Who would’ve thought the scientific community could be so hostile to dissent? Just like the reaction to attempts to debate climate change, the environmental community is up in arms over one scientist’s about-face on the dangers of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in farming. Huffington Post reports on the controversy:

Last Thursday, Lynas gave a speech at a conference on farming at Oxford University. The response was immediate and overwhelming. Bloggers blogged, tweeters tweeted and Lynas’s own website crashed under the onslaught.

Had Lynas revealed some dramatic discovery, or unveiled a path-breaking new campaign? No, he simply stated, in measured and scientific terms, that he had changed his mind.

Lynas had been a leading voice against using genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in farming. He was also sounding the alarm over climate change, and had immersed himself in climate science. When he belatedly did the same with GMOs, he found that a careful reading of the scientific evidence revealed that his previous opposition was untenable. At Oxford Lynas said he was, in a word, sorry.

Somewhat surprisingly, I had the same reaction as the Huffington Post’s Mark Tercek, the CEO of the Nature Conservancy to the speech and the uproar surrounding it:

Let’s not allow our beliefs and values to divide us. Lynas’s talk and website were swamped with some embarrassingly vitriolic and harsh criticism — because he opened a debate. That should never be the case. We are all stronger if we embrace science even when it surprises us by overturning some of our beliefs, and we are all stronger if we respect one another’s views. 

The tone of Lynas’s speech is as important as its content. He is not picking fights or making attacks; instead, he lays out his thinking and the evidence on which it is based. This is a key lesson for the environmental community. Of course we want passionate debate and discussion about different strategies; this can only move us forward. We do not seek nor could ever achieve lock-step agreement, but when the debate loses all connection to science, the environmental movement suffers badly in the long run.

Lynas described his participation in the highly successful campaign to ban GMO foods, explaining that “These fears [over the safety of GMOs] spread like wildfire, and within a few years GM was essentially banned in Europe, and our worries were exported by NGOs like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth to Africa, India and the rest of Asia, where GM is still banned today. This was the most successful campaign I have ever been involved with.” The most damaging effects of this campaign was felt in the developing world, Lynas explained:

The biggest risk of all is that we do not take advantage of all sorts of opportunities for innovation because of what is in reality little more than blind prejudice. Let me give you two examples, both regrettably involving Greenpeace.

Last year Greenpeace destroyed a GM wheat crop in Australia, for all the traditional reasons, which I am very familiar with having done it myself. This was publicly funded research carried out by the Commonwealth Scientific Research institute, but no matter. They were against it because it was GM and unnatural.

What few people have since heard is that one of the other trials being undertaken, which Greenpeace activists with their strimmers luckily did not manage to destroy, accidentally found a wheat yield increase of an extraordinary 30%. Just think. This knowledge might never have been produced at all, if Greenpeace had succeeded in destroying this innovation. As the president of the NFU Peter Kendall recently suggested, this is analogous to burning books in a library before anyone has been able to read them.

The second example comes from China, where Greenpeace managed to trigger a national media panic by claiming that two dozen children had been used as human guinea pigs in a trial of GM golden rice. They gave no consideration to the fact that this rice is healthier, and could save thousands of children from vitamin A deficiency-related blindness and death each year.

What happened was that the three Chinese scientists named in the Greenpeace press release were publicly hounded and have since lost their jobs, and in an autocratic country like China they are at serious personal risk. Internationally because of over-regulation golden rice has already been on the shelf for over a decade, and thanks to the activities of groups like Greenpeace it may never become available to vitamin-deficient poor people.

This to my mind is immoral and inhumane, depriving the needy of something that would help them and their children because of the aesthetic preferences of rich people far away who are in no danger from Vitamin A shortage. Greenpeace is a $100-million a year multinational, and as such it has moral responsibilities just like any other large company.

The entire speech is worth a watch (the video is below), especially his comments on organic farming, a fad that has taken the green community by storm. Two years ago the Heritage Foundation’s James M. Roberts released a paper that discussed the left’s knee-jerk opposition to GMO foods and its role in world food crises:

In the 1990s, radical green NGOs launched a broad-based campaign, mainly in Europe, to block food imports from developing countries that were produced using GMO seeds. They used scare tactics and junk science to question the safety of GMOs in the global food supply chain. The inefficient and heavily taxpayer-subsidized European agricultural sector also saw GMOs as an economic threat, which led to a marriage of convenience between the green NGOs and agribusiness protectionists.

Through advances in biotechnology, some food crops can be produced from GMO seeds that are more resistant to herbicides. In some cases, the plants themselves produce proteins that can kill predatory pests. Nobel Peace Prize winner and famed scientific pioneer Norman E. Borlaug wrote that GMOs could be a “salvation” for the world’s poor countries, “freeing them from obsolete, low-yielding, and more costly production technology.”

The major thrust of the Roberts paper, however, was on similar resistance to DDT and other chemical anti-malarial solutions. He writes:

Decades ago, the use of DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) was banned worldwide for what were generally seen as noble and unassailable environmental and public health reasons. Today, ample evidence shows that the ban on DDT spraying has been a tragic mistake. In developing countries, it is linked to millions of preventable deaths from malaria. Worse, some protectionist European business sectors and activist groups continue to exploit the fears of DDT in ways that increase the suffering of the poor around the world.

One might hope that the scientific community will take the Lynas speech, and the backlash attached to it, under consideration. The damaging effects of fad causes taken up by Western scientists have a very real and very deadly impact in the developing world. Even in the year 2013, children are dying from starvation despite technological advances that enable crops to be grown more efficiently and in more abundance. In the tropical world, children are daily dying from malaria, dengue fever and other mosquito-borne illnesses when chemical spraying has been proven safe and effective. There is no reason why so-called scientists dismissive of the scientific method should stand in the way of technological developments that have the ability to save an untold number of lives.