Does Mark Lynas Represent Leadership or Divisiveness in Agriculture?

Posted on April 4, 2013

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Background

A lot has been said and written about Mark Lynas since his infamous speech to the Oxford Farming Conference in January. To the pro-biotech community, he’s their latest hero: a self-declared “leader” of the anti-GMO movement who “suddenly discovered science” and now offers his unwavering support to genetically-modified crops. To others he’s a “traitor” to the environmental movement.

I’m not going to spend a great deal of time re-hashing this debate, except to note that the text of his speech and his subsequent reaction to any criticism of it makes it quite clear to me that his change of opinion amounts to more of an ideological flip-flop than the “discovery of science” that he purports to have made. How else could one explain the rather facile repetition of the favourite talking points of the biotech industry, coupled with completely unscientific, unfounded, and inflammatory attacks on organic agriculture? Surely a truly scientific mind could develop a more nuanced position?

The William A. Stewart Lecture

Regardless, Mark Lynas has now become somewhat of an institution (along with his eponymous .org website with its prominent “donate” button). In late January, Ontario’s Advanced Agricultural Leadership Program (AALP) announced that it was bringing Lynas to Ontario to give its biennial William A. Stewart Lecture. AALP, in its own words, is  “a 19-month executive development opportunity for men and women actively involved in Ontario’s agriculture and food industry. Its aim is to provide our industry’s current and emerging leaders with the skills, knowledge, broad perspective and positive attitude needed for the future.” The Lecture is one of its premier “fund-raising and friend-raising” events.

Now, I am a graduate of AALP, having completed Class 9 in 2003. The experience had a profound and lasting effect on my life, and I’m proud to have been a part of it. Imagine then my consternation when this announcement was made. In my opinion, AALP has always stood for unity and cooperation across all sectors of agriculture. At a time when agriculture sorely needs to work together to face the challenges and opportunities of the future, giving voice to Lynas’ ill-informed rhetoric and vitriolic attacks seems like the antipathy of these goals and values, serving only as a divisive force. After expressing my concerns to the AALP leadership, I was assured that the program “supported choice and open discussion” and does “not take a stand on any particular issue.”

Oddly, however, AALP has consistently promoted the event with the phrase:

You may not recognize the name but this global leader who formerly opposed GMOs recently publicly reversed his position on the importance of technology and modern agriculture at a conference in England in early January 2013.

The obvious implication here is that opposition to GMOs is a denial of the importance of “technology” and “modern” agriculture. This is clearly false, given the vast array of technologies available to today’s farmers, along with the fact that a wide variety of production methods manage to coexist in the present-day era. I would hesitate to accuse AALP of a deliberate bias, but the squarely “in-the-box” perspective of this statement is quite disappointing.

I am certain AALP could have found a speaker who would have highlighted the importance of the massive range of technologies and wide diversity of modern agricultural systems available to us, but alas, it is what it is, and tonight, April 4th, will see Mark Lynas give his speech in London, Ontario. Reportedly he is to speak on what it means for a leader to reverse an earlier-held position and the impact and meaning of such a shift in opinion.

A Proposal

Considering all this, I have a suggestion for those in attendance. Complete the following two thought experiments and then answer the last three questions:

  1. While you’re sitting and listening to Lynas talk, imagine for a moment that you are listening to a former executive of Monsanto, who has recently recanted his support of GMO crops, begged forgiveness for all the misdeeds of his former employer, and now promotes organic farming with all the zeal of a religious convert.
  2. Every time you hear the word “GMO”, replace it with “organic,” and vice versa.
  3. Would the speech seem fair and unbiased either way?
  4. Would farmers of all stripes feel accepted and included in this room?
  5. Is this an example of leadership you would strive to emulate?

I hope that the answer to all three questions is yes. I sincerely wish that this event doesn’t end up representing a significant missed opportunity to promote unity and true leadership in Ontario’s agricultural community. Please let me know: I’d welcome any comments, especially from those who attend the speech – I look forward to your feedback and discussion.

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Posted in: Agriculture