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.

26 comments

  1. JohnB says:

    “Why is the reaction so muted?” you ask.

    Maybe the agricultural scientists have been paying attention to what Greenpeace do to those who disagree over the climate debate and have no wish to find themselves listed at GMsecrets dot org?

    Maybe they don’t want Greenpeace et all hanging around outside their homes and going through their rubbish?

    Maybe they don’t want to be on the receiving end of the FOI requests for their emails?

    Maybe they are worried that Greenpeace “Knows who they are and knows where they live”?

    I can think of lots of reasons. :)

    • Mark Lynas says:

      I understand your point that scientists may be intimidated by likely further actions, but have you got any evidence that Greenpeace go through people’s bins and suchlike? I haven’t heard that one before! We need to be careful before making assertions about bad behaviour without supporting evidence.

    • JohnB says:

      Fair enough Mark. I’ll try to dig it up. I remember reading about it, maybe an article or interview around the time of the “We know where you live” incident.

    • intrepid_wanders says:

      How about [Google Translation]:

      His book, “the ”Far Side”Greenpeace “, published by Albin Michel, shows us an organization with a budget of 180 million euros mainly consumed by personnel costs and structure, a frantic busyness and cynical (the NGO forcing corporate polluters to the sponsorship, so that not to be targeted), proven methods for training commandos shock, etc..
      http://www.agoravox.fr/actualites/environnement/article/developpement-durable-le-concept-65585

      The rest of the article is quite good.

  2. Sam says:

    Perhaps the long-term answer is to bring science back to the heart of Greenpeace. If every scientist signed up and insisted that Greenpeace turn back to science, perhaps we could shape it into an advocate for the environment and science – we certainly need such an advocate in the decades to come. Rather than spurn or denounce Greenpeace, why not try to save it from within?

    • I agree with you Sam. We need credible independent organisations like Greenpeace more and more, but where when they lose their credibility, as I think they have done as Mark says over nuclear and GM, then they jeapordise their ability to influence the debate when they are right and really needed.

      For me, (speaking personally), they were right to raise questions about both technologies in the first place, but as the issues got entrenched and they had their own version of ‘techno lock-in’ they failed to reflect the subtleties of the issues and the growing evidence base. I know Greenpeace people in the UK who are practicing scientists and very careful about this aspect, like any large organisation they are wrestling with the difficulties of working cohesively on many fronts with diverse opinions and passionate views. Tricky at the best of times.

  3. One might also note the post on Greenpeace’s own blog about two Japanese Greenpeace criminals, and the fact that the High Court in Sendai recently upheld their convictions.

    http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/news/Blogs/makingwaves/tokyo-two-appeal-rejected-by-japanese-high-co/blog/35722/

    As an opponent of Greenpeace positions I am happy to see them engage in criminal activity, since there usually is some kind of backlash involved with that. For example, CSIRO would have a slam-dunk case asking for damages, which should make a dent in the budget of Greenpeace Australia.

  4. Mary says:

    There was an excellent fisking of the Greenpeace polemic by TechNYou, reposted here: http://www.biofortified.org/2011/07/technyou-carry-great-story-about-gm-wheat-the-story-of-our-daily-bread/

    I’m actually pretty pleased to see a lot of scientists (such as our allies in the climate field) who haven’t been outwardly supportive of GM in the past that are dissing Greenpeace on this. It’s time we rally together against this sort of behavior.

  5. Proteos says:

    I don’t know if showing that the “scientific” arguments used by Greenpeace are just a fig leaf is useful. Over 10 years of vandalism of GM crops in France has been a success with these very arguments, they have been denounced as absurd many times, to no avail.

    That this is public research will not stop them. Just to take an exemple, José Bové now MEP for the Greens has been convicted to a jail term because he broke (with others) into a greenhouse of CIRAD (an agricultural public research outfit in France) and basically destroyed it. That was in 1999. As this was a greenhouse, no outside contamination was to be expected — except in the very case of vandalism! As late as last year, a try on vines was destroyed near Colmar. Again in this case, steps were taken to ensure safety and prevent contamination of the environment. Green politician do not oppose these acts, and at times have taken part in it (that is: while in office!).

    Limagrain is also quoted by Greenpeace. In fact Limagrain was at the beginning a french cooperative — a grouping of farmers — and still retains this form. It only develops GM crops outside of France because of the physical opposition there.

    So I am afraid it is too late to worry about these acts of vandalism (or luddism as you describe them). They have gathered momentum and some public support, enough to be unstoppable in some sountries.

  6. Dan Olner says:

    Most basic question: does Greenpeace in Australia have autonomy? What’s the organisational structure / its connection to Greenpeace as a whole?

    Agree on the central point: massively shot themselves in the foot here, as well as tainting any other work they may do. Again, though, that all comes down to whether we’re talking about a franchise model, with each region having full policy control. I have no idea how it’s structured.

  7. Liz says:

    Before judging whether Greenpeace are irresponsible Luddites or sensible people concerned for the health of humanity, I would want more information about the new strain of wheat and the animal trials that have been conducted.

