There are few public issues more contentious than genetically modified organisms in food. And the GMO debate has an unequalled capacity to divide business and committed activism.
So it was highly newsworthy when a leading British anti-GM activist came out and said the whole campaign was a mistake.
Mark Lynas was once an angry anti-corporate anarchist who wrote about the evils of GMOs; ripped up GM crops; attacked the GM company Monsanto; and helped organise a Mayday riot in central London which smashed windows at a McDonalds.
But in an extraordinary speech earlier this year he stunned a farming conference – and the whole industry – by announcing that he had been utterly and tragically wrong.
“I’m sorry I helped start the anti-GM movement back in the mid-1990s, and that I thereby assisted in demonising an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment,” he said. “As an environmentalist, and someone who believes that everyone in this world has a right to a healthy and nutritious diet of their choosing, I could not have chosen a more counter-productive path. Now I regret it completely.”
Predictably, his former friends at Greenpeace and Earth First and elsewhere quickly launched a determined offensive against a man they regarded as a traitor to the cause. They denied he was one of the founders of the anti-GM movement. They denied his contribution had been significant. They said his views were nothing new. And they said his ascent to public attention was “a lesson in the power of myths.”
In fact it was reminiscent of the attack on Patrick Moore, one of the co-founders of Greenpeace, who dramatically left the organization after 15 years, claiming it had become “populated by little storm-troopers out to enforce anti-intellectual ideology.” Moore says that by the mid-1980s the environmental movement had abandoned science and logic in favour of emotion and sensationalism. No wonder they labelled him the first ever “eco-Judas”
Meanwhile the latest activist disavowal has left corporate communicators and issue managers to simply watch on in amazement. The backflip by Mark Lynas is certainly not any cause for celebration, and it is certainly not the last word on the GMO debate.
But it undoubtedly is a reminder for serious participants in any high profile contentious issue to think hard about the motivation and intentions of some of the more extreme activists.
As Greenpeace turncoat Patrick Moore concluded: “They hate me because I challenge their beliefs. And what they hold are beliefs, not opinions based on factual information. The reason I left was to move on to solution-focused work. The people I left behind are not interested in solutions. They are interested in activism.”