ENVIRONMENTAL campaigner Mark Lynas is set to unveil his intimate involvement in a failed activist plot to kidnap the world’s first cloned sheep Dolly.
Mr Lynas is best known for his apology to farmers and the world for his part over several years in establishing and turbo-charging the UK’s influential movement against Genetically Modified crops.
He expressed deep regret in his speech at the Oxford Farming Conference in early 2013 for “ripping up” GM test-crops while demonising the crop technology; despite its proven environmental benefits.
Mr Lynas is now set to release a new book next month which details his enlightening journey working behind the scenes with other ideologically driven activists - breaking the law and driving the grass roots campaign against farm biotechnology.
It shows how he reached a metaphysical crossroads after “discovering science” which prompted his change of mind on GMs, in order to maintain credibility as an evidence-based thought-leader and climate change author.
“As the economist J. M. Keynes is supposed to have said: ‘When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do sir?’,” he wrote in the new book.
“While changing your mind may be a sin in politics, in science it is supposed to be part of the job description.
“So I felt that I could make a case that not only was changing my mind a reasonable thing to do, it was the right thing to do on the basis of the actual evidence.”
His book, ‘SEEDS OF SCIENCE: How we got it wrong on GMOs’ adds to a growing list of publications including ‘Six Degrees: Our future on a hotter planet’ which won the 2008 Royal Society Science books prize.
In his new literary work, Mr Lynas talks about one of the strangest experiences he encountered during his time as an anti-GM campaigner, which started in the mid-1990’s, where a small and secret group planned what would have been “our most daring action of all, had it come off as intended”.
“This was a scheme that none of the participants spoke about for 15 years after the fact, for obvious reasons,” he writes.
“I reveal it now in print for the first time.
“We had decided to steal science’s first cloned farm animal, the world-famous Dolly the sheep.”
Mr Lynas said the group objected not just to the genetic engineering of crop plants and Monsanto but “against the whole forward march of scientific research in the area of biotechnology and the idea of technological control over intimate life processes such as reproduction”.
“For this reason we were strongly opposed to the emerging technology of animal cloning, and were also queasy about human reproductive advances such as the genetic screening of embryos, seeing it as a slippery slope towards eugenics,” he writes.
“We thought that sexual reproduction, as nature intended with all its pitfalls and complications, should be protected from technological intrusion.
“One proposed action to highlight what we saw as this artificial threat to sexual reproduction was a mass ‘ shag-in ’, where dozens, maybe hundreds, of us would have free sex in the open air in order to demonstrate that the natural way was best.
“I thought this was a terrific idea, and was very willing to be intimately involved in both the planning and the execution.
“Sadly the shag-in didn’t come to pass, as some great ideas never do.”
As part of the activist rampage, Mr Lyans said he and the other members of the anti-science movement came “pretty close” to stealing Dolly the sheep which was invented by scientists at the Roslin Institute, near Edinburgh.
“Three activists and I duly took ourselves up to Scotland one autumn day in mid-1998 to carry out our plan,” he wrote.
“During daylight I posed as an academic researcher and was granted access to the Roslin Institute library, supposedly to carry out research of some sort or other.
“Once past the front desk, I had free run of the corridors and roamed about trying to find which of the several exterior sheds was the one to contain Dolly.
“Meanwhile, one of the other activists, who was a surprisingly good voice mimic, pinned up her hair under a colourful floppy hat and adopted a Texas accent.
“She then pretended to be an American tourist lost on a nearby footpath that just happened to pass close to the same sheds I was trying to gain access to from the inside.”
Mr Lynas said by the evening the activists had decided that they knew the right livestock shed where Dolly was located.
After some tense moments getting into position to strike, the plan appeared as if it would succeed.
“There followed an hour or more of extremely chilly lying down waiting, under a thorn bush in a field just a few hundred yards from what we hoped was the right shed, while one of us tiptoed out to check that the coast was clear,” he wrote.
“It was, but the sheds were all locked.
“Moreover, they were full of sheep.
“As any half-competent shepherd can attest, all sheep look more or less the same.
“Moreover, cloned sheep, pretty much by definition, look even more the same.
“After all our elaborate precautions – we never discussed the action plan on the phone, for example, in case of police bugs – the Roslin Institute scientists had outfoxed us by hiding Dolly in plain sight.”
From anti-GM activist, to scientific enlightenment
Mr Lynas’s book explains that at the height of the UK’s anti-GM movement, 40 local authorities across Britain had joined a campaign to remove GM ingredients from school meals, retirement homes and council-run catering services.
The supermarket Sainsbury’s also announced it had removed all GM ingredients from its own-brand products and other retailers quickly rushed to follow its lead.
He said during the campaign, Prince Charles penned a “furious article” in the Telegraph declaring that genetic modification ‘takes mankind into realms that belong to God and God alone’ and warning of disastrous effects on human health and the environment.
Ex-Beatle Paul McCartney, shocked to discover that his wife Linda’s trademark line of meat-free products probably contained GM soy, demanded its immediate removal, he wrote.