    How long were the experiments conducted on animals? Articles I have read have suggested that most experiments on gmos have been only 90 days long. If the novel gm wheat plants are producing something which is toxic to fungal infections, then surely it should have the level of testing that a pesticide undergoes – 2 years, and also following up more than one generation of animals.

    Scientists made assurances that the insecticide Bt toxin produced by gm corn and some other gm crops would be harmlessly destroyed in the human gut, – now Canadian researchers have found that the toxin is present in a high proportion of pregnant women and foetuses. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21338670

    Corn is not a staple food, so won’t be a major part of the diet in Canada.
    Wheat is a staple food, thus amounts eaten per person will be much greater. So levels of any toxin present in the crop could also be much greater, and potentially lead to consumers being gradually poisoned.

  8. Liz says:

    Revised comment:-

    Before judging whether Greenpeace are irresponsible Luddites or just people very concerned for the future health of humanity, I would want more information about the new strain of wheat and the animal trials that have been conducted.

    How long were the experiments conducted on animals? Articles I have read have suggested that most experiments on gmos have been only 90 days long. If the novel gm wheat plants are producing something which is toxic to fungal infections, then surely it should have the level of testing that a pesticide undergoes – 2 years, and also following up more than one generation of animals.

    Scientists made assurances that the insecticide Bt toxin produced by gm corn and some other gm crops would be harmlessly destroyed in the human gut, – now Canadian researchers have found that the toxin is present in a high proportion of pregnant women and foetuses. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21338670

    Corn is not a staple food, so won’t be a major part of the diet in Canada.
    Wheat is a staple food, thus amounts eaten per person will be much greater. So higher levels levels of any toxin present in the crop would be consumed,, and potentially lead to consumers being gradually poisoned.

  9. pointman says:

    A good publicity stunt is invaluable PR for Greenpeace. Of course, the true cost to that defenseless portion of humanity, about 80% of the world’s population, is not part of the cost/benefit analysis of such a stunt. I presume the tipped off the MSM so there were lots of nice piccies of the event …

    http://thepointman.wordpress.com/2011/05/20/the-big-green-killing-machine-what-is-vad/

    Pointman

  10. Theo says:

    Hey, can we leave the Luddites out of this? 2011 is their 200 year anniversary. They were brave men and women, neither irresponsible or vandals, and many of them died or were deported for defending their communities.

    Interesting to meet your new friends Mark. Fascinating bunch. I always new there was something wicked about those Greenpeace folks.

  11. Susan says:

    I am afraid that GM crops will threaten biodiversity. What is your stand on that?

  12. Blubba says:

    How would GM crops threaten biodiversity any more than Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution? Seven billion people, many of them slashing and burning rain forests to grow enough to eat or pulling every edible thing out of the worlds oceans are the real threat to biodiversity. If anything, GM crops are more likely to have the effect of preserving biodiversity, especially if nutritional value and yields can be increased to reduce the amount of land needed to sustain our populations.

  13. Blubba says:

    How would GM crops threaten biodiversity any more than Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution? Seven billion people, many of them slashing and burning rain forests to grow enough to eat or pulling every edible thing out of the worlds oceans are the real threat to biodiversity. If anything, GM crops are more likely to preserve biodiversity, especially if nutritional values and yields can be increased to reduce the amount of land needed to sustain our numbers.

  14. Martin Field says:

    Why does everyone keep abusing the poor Luddites? They are largely misunderstood today. They weren’t anti new technology, they simply though it should be used to benefit everyone not just for it being used to increase the profits of the business classes at the expense of the workers. Surely that is something we all support.

  15. Frog says:

    Greanpeace urge to folow AGW consensus and urge to not folow consensus on GMs … I wonder why… ;-)

  16. Madeleine Love says:

    If only while Mark had been refraining from comment he was actually reading into what is being described as ‘science’, the thing being used by the GM industry as a healthwash for the 99.9 recurring % pesticide crops lurking below the public radar. The OGTR doc is a fascinating read.. uh dunno…

    CSIRO have acknowledged their low calorie fibrous seed isn’t for the starving millions, and as for the industrial world for which a market is vainly ‘hoped’, maybe it would be a more health-giving positive scientific statement for CSIRO to make a comment on industrial food, rather than GM’ing and spin’ing it.

    Here in Australia we seem to have a trade-related problem that is preventing politicians representing the people on the issues. Anyone reading the wikileaks cables will know that there is a massive force driving GM crops, at threat of retaliation. Farmers are worried that the GM wheat might be used to destroy our markets, as happened to Canadian markets.

    In my view authors condemning the Greenpeace action are either uninformed or part of the game. CSIRO scientists are no doubt interested in the intellectual pursuit – I am sure they are capable of seeing their contentious funded work through the bigger picture.

    • Krzysztof Kosinski says:

      “In my view authors condemning the Greenpeace action are either uninformed or part of the game.”
      Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. How typical!

