A leading environmental campaigner who helped set up the anti-GM lobby in the 1990s has admitted he was wrong about GM and now believes farmers in the UK should be free to grow GM crops.

In a remarkable mea culpa at the Oxford Farming Conference yesterday, Mark Lynas issued a public apology for ripping up GM crops and campaigning against GM in the past – actions he said helped “demonise an important technological option” that can be used to bring about environmental benefits.

“As an environmentalist, and someone who believes that everyone in this world has a right to a healthy and nutritious diet of their choosing, I could not have chosen a more counter-productive path,” he said. “I now regret it completely.”

Driven by fears over “nasty” American corporations such as Monsanto doing something “unnatural” with food and acquiring too much power over the food chain, the anti-GM movement was deeply anti-scientific in its beliefs and tactics, Lynas said. “Hence the Frankenstein food tag – this absolutely was about deep-seated fears of scientific powers being used secretly for unnatural ends. What we didn’t realise at the time was that the real Frankenstein’s monster was not GM technology, but our reaction against it.”

When he began to seriously research GM, its risks and its benefits, he found that many anti-GM sentiments were little more than “green urban myths”, Lynas added. “I’d assumed that GM was dangerous. It turned out that it was safer and more precise than conventional breeding using mutagenesis for example,” he said.

As the global population increased, GM could play an important role in feeding the world and it was immoral for Europe to oppose technologies that could help fight hunger in the developing world, Lynas said. “We well-fed consumers are blinded by romantic nostalgia for the traditional farming of the past. Because we have enough to eat, we can afford to indulge our aesthetic illusions.”

Lynas’s volte face on GM comes as Defra Secretary of State Owen Paterson told the same conference British farmers must not be afraid to make the case for GM to the public.

Responding to Lynas and Paterson’s speeches, Soil Association innovation director Tom Macmillan said “banging on about GM crops” was a red herring in the fight against global hunger. “Farmers and the public have been promised the earth on GM yet the results to date have been poor,” he said. “The UK Government’s own farm-scale experiment showed that overall the GM crops were worse for British wildlife. US Government figures show pesticide use has increased since GM crops have been grown there because superweeds and resistant insects have multiplied. Lynas, Paterson and other GM enthusiasts must beware of opening floodgates to real problems like this.”