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What’s Next Greenpeace, Burning Books?

Science Punk at ScienceBlogs | 28 July 2011

By Frank Swain

IN THE EARLY HOURS of a Wednesday morning two weeks ago, three Greenpeace activists made their way past the perimeter fence at Ginninderra Experiment Station in Canberra, Australia, and destroyed a crop of GM wheat using weed strimmers.

A spokeswoman for Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), the national science agency which runs the station, said the damage was estimated to run A$300,000. In a statement released by Greenpeace Australia Pacific, activist Laura Kelly stated that "We had no choice but to take action to bring an end to this experiment".

Both scientists and the public have been quick to criticise the action, labelling Greenpeace as dogmatic and anti-science. Professor Mark Tester, a plant scientist at the University of Adelaide, told reporters: "I am deeply disappointed at the news that Greenpeace has stooped so far in their desperate attempt to gain publicity for their campaign against genetically modified wheat. GM technology is not a magic bullet but it does offer new opportunities to improve the quality and quantity of wheat. Scientists are trying to reduce the environmental impacts of farming and so help farmers in the developing world and Australia"

The experiment crop in question had been selectively modified to boost its nutritional content, offering a lower Glycemic Index and higher fibre content. It was scheduled to be tested on animals and a small cohort of human volunteers, but was not intended to be released into the wild or processed in commercial foodstuffs.

CIAT rice scientist Edgar Torres inspects plot of high yielding rice at the institution's headquarters in Colombia
Rice trial plots at the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture in Colombia

Michael Jones, Director of the WA State Agricultural Biotechnology Centre at Murdoch University in Perth, was more forthright in his criticisms: "Australia is destined to become the 'stupid country' if it condones acts such as Greenpeace's destruction of the CSIRO wheat trials," he wrote. "Greenpeace's Luddite destruction of GM field tests does nothing to address global agronomic and food security, and simply wastes taxpayers and farmers' funds."

Initially jubilant about the action, the Australian Greenpeace Twitter account fell conspicuously silent as the seriousness of how badly they had misjudged public opinion became apparent. Supporters were thanked while critics ignored or invited to direct their questions to a live chat scheduled for the following Monday.

The absence of rebuttal allowed criticism of Greenpeace's latest stunt to rapidly snowball. What precautions, for example, did Greenpeace take to ensure that no GM-material was transported off site? Whereas the CSIRO lab was controlled under the strict mandates of the Office of Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR), what guarantee was there that the Greenpeace activists were competent enough to follow similar protocols?

Wilson da Silva, editor of Australia's COSMOS magazine, lamented an organisation that "was once a friend of science", but has become "a sad, dogmatic, reactionary phalanx of anti-science zealots who care not for evidence, but for publicity." I could not agree with him more. Greenpeace's Luddite decline has been in progress for decades.

In 1986, Patrick Moore parted ways with the organisation he cofounded, infuriated by their rejection of science. (according to Moore, the tipping point was Greenpeace's campaign against the chlorination of drinking water, a public health intervention that has probably saved more lives than any other in the history of medicine).

Like their ever-present biohazard suits, Greenpeace activists wear science like a fashion - something to be shed as soon as it grows uncomfortable. Greenpeace has become, at its core, a faith-based organisation, with all the attendant dogmas. By visiting the Greenpeace website you begin to understand how the organisation has become so badly out of step with prevailing public attitudes. Arguments that are superficially plausible fall apart under closer scrutiny.

The organisation justifies the attack on CSIRO by highlighting their ties with "foreign GM companies", a move that speaks volumes about the mindset of those within. Science is never carried out in isolation, and scientists understand better than anyone the care required to remove undue influence from a result. They have built an entire system dedicated to doing just that - it's called science.

But to Greenpeace, such corporations are solidly, irrevocably evil entities who taint by association. Fraternising with such an enemy is strictly off limits. At the heart of this fundamentalist green movement is an almost Catholic-like obsession with sin, and the need to be kept pure by rejecting any compromise. It's a mentality that has insulated swathes of the green movement against the rest of the world, so that they exist in a solipsistic bubble that explodes - sometimes literally - when it comes into contact with the real world.

The greatest tragedy is not that Greenpeace has lost its way, but that it is now actively preventing the discussion from moving beyond childlike arguments of good vs bad, toward deciding how we want to use technologies like GM. The power of agribusiness, the needs of farmers, protection of the environment and the safety of our food are all important issues that we need to address, but this cannot and will not be achieved through the mindless destruction of scientist's work.


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