it might resonate with people as a whole who believe that somehow there's a necessary connection between big business multinationals and biotechnology on the other hand.
KISHORE RAJAGOPALAN: Hi. My name is Kishore Rajagopalan from National Research Council of Canada. This is more of a comment than a question. So your talk remind me of a recent conversation I had with my friends when I was visiting them.
And he was telling that there were a bunch of engineers, chemical engineers, and they were talking about food products-- produce in the supermarket, and how they look and feel bigger and nicer. And somebody brought up in the conversation that they were all genetically modified, and that's why they were all looking much healthier than before. And the bunch of engineers, they were pretty convinced that they were eating GMO already, and it was going to mutate them, and cause cancer, and stuff like that.
So I was feeling it was not just misinformed activists in Kenya or Tanzania who propagate these ideas, but it's a wider perception among non-biologists that GMO is bad, and it's going to cause mutations and diseases in consumers. So I guess the point is that, as biotechnologists or biologists, we need to take up every opportunity to visit any forum and propagate the messages that this is safe, and it's how we need to tackle the food problem.
GURJEET SINGH MANN: Just two questions after this. But be, please, very brief, as he's running out of time. He's not afraid of questions at all.
MARK LYNAS: I just wanted to say, that's true, of course. And you could run an opinion poll on any street corner probably anywhere in the world and ask people whether they want genes in their food, and the majority would say no, thank you very much. Without having any knowledge that all living material contains DNA, of course. So you're not going to get over some of the very basic levels of public ignorance about biology.
But all people need to know is that this stuff is safe, and that it's not significantly different from what they're already eating. And so you can't expect to train people on any biology in the process of doing this. It just has to be a straightforward issue about food safety. And that's what people need to be convinced of.
GURJEET SINGH MANN: Time is already over. But I'll take just one minute, that whatever is said, you must add one thing-- we farmers, as well as you scientists. We should have at least 5% of temperament of the great Dr. Borlaug. We most directly interact with farmers.
If you go to farmers, naturally media will also go to remote places. Otherwise, mostly I have seen that media doesn't go to the real farmers who are quite far away from the cities, and their voices are really not appearing in media and newspapers. And if every scientist, especially the senior scientists, go to the farms, like Dr. Borlaug, half of the thing will be done, and people will have very little apprehensions about GMO and all that. Thank you, Mark. Thank you for a very good session.
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Mark Lynas, a visiting research associate at Oxford, delivered the keynote speech, "Using the Tools of Biotechnology to Advance Borlaug's Legacy," at the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative 2013 Technical Workshop on August 20.