      So suddenly criminal actions such as vandalizing publicly funded research are acceptable, because they are in some contorted way related to an unpopular foreign business? Are you going to condone eco-terrorism such as sabotaging uranium mines and blowing up oil platforms next?

      You should sometimes look outside your bubble of Greenpeace propaganda.

    • Madeleine Love says:

      “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”

      I didn’t consider that uninformed authors were ‘with us’, as much as they are an encumberance to factual deliberation.

      I didn’t consider that members of Monsanto’s extensive PR network, nor scientists with self-interest funding needs, were terrorists – just an extensive corporate & self-interest network for which public interest shouldn’t be sacrificed.

      It was a criminal action for young pacificists (and those who understood the big story) called up for Vietnam war to tear up their draft papers. Did that make them wrong?

      When democracy becomes corrupt it is sometimes necessary for the middle classes to step over the line.

      You make a mistake in suggesting I’m inside a Greenpeace propaganda bubble. I’m a mum, at home, in my kitchen, surrounded by GM science applications. I read the commercial rubbish that people like the author are willfully passing off as science.

  17. Robin Smith says:

    This is a strange campaign.

    We are not running out of food. GM or not.

    The more people in the world, the more food we can produce, GM or not.

    Science is not required to prove this. Yo only need to look at the observable facts, available widely.

    Your point is here?

    I do hope its not to say that nature can no longer support a growing population?

  18. maria says:

    You are wrong MR. Lynas,

    The entire world is threatened by genetic engineering. We have reached the boundaries of what science can and cannot do. There simply is a limit. Nature has seen to that. If biotech was the answer to our food supply needs, it would be 100 safe with no risks. If nuclear power was the answer to our energy needs, again, safety, no risks. There are too many dangers to be ignored.
    The industrialization of these systems have created many problems for humanity and for all living creatures of the world. In adopting systems that work with the earth and free us from the dangerous and unnecessary systems that are now in place, we can solve our problems without further harm to ecosystems and our food and water supplies. The solutions lie in our ability to think about the connections between the earth’s capacity to endure our activities and our way of understanding and respecting that connection. What we have now does not work. We need to change and we need to do it now. I do not believe that genetic engineering was developed for any other reason than the chemical companies to sell their poisons and products. IF the crops they developed were resistant to acetic acid then perhaps there could be a small chance of this being a technology we could pursue. The crops are being sprayed with chemicals that are harmful and deadly, the technology itself is not reliable (what if something in nature triggered them to “self destruct”?) and many scientists around the world agree that the dangers are too numerous for this to be in our system of raising food. The idea is enticing, making work easier for farmers, putting traits from one animal or food to another to increase the plants nutrition. But this is not the case. The only yields we can have from these crops are the ones the biotech industry gets from its sales of its herbicides. The huge monocrops destroy biodivesity. We will have nothing left. This is not an option, we don’t have another planet to live on to experiment on.

    • Krzysztof Kosinski says:

      “We have reached the boundaries of what science can and cannot do. There simply is a limit.”
      This is so extremely wrong. No fusion power. No commercial breeder reactors. Hardly any biofortified food. No C4 rice (google it). No humans on Mars.

      “If nuclear power was the answer to our energy needs, again, safety, no risks.”
      This is nothing more than hypocrisy. Wind power and solar power, your preferred options, do not come with zero risk. In fact, per unit of produced energy, wind power causes more deaths than nuclear power (falls, broken off turbine blades, ice throw, fires…). The statistics for rooftop solar are even worse (again, falls).

      “the technology itself is not reliable (what if something in nature triggered them to “self destruct”?)”
      And what if a flock of flying pigs stuffed with antimatter hit a nuclear reactor? What is the point of asking such questions?

      “The only yields we can have from these crops are the ones the biotech industry gets from its sales of its herbicides.”
      Wrong. Herbicide-resistant crops were made first, because that’s what was the most profitable. By demanding ever stricter regulation and more financial overhead on GM crops, you are making it impossible for anyone else except megacorps to have their GM verieties legalized for human consumption. There are many things which can be done to substantially increase crop yields. For example, we could engineer cereals such as rice and wheat to use the more efficient C4 mode of photosynthesis used by maize.

  19. Steve says:

    @Robin, if we are not running out of food how come so many in third world countries are starving to death? if GM food could prevent that don’t you think we should do it? Aks yourself why are we here today on the internet? Did our parents have food to eat when they were kids? do we have food now? the answer ofcourse is yes, so some in this position only want to see how it could negativly effect them, not how it could help others.

    @Maria, Reached a limit to science? 100 safe 0 risk? nothing comes without risk, giving birth is natural, animals need to do it so they can keep surviving for generations, so should that be stoped because its not 100% safe? Sure nuclear power may be dangerous, but what isnt these days, i could walk outside and get bitten by a spider, a natural non-GM spider and die, so should i never go outside?

    There are to many unreal images society has about this field of science and i think there should be more education of the public of what this actually involves. I think it is quite ironic that many people think GM food is evil because it is not ‘natural’, but i bet they eat seedless grapes, they are all just clones of a mutated grape, eating clones sounds less natural than eating GM food.

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