Why I turned from GM opponent to advocate
Just under 20 years ago, when the issue of GMOs was first hitting the news, I was a dedicated anti-biotech activist. I believed that genetic modification was a dangerous technology that would harm the environment and dispossess farmers around the world. Accordingly, I joined with others in organising protests and even crop vandalism - I personally destroyed GMO field trials on multiple occasions, including for oilseed rape, sugar beet and maize in the
In recent years I came to realise that this position is completely wrong. GMO crops have, by and large, proved to be a boon for farmers and have improved the environment by reducing insecticide applications and encouraging no-till farming which benefits the soil and cuts carbon emissions.  The problem with this technology is not that it has been scaled up too fast, but that it has been hampered from being able to fulfil its potential - whole continents, including
As you might expect, I am constantly asked how I came to change my mind. In particular, people are keen to know what the single "lightbulb" moment was when I realised that I had got this one wrong. The truth, however, is more prosaic: my change in opinion came gradually as a result of a better understanding of science, in particular as a result of my work on climate change. When I realised that the international scientific consensus on GMO safety was as strong as that on the reality of climate change, I had little choice - continuing to fight against GMOs would put me in the same intellectual and scientific category as climate change deniers. 
It is now apparent, from 20 years of safety research and hundreds of scientific papers, that, in the words of the
Over the last year, I have been honoured to be able to work directly with scientists and agronomists in developing countries who are trying to ensure that the poorest farmers with the least land are not excluded from enjoying the benefits of biotechnology. Supported by the
When I visited the field trial, I was shocked - the GMO cassava plants were the healthiest I had seen anywhere. Yet activists and anti-GMO groups have spread misinformation and conspiracy theories that may yet prevent farmers from ever being able to access this improved cassava plant. They have spread media stories and even aired radio adverts asserting that GMOs can make people sterile and cause cancer.  Many of these overtly fearmongering and anti-science NGOs are supported by naive Western donors.
As a newly-appointed Visiting Fellow at
Bt brinjal is now being trialled by about 20 farmers in four different regions:
However, once again activists have sought to stop the deployment on the basis of unfounded health fears and so-called "biopiracy," despite the intellectual property residing with Bangladeshi government scientists. Masked activists have even visited the farmers growing Bt brinjal and tried to force them into making video statements condemning their own crop. Clearly the perceived success or failure of
Looking at these different examples from the developing world, it is clear that GM technology has a lot to offer small farmers - and yet its deployment is far from certain given the ongoing political controversy. A stronger voice for public sector scientists and farmers in the developing world who are keen to have access to agricultural innovations could be key to breaking the impasse. I certainly hope so.
This opinion forms part of SciDev.Net's global debate: "What's wrong with GM?"
 International Service for the Acquisition of
 Sadab Kitatta Kaaya, NGOs, lecturers in trouble over GMOs, (The Observer, 15 January 2014).
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