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Greenpeace’s GM vandalism bad for farmers, bad for science, bad for Australia

Early yesterday morning Greenpeace Activists broke into a CSIRO research farm and destroyed a field trial of genetically-modified wheat. I was appalled. “But it was only a field trial,” I can hear some…

Greenpeace’s wanton destruction of scientific research is a threat to farmers. AFP PHOTO/HO/GREENPEACE

Early yesterday morning Greenpeace Activists broke into a CSIRO research farm and destroyed a field trial of genetically-modified wheat.

I was appalled.

“But it was only a field trial,” I can hear some say, “Why get upset about it?”

To explain why I am upset, I need to explain what I do.

I am an agricultural scientist researching better ways to manage weeds, particularly those that have become resistant to herbicides.

Because the question will inevitably come up, I am going to declare my sources of research funding now.

My research program is funded by the Grains Research and Development Corporation (about $1.5 million this year shared among my collaborators at the University of Adelaide and across Australia) and Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (about $0.5 million this year through their Weeds Program). Occasionally, I will do small research projects for other groups including agrichemical companies. These projects are typically funded at a few thousand dollars each.

Australian farmers and Governments are investing a lot of money in the research I am conducting. Field trials are an essential part of that research, because ideas need to be validated in the real world before giving them to farmers to use.

My team conducts many field trials each year testing weed management practices before advising farmers of their value.

If one of my field trials had been deliberately destroyed by a member or members of the public I would have been undeniably furious.

First, there is the loss of valuable information from the research. This can put back the development of new ideas, costing Australian farmers money.

Second, and most importantly, these field trials are the research of my staff and postgraduate students.

All the research staff working in my program are on short-term contracts, which is the nature of scientific careers these days. They need to continually produce research to further these careers.

For them, the loss of a field trial could mean the difference between a new grant and leaving science.

For postgraduate students, the situation is even more difficult. Typically, current postgraduate students only get two field seasons to complete their research. The loss of a field trial can have an enormous impact on their ability to complete their degrees on time.

Third, in addition to the hoped-for results, research trials can produce new leads in areas not originally considered. These leads can open up new possibilities for doing things better and more efficiently.

The trial that was destroyed had been assessed by the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) as not posing a significant risk to humans or the environment. The GM material was not going in to commercial food or feed production, and was restricted to a small area from which it was unlikely to escape.

Researchers conducting these trials are required by the OGTR to implement multiple strategies to manage potential risks of movement of genetically modified material from the trial site.

Ironically, the actions of the Greenpeace activists have greatly increased the risk that genetically modified material from the trial will escape into the environment.

There is no evidence to support the claims of hazard about this trial made by Greenpeace.

I am left with the view that the destruction of this trial was unnecessary and wanton. That’s why the destruction of this trial has left me completely appalled.

I travel through many of the world’s agricultural regions.

In my experience, Australian farmers are some of the most innovative in the world; but South American farmers are now not far behind.

To maintain their competitive edge, to produce more food on less land with less water and to look after the environment, Australian farmers will need to continue to innovate.

To do so, they are going to need access to all the useful technologies available.

Denying Australia’s farmers access to safe and useful technologies for ideological reasons is, in my view, tantamount to deliberately sending Australian farmers to the wall.

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20 Comments sorted by

  1. Michael J. Biercuk

    Senior Lecturer in the School of Physics at University of Sydney

    Indeed. Forget the topic entirely and rephrase for the public:

    "Greenpeace destroys scientific experiment."

    Based on fears that have no foundation in the evidence.

    If this had been a medical research trial and potentially lifesaving medical devices had been destroyed because Greenpeace believed, without evidence, that they posed a threat, the public would be outraged. So why isn't the public more upset? And why isn't the government more upset?

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  2. John Cook

    logged in via Facebook

    I once supported Greenpeace but discontinued because I became fed up with its arrogant know-all claims in areas where I suspected the world was at the frontiers of knowledge. At least we can support genuine efforts to discover the truth - so far as it can be ascertained.

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  3. Michael Gilbert

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Dear Chris,
    That was a very nicely written piece; you have summarised the situation better than any of the other media I have seen.
    The Canberra Times has done a little survey on the news yesterday and it seems as if the general public also agrees with your message (81%).
    We have provided opportunities for GreenPeace to visit us; they didnt want to come but hopefully they may come at some point.
    I am very dubious of the motivations of the anonymous bloggers that seem to make comments on the other websites.
    Michael Gilbert
    General Manager
    Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics

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  4. Felix MacNeill

    Environmental Manager

    I would generally have tended, broadly, to trust Greenpeace - they may be uncompromising and confrontational, but I tended to think they only took action if they had a pretty strong case.

