What happens when journalists become the story? A Q&A with science writer Mark Lynas

Mark Lynas, a well-known British writer on climate change, apologized during a farm industry conference in Oxford, U.K. last January, for having helped start the now-widespread resistance against genetically modified organisms.

Mark Lynas, a well-known British writer on climate change, apologized during a farm industry conference in Oxford, U.K. last January, for having helped start the now-widespread resistance against genetically modified organisms.

It turns out that in the 1990s, long before the British national became celebrated for his global warming coverage, Lynas donned masks and trashed crop test plots to fight the controversial seed breeding technology. He credits having to learn how to read scientific papers to understand the evidence backing climate change as the catalyst for his ideological about-face. Delving into the science behind genetic modification, “I discovered that one by one my cherished beliefs about GM turned out to be little more than green urban myths,” he told his Oxford farming audience. (A 2011 article that appeared in The Guardian suggested his conversion may have been more financially motivated. Lynas denies the claim).

His apology stirred international curiosity, particularly in agricultural circles.

While he calls himself a “campaigner,” much of Lynas’ activities since the early 2000s have involved journalism and science writing. His decision to apologize, therefore, also raises questions about the choices journalists and writers make when covering environmental and agricultural issues at a time when more and more in our industry juggle disparate roles.

To explore some of those questions, one of J-Source’s agricultural journalism editors and Better Farming’s field editor, Mary Baxter, interviewed Lynas earlier this month in London, Ont. where he was the keynote speaker at this year’s Rural Ontario Institute’s William A. Stewart public lecture.

Mary Baxter, Better Farming: Was the Oxford conference the first time that you apologized for your anti-GMO activities?

Mark Lynas: I did a talk at the John Innes Centre, which is a plant science institute in the east of England and month or so earlier. I probably said some similar things. But no one really noticed.

BF: How does a journalist who becomes the story maintain credibility?

ML: Well that’s why I think it didn’t receive much coverage in the U.K. Because environmental or farming journalists know me and they’ve heard me talking about this stuff for years now. It was all in my books and so on. And I think they all just shrugged and thought that’s him going off at one again.

The places where it was given really prominent coverage — India where there was national coverage; China even, many many other countries — I think it was because they didn’t know who I am and therefore they could have the very simple sort of narrative of the co-founder of the anti-GMO movement, which is in itself an exaggeration, apologizes for actions.

BF: You’ve been described as a broadcast commentator, a journalist and an author focused on science and the environment. How would you describe what you do?

ML: I’ve done direct advising to a head of state until quite recently, which isn’t journalism because I was doing negotiating on behalf of the Maldives (the Republic of the Maldives, a chain of islands in the Indian Ocean) in the international climate negotiations, for example. I’m a campaigner because I’m focused on securing certain outcomes, all around environmental sustainability for which journalism is a tool. So it’s not as if I would see myself as a neutral news writer where you have to balance different perspectives. I have a strong agenda and I don’t make any bones about that.

BF: Where do you draw the line between activism and journalism? Or do you?

ML: All journalists have agendas, whether they choose to make them explicit or not, and most of them don’t.

BF: If journalists find themselves covering an issue from one way and then seeing things from a different perspective, what’s their responsibility?

ML: Journalists are past masters at not taking responsibility for the things that they’ve done. What about the journalists who wrote up the original Frankenfood scare stories? What about the journalists who promoted the vaccination on autism scare? Countless other areas where journalists make a living from promoting a journalism scare story that they know personally not to be true. Unfortunately, that’s the way journalism works. And that’s one of the reasons why I can never stomach being just a conventional journalist because I wanted to be guided by my own ethics rather than the pressures of the job.

BF: Now you’ve definitely written for many well-known publications throughout the world. Post-apology, do they still want your work?

ML: I’ve got a different kind of platform now, where I’m doing interviews; I’m being asked for my opinion about things. That’s not really what happens to you as a journalist. So I’m not really a journalist in a meaningful sense any more. It’s not that I wanted this to be the outcome. I didn’t want to become the story. I didn’t think that would actually be a particularly useful campaigning strategy.

BF: Has your audience changed since all of this has happened?

ML: I get a sense that there’s different audiences or different interests trying to co-opt me. The climate skeptics are always saying, ‘oh well, Lynas is on a journey and he’s clearly going to end up being a climate skeptic because he’s concluded the environmental movement is wrong about, well nuclear and GMOs and other things. So he’s clearly going to end up convinced that the whole climate change message is also a lie.’ But to me that’s nonsensical. The point of everything I’m doing is to take the expert consensus as the kind of baseline to say, OK, we can, let’s start our debate here, rather than starting at a different place and ignoring or attacking the site of a consensus on an issue.

BF: Do you think science-based journalism is marginalized in mainstream journalism?

ML: No, I don’t think it is. If anything I think science journalism is seeing a renaissance.

BF: What about agricultural journalism?

ML: I don’t know about that. Agriculture has its own very specialist press, which no one else reads other than the people who are involved in agriculture. So it talks to itself very effectively, so far as I can see. One of the things that strikes me most of all is how broad the communications gap is between what farming is really about and what people think farming is about. And that’s one of the reasons why people fall into this chasm and end up being paranoid and disturbed and fearful about the way their food is produced.

I think agricultural journalists need to be better informed about agriculture when they write for the mainstream audience. So those involved in the technical farming press are those who also need to be writing for the mainstream audience. A lot of farming correspondents just go with the kind of consumer, cultural agenda too much and don’t always know what they’re talking about.

BF: U.S. writer Josh Schonwald argues that the anti-GMO movement has actually contributed to the concentration of GMO technology in the hands of large players like Monsanto because of the expertise that’s involved in taking that technology to market. What’s your perspective?

ML: I made the same point in my Oxford speech. Because the unintended consequence of the anti-GMO movement has been to concentrate power in the hands of a very small number of agro-chemical companies. Because it now costs upwards of $100 million to introduce a new event into a seed. And a third of that is regulatory costs.

BF: We’re just on the cusp of accepting genetically engineered alfalfa, here. There’s a lot of concern about the impact that it might have on contaminating seed stocks because Canada is a big exporter of forage seeds, for instance. There are also concerns about increased herbicide costs for farmers and increased glyphosate resistant weeds.

ML: None of these (concerns) are about GMOs in and of themselves. They are about farm or agricultural management strategies in lots of different ways and it’s a complicated picture. So it’s the wrong question — should we use GMO seeds. If you ask it in those very simplistic terms, you’ll come out with the wrong answer.

BF: In his Forbes blog, Richard Levick says of you, “no one preaches better than a convert.” Freelance science writer David Appell, says “A quick little apology isn’t going to cut it here.” He wants you drummed out of the profession of science journalism. Can you comment?

ML: How is that going to happen? I’m not sure what to say really. You just have to be as honest as you can, I think. Would it be better to maintain my former position despite knowing that it was incorrect? That seems to be what’s often suggested. They want me to apologize for apologizing now.

This interview was edited and condensed. More of this interview and Lynas’ perspectives on GMOs appears on BetterFarming.com