Greenpeace, an enemy of science

Tim Lambert comments on Greenpeace sabotage of a CSIRO experiment on GM crops. Sadly, Greenpeace has become an openly anti-science organisation.

I agree with everything Tim says, but I’d add something more on the politics of this action. This kind of criminal vandalism, in the “right” cause, appeals to the juvenile instincts that nearly all of us retain to some extent, but it has repeatedly proved disastrous for the left, and the environmental movement. It’s worth comparing this kind of action to civil disobedience protests, where people put themselves on the line and openly invite arrest. If these guys had any desire to promote genuine debate they would turn themselves in and defend their actions in open court.

Given the embrace of anti-science and anti-rational views by the political right, it is important that the left and the environmental movement should dissociate themselves entirely from this kind of action. It will be a long time before Greenpeace can regain my support, if they ever do.

139 thoughts on “Greenpeace, an enemy of science

  1. Speaking as a longtime Leninist who knew the text very well, I still missed the allusion.

  2. I’ve never agreed fully with Greenpeace’s position on all it’s key issues and the ugly face of activism – more call to arms to the loyal than an appeal that changes the minds that most need changing – has often been counterproductive. Their saving grace so far has been the use of mostly non-violent, non-destructive protest which this exercise is undermining; they do better when they make the effort to do and use good research that gives their position a sound basis. So I don’t fully agree with them – but I don’t fully agree with the Greens, Labor, Liberal or National, none being representative of my thinking on all issues, none wholly disagreed with either. I suspect we’ll need GM as our global food situation gets more desperate but think it’s been given less scrutiny and greater license than it deserves, much like any enterprise that has strong commercial promise and has heavyweight backing but this bit of Greenpeace activism is almost certainly counterproductive to the very cause they’re being active about.

  3. @Ken Fabos

    I’d substantially agree. There has not, it seems, been much carefull thinking through ofc the exact scope and quality of the concerns attached to GM by Greenpeace and others, and therefore a specification of the best responses. Some biotechnology may well be very useful indeed — one can imagine the engineering of micro-organsisms that could efficiently draw down CO2 and bind carbon — which would entail GM.

    That said, it would be a mistake to fetishise legality. If there is a sufficient warrant, the law can be no bar.

  4. @John Quiggin

    In this case there is an element of truth, but there has been huge revolutions in society’s civil institutions since Tsarism. All Western social movements engage in ‘infantile’ acts, such as ‘walking against want’, petitions to parliament, occupying buildings, hunger strikes, even self immolation, smashing machines, etc etc.

    These are all infantile but only because they are the first, instinctive reaction against perceived injustice, people do not understand the real causes of.

    All of Greenpeace’s actions can be seen as ‘infantile’ in this sense, but not ‘infantile’ in the common sense. All of church charity groups providing residual welfare are also infantile acts. Funding necessary medical needs such as the Cancer Council by charity is also an infantile act.

    But such ‘infantile’ acts are normal, expected and should be encouraged.

  5. There are, as I said in the original post, big differences between civil disobedience actions, legal or otherwise, and the kind of criminal sabotage in this case.

    As Chris says, we have a long history to look back on and my reading of that history is that protest marches, petitions, hunger strikes, sit-down occupations and so on have often been successful, while machine smashing, bank robberies, bombings and so on have almost always led to disaster. A crucial difference is that, in the first case, the protestors take all the risks, while in the second, they hide under cover of darkness and leave innocent bystanders as collateral damage. No one is ever going to win a political campaign that way.

    And there are more direct precedents. The Earth Liberation Front took part in a number of attacks on scientific facilities allegedly engaged in GMO research, including this,
    “On May 21, a fire destroyed laboratories, offices, and archives at the Center for Urban Horticulture, University of Washington, causing a total of $7 million in damages.[42] The arson destroyed 20 years of research and plant and book collections. The ELF claimed responsibility based upon the incorrect belief that the University was involved in genetic engineering of poplar trees”
    Greenpeace’s criminality is on a far less ambitious scale, but it has quite possibly cost some junior researchers their careers.

  6. “but it has quite possibly cost some junior researchers their careers.”

    JQ, if the said event does cost some junior researchers their careers then I’d say this points to a problem in the management of junior researchers, both within the scientific community and by governments. The unconditional ‘outcome’ based fad, followed by the latter, deserves critique.

    I am not saying that the side effect on researchers should not be mentioned but that the negative consequences for the affected researchers should be handled in a different way.

  7. I used to work at an applied ethics centre. CSIRO approached us to do a joint project on the ethics of GMOs. There was a condition: we had to promise, prior to doing the work, that we would find that there were no ethical problems. We refused and the project was shelved.

  8. I agree that smashing things up as a way of simply making a statement is unlikely to enhance anyone’s image or advance their cause. Smashing up, for example, a fighter/bomber to temporarily put it out of action and thereby possibly postponing even a few deaths – as protesters have done in the UK – is probably defensible as having some direct purpose.

    The problem I have with GM is more one of a failure of democracy. As I understand it, the majority of citizens don’t want it either on their land or in their food.