    I have my doubts about some of the work done by Monsanto - very significant doubts - and I certainly believe genetic engineering is one of those technologies - like nanotech - that warrants real caution (not superstition, just the kind of caution that was forgotten with DDT and thalidomide) but I am equally very inclined to trust the credibility and honesty of the CSIRO.
    What I haven't yet heard anywhere in the media (I must check out what Greenpeace themselves have to say on their website) is a serious explanation of the reasons behind this apparently irresponsible action.

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    1. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      Okay, I went and had a quick look. I'd be willing to accept a valid concern about commercial control of crops (frankly some of the nasty legal games Monsanto has got up to in the past justify genuine concern) but Greenpeace don't seem to make this case very clearly at all - I'd want some substantial evidence of commercial control/manipulation (which any awareness of modern history makes is perfectly plausible in principle!) before I'd feel this kind of action was justified. I haven't yet seen any.
      And, frankly, the open letter from a strange little group of concerned scientists was frighteningly like something cooked up by climate change denialist wingnuts.
      This is quite frightening, as I think there are valid concerns here, but I'm suddenly having real trouble trusting an organisation in whom I would have had a fair bit of faith - at least enough to give them a real hearing.

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    2. Michael J. Biercuk

      Senior Lecturer in the School of Physics at University of Sydney

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      Just a quick comment. The parallels between GMO and nanotech are larger than one might think in that in both cases public perceptions are based largely on conjecture and fear rather than evidence.

      For example, the public/media expresses serious outcry about the *potential* - i.e. unknown/undocumented - risks of ZnO or TiO2 nanoparticles in sunscreen. However, we know that the largest source of manmade nanoparticle exposure is from internal-combustion-engine exhaust, and we *know* those nanoparticles are toxic. However no one in the media ever speaks about that angle.

      http://theconversation.edu.au/tiny-good-or-tiny-bad-nanotechnology-and-you-743

      This shouldnt suggest that I have a flippant attitude about risks of technological advance in either case, but I do think a public disservice has been done by providing weight to unfounded claims because celebrities or large organizations endorse them.

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  5. Sumit Salaria

    logged in via Facebook

    Well said.
    Another aspect of this story is the belligerent denial of the Australian Law system. I am not a die hard supporter of greenpeace but not critique either. I value their actions based on the consequences and the message they intend. So today what I can make out is that greenpeace did something totally reverse of what they are suppose to be doing; standing up for the rights and law of a citizens. An action like this threats the freedom of a countries' citizen who are protected by its laws. Here the law was the Gene Technology Act, OGTR the supervisor. Greenpeaces' action threatened the freedom of choice of the various scientists and the staff associated with the OGTR and the CSIRO.
    I am quite sure there is a public appeals procedure in GTA, greenpeace could have taken that route and expressed their concern. Actions like these put a strong question mark on the ideology and working, mismatch of organisations like green peace.

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  6. Ben Porebski

    Undergraduate biochemist

    As a strong believer in GMO's being a requirement for a more sustainable future. It saddens me to hear stories that organisations, like greenpeace are still destroying the hard work of research scientists. The article on the greenpeace website is a testament that they don't even understand the issue at hand.

    In contrast to the agreement between CSIRO and the OGTR, the human trials will be conducted by a small group of volunteers in a controlled nutritional study, and not unknowingly to the general population of which greenpeace are suggesting. Greenpeace also make claims about the safety of such trials, but do not provide any actual evidence of their concerns and subsequently destroy the crops before any research can be conducted.

    I'm glad you have written this article Chris, it makes me feel better that my concerns are not alone on this issue.

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  7. J N Curtis

    logged in via email @hotmail.com

    A good article, particularly outlining the issues scientists face in regard to researching and their careers, and the reminder that unexpected directions and information can be found through testing.

    While I don't want to condone the acts of Greenpeace members on this issue, I do want to raise a discussion point: why do we need GM food when there are far safer (and probably far cheaper) methods of food production which haven't been fully investigated such as large-scale permaculture? There is growing…

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  8. Dejan Tesic, PhD

    logged in via Twitter

    Greenpeace is now making a big deal of the "Farmers call for end to GM wheat trials". These "farmers" are an organisation of non-GM (mostly organic) farmers that go under the name of "The Network of Concerned Farmers" which according to available information has about eight members.

    News: http://news.ninemsn.com.au/national/8273344/farmers-call-for-end-to-gm-wheat-trials

    Luckily, Lord Monckton is currently visiting Australia. Perhaps these two groups of prominent anti-scientists can exchange notes, and maybe even join forces. Given the world-wide conspiracy (or collective delusion) of tens of thousands of scientists, they better find a way to work together.

