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Of Myths and Men: Mark Lynas and the Intoxicating Power of Technocracy

"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

Why do certain people and ideas suddenly capture the limelight while others go unnoticed? Others seem never to go away... The recent ascent of environmental writer Mark Lynas to prominence in the debate on genetically modified crops (GMOs) is a lesson in the power of myths.

Mark Lynas at Oxford: "I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough. So my conclusion here today is very clear: the GM debate is over. It is finished." Screen shot from videoIn a broadly-aired speech at the Oxford Farming Conference, Mr. Lynas publicly apologized for once destroying GMO crops while at Greenpeace. His recent discovery of "science," he said gave him no choice but to support the pro-GMO cause. He accused GMO naysayers of exacerbating hunger. Though he was promptly skewered by his former environmental allies, his dramatic conversion has been loudly celebrated by the champions of agro-industry.

The laundry list of what Mark Lynas got wrong about both GMOs and science is extensive, and has been refuted point by point by some of the world's leading agroecologists and biologists (though none have received the extensive media coverage allotted to Mr. Lynas). Mark Lynas' insistence that the scientific debate on GMOs is "over" suggests he's actually embraced ideology over evidence. Scientific debate is never over. As Thomas Kuhn's classic "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" made clear, science is not merely an accumulation of facts. It is a body of knowledge determined by history and ever-changing intellectual fashions, so that even the most widely accepted beliefs about science are subject to dramatic paradigm shifts. Thus, it is doubtful that the mainstream science to which Mr. Lynas now professes allegiance will have the last word on hunger.

But the problem is not Mark Lynas.

Though he has been celebrated as a maverick environmentalist, in fact, his views on GMOs and mainstream science are compatible with the "Big Three" mainstream conservation giants: the World Wildlife Fund, Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy. Just like the monopolies that control the seed and chemical industry and the governmental agencies that provide them with the revolving doors they use to ensure industry-friendly policies, these global conservationists carefully select the science that advances their political and economic interests and ignore the science that calls their position -- and their power -- into question. All of them espouse corporate ideologies that dress up their assumptions as facts. Mr. Lynas' high-profile conversion sheds no new evidence on the issues. It does, however, reinforce the myth-making power of the global technocracy.

The Big Three, for example, cling dogmatically to a theory called "Island Biogeography" that relates species richness (biodiversity) to "islands" of suitable habitat. Based in part on Darwin's observations in the Galapagos and tested with powerful biocides on islands in the Caribbean, the theory posits that species-rich islands exist in a species-inert sea that biologists call a "matrix." Over time, the islands in the matrix that are larger and closest to the mainland will have greater species richness than those are smaller and farther away. In modern-day, big conservationism, this theory is applied to forest fragments ("islands") in the "matrix" of agricultural landscapes that are assumed to be as biologically inert as the surface of the ocean. This drives the Big Three to acquire large nature reserves (often linking them with corridors) in order to preserve biodiversity. It also drives them to strike Faustian bargains with industrial agriculture: Big agriculture will support the Big Three's strategy to buy up land for nature reserves. In return, the Big Three will endorse Big Agriculture's new GMO technologies.

According to Big Agriculture, transgenic crops increase the amount of food grown on available cropland. In technocratic parlance, this is called "sustainable intensification," and is assumed to reduce agricultural pressure on nature reserves. Proponents claim it will produce more food. True champions -- Monsanto, Bill Gates and a phalanx of corporate scientists -- believe it is the only way to end global hunger.

The Big Three are right by a half; the enormous industrial plantations planted to GMOs do indeed turn vast agricultural landscapes into uniform matrices called "green deserts." These single-species plantations, devoid of weeds, insects and even mammals, are dominated by monocrops like soy, corn or sugarcane, and require extremely high levels of investment. Their large economies of scale are very lucrative for traders, processors and chemical suppliers of seed and herbicides. The industrial plantation matrix is capital-rich, but species-poor. It also employs very few people.

However, if we use more recent ecological theory and the science of agroecology to understand global agriculture, the theory of island biogeography and its corollary of sustainable intensification begin to unravel.

First of all, contrary to corporate myth, when yield is measured in pounds per acre, small peasant and family farms regularly out-produce plantation agriculture. Even the United States Department of Agriculture admits this. But because smallholders generally cultivate poly-cultures (multiple species and varieties in the same field at the same time) their per-acre yield of a single crop species is necessarily lower than an acre of monoculture -- after all, some of the field space is taken up by other crops. When the net primary productivity of all crops in the polyculture is considered, monocultures usually come in second in productivity.

In reality, none of the industrial plantations actually grow food for the hungry -- they grow feed and fuel for the meat and energy appetites of the planet's middle classes. Contrary to corporate myth, smallholder agriculture -- not industrial agriculture -- feeds most of the world.

