I never completely trust people who have Damascene conversions but Mark Lynas is an interesting man. He's certainly caused something of a stir today with his speech to the Oxford Farming Conference. I have just watched a recording of it. Quite compelling. He explained with simplistic clarity why he changed from being a GM crop trashing 'green' activist into a raging enthusiast without any doubts - and roundly rubbishes those who don't agree, including the 'greens'. No-one as certain as the convert! Personally, I've always had a rather uncertain attitude towards GM, not having been prepared to accept commercial growing without comprehensive trials to establish safety. I was much involved in this debate as Chair of successive 'rural' committees over several years when a member of the National Assembly for Wales. Problem with my approach, which demanded successful 'pilot' schemes before GM crops could be grown commercially was that all trials in Wales were being 'trashed' by people like Mark Lynas! So wales was declared GM Free.
Now lets look at Mark's position today. He has apologised fulsomely for his previous attitudes and actions. He now concedes that he was completely wrong. Science has shown him that it was a mistake in the past to have opposed GM. GM crops use far less damaging insecticides. GM crops bring benefits to poorer nations of the world and will reduce poverty and malnutrition. GM crops will succeed with less need for water. GM crops will feed the projected world population of 9.5 billion in 2050. He also reckons that organic farming can co-exist peacefully with GM. I'm not at all sure that these are all unchallengeable assertions.
All this is very interesting to a Welsh politician because of Wales' is 'GM Free' status - whatever that means. Mark Lynas was particularly scathing about Wales. The Welsh 'declaration' was agreed because GM's safety has not been proven in Wales. I still recall discussions where I used to ask how the safety of GM could ever be proven if it was not allowed to be grown in trials! I supposed that trials would have to take place in England - which is pretty much what happened. I remember visiting a site in Sealand, nr Chester to discuss the whole issue with a GM grower. He showed me some of his trashed crop plants. Activists had turned up wearing white 'space suits' to do their thing. At the time I thought they were damn stupid - and seen no reason to change my view since.
Anyway, I do think Mark Lynas moved the debate on today. We already have Owen Paterson, new Environment Secretary giving GM a big thumbs up. We have a colleague of mine, George Freeman MP campaigning strongly on GM's behalf in Parliament. For me, its what it always has been - a development about which I am wary and suspicious. But as with other scientific developments, the genie cannot be put back in the bottle. GM crops are going to be grown around the world, whether we like it or not. Just turning our backs on GM as some sort of gesture is not good enough. We must proceed with care and transparency - but proceed we must. Mark Lynas has probably persuaded several today.