“Even fast-food chains, including KFC and Burger King, fell over themselves to issue promises to go GM-free,” he said.
“This was no longer just a left-wing political concern.
“Britain’s leading right-wing middle-market tabloid, the Daily Mail, launched a ‘Genetic Food Watch’ campaign, carrying frequent scary headlines inevitably including the word ‘Frankenfood’.
“Newspapers around the world picked up on the British GM furore.
“It seemed amazing that only three years earlier the entire UK anti-GM campaign consisted of only half a dozen activists in a dingy Brighton squat.
“Now we had gone global.
“As the St Louis Post-Dispatch suggested, we had created a political earthquake, and the shockwaves were spreading worldwide.”
Mr Lynas said by 2002 there was “not much left to destroy” in the UK, as the total field ‘decontamination’ actions of GM crops having numbered over 70 in 1999, up from 40 the previous year and just a handful in 1997 when the movement first began to gain momentum.
He wrote that on one occasion, 10 GM national seed list trials, essential for the approval of commercial cultivation, were destroyed in the same night.
“Not only food crops were hit: in July 1999 night-time activists chopped down 50 genetically engineered reduced-lignin poplar trees being grown at Zeneca Plant Sciences in Berkshire,” he wrote.
“The trees were never replanted, and the programme was later terminated.
“In perhaps the most emblematic popular media image of the time, in February 1999 the tabloid Daily Mirror printed a doctored photo of a green-coloured Tony Blair with a Frankenstein bolt through his neck.
“The British prime minister was renamed ‘The Prime Monster’, under the headline: ‘Fury as Blair says: I eat Frankenstein food and it’s safe’.
“But there was something about this success, even back then, that also made me feel queasy.
“What kind of victory was it when mass-market tabloids were so gleefully joining a campaign to demonise scientists as latter-day Dr Frankensteins?
“Should we really be destroying scientific experiments without so much as a second thought?
“I wasn’t sure I agreed with Prince Charles that scientists should be stopped from intruding ‘into realms that belong to God and God alone’.
“It sounded religiously fundamentalist and reminded me of Creationists who tried to stop the teaching of evolution in schools.
“Was this the sort of thing environmentalists should be involved in?”
Mr Lynas said as he moved on to different issues in later years, he began doing his own scientific research and “the doubts grew in my mind”.
“From this seed of science, my misgivings later germinated and spread,” he wrote.
“Eventually they forced me into a decision that would change my life and bring me into outright and bitter conflict with those who had once been my closest allies and friends.”
In a telling entry, Mr Lynas said “Was it really possible that not just Greenpeace, but pretty much the entire environmental movement, and indeed polite progressive liberal society in general, had got the GMO issue flat-out wrong?”
“I knew that merely to entertain the possibility was to risk becoming an outcast in the environmental movement, and would certainly affect my friendships as well,” he said.
“On the other hand, if I continued to express opposition to GMOs that was not supported by the scientific community, I could hardly continue to see myself as a defender of science.”
After an awakening on GMs, but remaining quiet for a period of time, Mr Lynas said he finally reached the point where he could no longer remain in denial.
It arrived when the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) board published a strongly worded statement on the safety of GM foods in October 2012 - similar to one made in 2006 on climate change.
It said, ‘The science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe. The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society, and every other respected organization that has examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion: consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques.’.
“So there it was, clear as day,” he wrote.
“I couldn’t deny the scientific consensus on GMOs while insisting on strict adherence to the one on climate change, and still call myself a science writer,” he said.
“After reading the AAAS position, I felt I had to make a stronger statement, if only to salve my conscience.
“The opportunity to do so came just a few months later.
“Although I did not expect it to have much impact, it ended up marking a decisive turning point in my life.
“It was 3 January 2013, and I was stepping up to the speaker podium at the Oxford Farming Conference, about to deliver an address to several hundred farmers, politicians and media reporters.
“The speech was written out word for word partly because I was worried that I wouldn’t have the courage to go through with it otherwise.”
His book gives only a brief mention to the Australian experience of GM’s in a reference to WA organic farmer Steve Marsh’s appearance at the International Monsanto Tribunal, as a witness for the ‘prosecution’, who had tried unsuccessfully to sue his neighbour Michael Baxter – a conventional farmer growing GM canola – claiming contamination and the loss of his organic status.
“The case was a long-running cause célèbre in Australia, but like (Percy) Schmeiser, Marsh lost in the Supreme Court of Western Australia,” Lyans wrote.
“The judge wrote that the extent of the ‘contamination’ was just eight volunteer canola plants (‘volunteer’ meaning plants not sown by the farmer).
“Marsh did not grow canola, so cross-pollination was not an issue, and he could just have pulled the self-sown plants up and thrown them away.
“Marsh lost the case because according to the court what he was trying in effect to do was to extend the special sensitivities of his organic status over his neighbour’s property, which he had no right to do.”
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The story How GMO convert Mark Lynas tried to kidnap Dolly the cloned sheep first appeared on Farm Online.