Second, because smallholder agriculture tends to be so biologically diverse, mixing field crops with trees, fish, apiculture, etc., and because this requires extensive knowledge and management of seeds, soils, water and fauna, it does not at all resemble species-inert industrial agriculture. On the contrary, in their path-breaking work "Nature's Matrix," biologists John Vandermeer, Ivette Perfecto and Angus Wright -- longtime experts in tropical agroecology and peasant agriculture -- demonstrate that overall biodiversity on farms and in forests is actually enhanced by smallholder agriculture. This is because 'the nature of these forest fragments is not nearly as important for species conservation as is the nature of the matrix of agriculture that surrounds them.' Species will inevitably go extinct in the Big Three's conservation fragments unless they are replenished by species coming from a species-rich matrix. The theory of island biogeography may apply to islands in the Caribbean, but it is a failed model when looking at smallholder and agroecologically-managed agriculture. The agro-biodiversity of these farms is not part of the industrial farming matrix but actually part of "nature's matrix." Their conservation is as essential to conserving forests and biodiversity as the conservation of nature reserves.

Won't GMO technologies lift all agricultural boats? No. This is another corporate myth. Smallholders can't afford the expensive seeds, fertilizers, Roundup, 2-4D and all the attendant pesticides that GMO crops now require. Further, they are not needed. The science and practice of agroecology allows farmers to manage the agroecosystem itself to manage pests and maintain soil fertility by increasing, not decreasing biodiversity. The application of Roundup produces "superweeds" and kills the plants that these farmers depend on for food and agroecosystem management. Transgenic plants that "grow" their own pesticide thanks to the infusion of genes from Baccillus thurengensis result in the annihilation of beneficial insects and pest resistance that eventually requires more applications of pesticides. Smallholders that switch over to GMO monocultures risk going broke and starving. Further, monocultures do not produce food for smallholder families or their communities but for the global commodity markets where small farmers are unable to compete with the market power of the industrial plantations.

Why don't we just allow the invisible hand of the marketplace to push these "inefficient" producers out of the market and give industry (and big conservation) its way with the food system?

It is conceivable that the two billion or so smallholders that presently feed over half the world could be replaced by 50 million industrial farms. These could (albeit not terribly sustainably) produce enough food to feed the 10 billion people we expect on the planet by 2050. But there are two big questions here.

First, the fact is we already produce enough for 10 billion and we still have one in seven people (a billion or so) going hungry. They are hungry because they are poor and can't afford to buy the food already being produced.

The second big question is, where would all the displaced farmers go? There is no new industrial revolution on the horizon to sop up all this surplus labor. Migration rates are already far beyond urban and Northern labor requirements, generating droves of veritable 'refugees' of industrial agriculture, who have lost the means to sustain themselves and their communities. The challenge of ending hunger is to provide sustainable agricultural livelihoods for those who actually produce most of the world's food. This will not be accomplished by industrial agriculture's GMOs, but by agroecological, smallholder agriculture. As an added benefit, they will cool the planet by capturing carbon and preserve agrobiodiversity with their diversified practices.

So why is the science of agroecology and the tremendous potential of the world's smallholders consistently ignored by mainstream science, Big Agriculture and the Big Three?
Quite simply, Big Money.

The monopolies in the fuel, chemical and agri-foods industries must dominate global markets and continually expand their land-based operations in order to ensure a 3% compound return rate to their shareholders. If they don't, their stock will fall. Staying in the game requires monopoly control of the world's seeds, inputs, grain and processing. For this purpose, applications drawn from the sciences of molecular biology and genetics are used to engineer GMOs. Contrary to industrial myth, genetic engineering is not science; it is engineering, based on particular branches of science. While the science of molecular biology can be quite complex and rigorous, the genetic engineering of seeds is actually somewhat blundering and imprecise... one reason it is so expensive. Genetics is also quite complex. Its application to crop breeding has produced high-yielding hybrids that require massive applications of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. The marriage of hybrids and GMOs results in a product that perfectly meets the needs of industry: a high-yielding seed that not only requires the chemical inputs these companies produce, it allows for the proprietary ownerships of the seed's genes, thus ensuring monopoly control over continental landscapes like the U.S. Midwest and the Brazilian Cerrado.

The myths linking Mark Lynas' environmentalism to GMOs have their origins in monopoly control, outdated conservation theory and hack engineering. This all makes for a powerful ideological cocktail that requires capable mixologists. Had Mark Lynas not stepped forward as corporate bartender, someone else would have. Indeed, industry's technocracy has a reserve army of bureaucrats standing ready to defend Big Agriculture. But Lynas offered the colorful little umbrella balanced prominently on the rim, calling the media's attention for yet another drink from the potent well of industrial mythology.

Bottoms up, Mr. Lynas.

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