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  9. Fran Murrell

    logged in via Facebook

    CSIRO now receives30% of its funding from companies. It has stated that it has got into bed with the multinationals. http://www.powerbase.info/index.php/Commonwealth_Scientific_and_Industrial_Research_Organisation

    This may explain why is is persuing GM trials when non-GM breeding is shown to be far superior.
    http://www.gmwatch.org/component/content/article/31-need-gm/12348-introduction

    The reality of GM breeding is that it is imprecise and potentially exceedingly dangerous and has been shown to…

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    1. Gmo Pundit

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Fran Murrell

      Ill repeat this , as Fran Murrell has again entered this conversation. Fran is part of MADGE Australia.

      Readers need to know that MADGE, strongly support the Greenpeace action in destroying wheat field trials.

      From the MADGE Australia Twitter page
      MADGEAustralia MADGE Australia Inc July 14 2011
      Thank you to the brave GP mother and others who stepped over the line to protect our food and get the message heard. #wheatscandal

      MADGEAustralia MADGE Australia Inc July 14 2011
      Yay Hungary! RT @GMWatch #GMO maize destroyed on 950 hectares in Hungary http://bit.ly/n7qClH But more contamination under inspection

      MADGEAustralia MADGE Australia Inc July 14 2011
      If youre on the side of science you should be backing greenpeace all the way. #wheatscandal

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  10. Fran Murrell

    logged in via Facebook

    "The mutational consequences of plant transformation" Latham et al 2006 shows that transgenes insertion (ie genetic engineering) causes deletions, disruptions and rearrangements of the host chromosomal DNA. In other words no one has any idea what on earth these plants may be producing. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.go​v/pmc/articles/PMC1559911/

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    1. Gmo Pundit

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Fran Murrell

      RE Fran Murrell's comments about mutations

      http://academicsreview.org/reviewed-content/genetic-roulette/section-2/2-1-dna-insertion/

      2.1—Any DNA Insertion can cause a mutation

      It is certainly true that crop breeding changes DNA; in fact, that is the purpose of all breeding programs—to create differences in DNA. Campaigners who are opposed to GM crops consistently point to the potential harmful effects of DNA inserts, and the potential presence of multiple fragments of new DNA in a transformed…

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    2. Luke Weston

      Physicist / electronic engineer

      In reply to Gmo Pundit

      Fran, the recombinant wheat being grown by CSIRO in this trial plot does not get its improved characteristics from any "transgenes insertion" or exogenous gene inserted into it. In this experimental wheat, RNA interference has been used to "silence" the expression of certain genes naturally present within the wheat that control certain characteristics such as the branching of starch molecules.

      Have you read any of the extensive, detailed information about this wheat, and the conditions and controls surrounding its small trial plot, that are made publicly available by CSIRO and OGTR?

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  11. wilma western

    logged in via email @bigpond.com

    Also appalled by Greenpeace's vandalism . Research on GM wheat is aimed at developing better more drought and disease resistant varieties, essential for Aus and other farmers as climate change continues.The disinformation propagated by Greenpeace and allied groups threatens the more efficient development of more productive,less pest and disease-vulnerable cereals for human consumption , something sorely needed in countries like India and African nations where large proportions of the population are…

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  12. Jenni Pickard

    logged in via Facebook

    Is the content of this being censored? Cant see my post

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  13. Jenni Pickard

    logged in via Facebook

    I shall say it again then. It is criminal to use Australians as guinea pigs in order to experiment with feeding US genetically modified wheat. GM modified food is banned in Europe - so who are we going to sell this to? Force farmers to buy GM wheat because they are not allowed to save their grains for replanting? Now that will help feed the world, NOT.

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  14. John Harland

    bicycle technician

    If the real concern were feeding more people, our primary concerns in Australia should surely be land-use planning, proper management of the Murray-Darling system and the addressing the very high rate of wastage of food post-harvest, and post-processing.

    To pretend that we need GM crops to "feed the world" is sanctimonious nonsense. The primary problem of starvation is not the amount of food in the world, but who can afford it and pigs in the US can afford to eat more than many people in Africa or Asia. More food as a way of addressing starvation is about as efficient as the economic "trickle-down" from making the wealthy wealthier.

    Arguments about countering anthropogenic global warming with GMOs are just about as specious.

    To posit the argument as Science versus ignorance is condescension.

    The basic issues are politics and money, and scientists too obsessed with the power of their technologies to question the self-serving rationalisations of their work.

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