Greenpeace and GM wheat: time to stand up for science

I have resisted posting anything on Greenpeace’s destruction of a genetically-modified wheat test site in Australia last week because – following from the spat over the IPCC renewables report – I didn’t want to wade straight into another controversy by alleging that Greenpeace in particular abuses science. However, the more I read about the Greenpeace Australia action, the more egregious it seems – and I’m afraid I can no longer keep quiet.

First, none of the standard eco-talking points on GM apply: this was public-sector biotechnology, being developed by the research agency CSIRO not to enhance the profits of a sinister multinational but to enhance the nutritional prospects for one of humanity’s most important food crops. Second, there seems to have been little if any condemnation coming from the more mainstream parts of the green movement, many of whose members must realise that in taking this action Greenpeace has moved well beyond the pale scientifically. And third, I believe this action offers an opportunity – which should not be missed – for science to begin to fight back against the green Luddism which threatens to dangerously discredit serious and important environmental causes.

To see what happened, watch this video, and read this report posted by Nature. Have a look also at Greenpeace Australia’s FAQ on the subject, and marvel at its tortured attempts to justify the unjustifiable. For example: Greenpeace constantly complains that GM should suffer an amazing standard of safety proof, which involves doing the impossible and proving a double negative:

GM hasn’t been proven safe to eat. No evidence has been produced to demonstrate that GM wheat does not have toxic or allergic effects on humans or animals, and yet the Government approved release of GM wheat into the environment anyway.

An even more difficult standard of proof to achieve given that when tests are conducted, Greenpeace comes and destroys them, and then complains that GM is untested! It would be funny were it not so serious. What is extraordinary is that the FAQ actually anticipates the obvious question and attempts a laughably absurd answer:

How does Greenpeace expect CSIRO to test for health risks if they don’t test it on humans?

It is never safe to test GM products on humans, because GM crops are subject to unexpected and unpredictable results. That means that no amount of preliminary testing can guarantee the ongoing safety of GM products.

Truly bizarre. It is notable also that the Greenpeace FAQ tries to push lots of reactionary, nationalist buttons by emphasising the ‘foreign-ness’ of this scary new technology, as well as the usual anti-corporate smear tactics:

Greenpeace’s work is targeting the release of unsafe GM wheat into our food supply. The CSIRO is working with foreign GM companies to release unsafe GM wheat into our food supply. These foreign GM companies include Limagrain, one of the biggest investors in GM in the world, and Arcadia Biosciences.

Okay, so this is just one test in one country. But this matters, because in destroying it Greenpeace is asserting its right to prevent the development of a whole technology. Given that it speaks for no-one but itself (and, at a push, its supporters who stump up the cash) this is potentially profoundly anti-democratic. What gives a single fringe group the right to foreclose an entire societal development path using criminal methods? And why is the reaction so muted?

As I have already written in my book and elsewhere, I have plenty of personal experience of this, having taken similar actions in the past against GM crops. But that was over 10 years ago, and a huge amount of information has been produced in the interim demonstrating the massive potential of biotechnology to increase productivity, reduce water and toxic environmental burdens, and to better the nutritional content of vital foodstuffs. Moreover, no-one has produced any convincing evidence anywhere showing that GM is somehow more dangerous than any other method for altering the genome of crop plants.

Over at Collide-a-scape, Keith Kloor has rounded up some of the comments from Australian scientists, who have naturally been appalled at the Greenpeace action. Most trenchant of all is the criticism from Wilson da Silva, editor of Cosmos magazine:

GREENPEACE WAS ONCE a friend of science, helping bring attention to important but ignored environmental research. These days, it’s a ratbag rabble of intellectual cowards intent on peddling an agenda, whatever the scientific evidence.

It was once the most active, independent and inspiring civilian group for the environment. Whether riding zodiacs alongside boats carrying barrels of toxic waste to be dumped in the open sea, or campaigning against CFCs and HFCs that were depleting the ozone layer, Greenpeace did admirable work.

But in the last decade or so, Greenpeace abandoned the rigour of science. When the science has been inconvenient, Greenpeace chooses dogma. Which is why it has a zero-tolerance policy on nuclear energy, no matter how imperative the need to remove coal and gas from electricity production. Or why it is adamant organic farming is the only way forward for agriculture, when organic could not feed the world’s population today.

da Silva ends his piece with this extraordinary knock-out punch:

Greenpeace has lost its way. Its former glory rested on the righteousness of its actions in support of real evidence of how humanity was failing to care for the environment. Now it is a sad, dogmatic, reactionary phalanx of anti-science zealots who care not for evidence, but for publicity.

Ouch. And difficult to disagree with. Perhaps therein lies some hope – that scientists in the field of agricultural biotechnology will begin to stand up for their discipline just as the climatologists have stood up for climate science, which has been similarly abused in the hands of some fringe extremists. Just as my own anti-GM activism began to fade as soon as I began to read up on the science, so surely the demystifying power of information is the best antidote to “anti-science zealotry”, whether this is about nuclear power, GM crops, climate change or any other scientific endeavour.

© Mark Lynas
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