ABC Radio National | 13 August 2011
The Science Show | Transcript
Robyn Williams: The editorial by Wilson da Silva in Cosmos published this week is headed 'In Defence of Science' and goes on, “Science is not a belief system we can opt in and out of depending on our ideological or political point of view.”
And then? Cosmos editorial: “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.
“Harsh words I know, and it pains me to use them, for Greenpeace 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, campaigning against deforestation or CFCs and HFCs that were depleting the ozone layer, Greenpeace did admirable work.
“I didn't always agree with them, but I appreciated their role. However, in the last decade or so, Greenpeace has abandoned the rigour of science. When the science is inconvenient, it has chosen 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 our 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.
“And why, in the early hours of July 14th, a group of Greenpeace protesters broke into a CSIRO Plant Industry experimental station at Ginninderra in northern Canberra, and destroyed an entire crop of genetically modified wheat, erasing years of work and valuable data.”
Robyn Williams: That from the editorial of the current edition of Cosmos magazine, just out.
Professor Christopher Preston at the University of Adelaide is also incensed. He wrote accordingly in The Conversation, the online publication in which academics write to the public. This is how he responds to the destructive raid last month.
Christopher Preston: Early on the morning of July 14th, Greenpeace activists broke into a CSIRO research farm and destroyed a field trial of genetically modified wheat. I was appalled that someone would stoop to do this for a publicity stunt. 'But it was only a field trial,' I have heard some say, 'Why get upset about it?' I am an agricultural scientist researching better ways to manage weeds, particularly weeds 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 at 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 at 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 members of the public, I would have been undeniably furious.
Firstly, there is the loss of valuable information from the research. This can put back the development of new ideas, costing Australian farmers money. Secondly, and most importantly, these field trials are the research of my staff and postgraduate students.
All of 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 their 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, 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.
Thirdly, in addition to the hoped-for results, research trials can produce new leads in areas not originally thought of. These leads can open up new possibilities for doing things better and more efficiently.
The Office of the Gene Technology Regulator had assessed the CSIRO wheat trial as not posing a significant risk to humans or the environment. The GM material was not going into 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 regulator to put in place multiple strategies to manage potential risks of movement of the genetically modified material from the trial site. Ironically, the actions of the Greenpeace activists have increased the risk that genetically modified material from the trial site will escape into the environment.
There is no evidence to support the claims of hazard about this trial made by Greenpeace. Cross pollination in wheat is very low, because wheat pollen is typically shed before the flower opens. The experimental crop was being grown inside a bird cage to keep birds out.
The chances of material escaping from the trial would have been minimal. Even if some pollen did escape, the chance of it impacting in the environment is also low. Wheat is a rare weed outside managed environmental settings, and these trials are some distance from any commercial wheat crops.
One purpose of trials is to determine whether the crops behave differently to currently grown varieties, or differently in the field to what they do in the laboratory. Some trials have to be done in the real world, because the answers cannot be obtained in the laboratory. Greenpeace has complained that GM wheat has not been shown to be safe, but how can the safety of GM crops be established without testing?
Therefore, I am left with the view that the destruction of this trial was unnecessary and wanton. Hence my opening comment that the destruction of this trial has left me appalled. I am clearly not alone. There has been considerable outcry over this Greenpeace stunt, both within Australia and overseas by other scientists, including Suzanne Cory, President of the Australian Academy of Science.
I travel through many of the world's agricultural regions. In my experience, Australian farmers are some of the most innovative in the world; however, South American farmers are now not far behind. In order 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 of 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.
Robyn Williams: Professor Christopher Preston at the University of Adelaide, suggesting that vandalism is as unwelcome in science as it is in the streets.