    To hack away at the old “mandate” argument, when our governments allow these trials or even full on usage – they seem to do so quietly and purposefully with no consultation or honest explanation to the public.

    As a side question: If GM is so wonderful, why is the GM industry so vehemently against labelling GM food? The answer is: “because then people don’t buy it”.

  9. But we do have compulsory labelling in Australia. And the exclusions are in cases (eg canola oil) where the final product contains no GM-modified protein or DNA, making health effects unlikely.

    It would help the debate if groups like Greenpeace admitted that they weren’t really concerned about health effects but had moral/cultural objections to GM as such. That would make a better argument for labelling all food with a GM input, to give conumsers a choice on grounds of culturally-defined purity rather than molecularly-defined content.

  10. The exclusions also include where 1% of the food is GM but it is there “unintentionally” and there is no labelling requirement where, with meat for example, it has been fed GM grains etc..

  11. Again, it seems likely that objections to 1 per cent content are on grounds of culturally defined purity rather than any plausible health risk. At some point, presumably, this becomes a business opportunity for people who can be certified pure by Greenpeace or some similar body, in the same way as halal and kosher food suppliers.

    To come back to the main point, if you are going to destroy science experiments or (in the case of ELF) burn down science labs to protect people from the possibility of dietary items with 1 per cent GM content, you have have both your moral compass and your political strategy seriously screwed up.

  12. “Certified pure” seems a little pejoritive when put like that.

    I don’t think it unreasonable that the very powerful and wealthy corporations which want to muck around with our food and biosphere for no other reason than profit should be put to both a very high standard of proof of safety and the incredibly minor inconvenience of labelling.

    In my first comment I wasn’t defending the destruction of science experiments at all.

  13. As an illustration, I found a paper on BSE and the following makes the point I think:

    “Researchers such as Wilesmith (Wilesmith et al. 1998) have hypothesised that the introduction of cost-saving rationalisations to meat and bone meal production in the 1970’s lowered the processing temperature of this feed supplement, which increased the probability of the survival of BSE agents. Additionally, Kimberlin (1993) has suggested that these processes concentrated and caused genetic mutations which modified the disease and increased its infectivity. ”

    I can’t remember exactly how many people have died so far from nCJD, but it did cost the UK 11 Billion pounds and saw millions of cattle destroyed.

  14. “It would help.. if Greenpeace.. admitted they weren’t really concerned with health affects, but had moral objections to GMF, as such”.
    That is the single worst sentence I have ever read flowing from the keyboard of reliable John Quiggin.
    “Moral objection”- what does this mean?
    If it means GFM itself is totally clear I’d tend to agree, but not completely. Time will tell.
    If the term refers to objections to Monsanto and so forth, let’s look at the cases involving giant corporations on their merits- my feeling is that big chemicals and Pharmaare roughly about as deserving of trust as the people who run News of the World.
    Your average Green IS concerned about the intro of new technologies and we definitely hope there are no more Thalidomides for example, let alone global warming and the other lovely phenomena dumped on us we can’t do anything about (Bhopal come to mind, too).
    Many other instances which remain just beyond my cognitive grasp, involving an inadequate attention to science, safety and patience over time, during the development, in the headlong rush to cash in on the new idea, account for a healthy ecological scepticism on much of what the establishment has attempted to impose on the world, in the past, with little concern for impacts on other people in the event of things going wrong.

  15. Sorry, last comment was aimed at the UW ELF action.

    As for labeling – mandatory labeling should be reserved for known food safety issues. Since there are currently no known “blanket” food safety issues with the use of GM approaches there is no need for a mandatory labeling scheme. This also means that the opposition to GM is ethical or quasi-religious and hence any burden of labeling (and the associated expense) should be carried by the group demanding it. An analogy would be kosher or halal food. The cost of this labeling is carried, as it should be, by the Jewish and Muslim communities.

  16. “known”?
    Please- rofl.
    “Known” by whom, in what context, against what contingencies- please explain!
    what if you can’t avoid contaminaion and to rub salt into the wounds are forced to pay the GM seed provider, whose stuff you didn’t want, when it contaminates your crop?
    Context, ever context.

  17. John Quiggin :
    But we do have compulsory labelling in Australia. And the exclusions are in cases (eg canola oil) where the final product contains no GM-modified protein or DNA, making health effects unlikely.

    We need oil feeding trials to test this assumption. Rats fed GMO canola (meal) developed 16% heavier livers than controls (sign of liver damage) on just a short trial. Researchers put attributed the damage was due to higher level of glucosinolates in the the GM canola. Importantly they did not investigate to see if Rats feed similar levels of non-GM glucosinolates had comparable abnormalities.

    The UK science advisers were not convinced by the tactics then used by Monsanto scientists to make this abnormality disappear using control drift, stating:

    the relative liver weights for the rats fed 15% processed GT73 oilseed rape were found to be significantly higher than controls. This was attributed by the notifiers to higher glucosinolate concentration in the GM diets compared with the corresponding control diets. This adverse effect was not observed in a subsequent rat experiment (Naylor, M. W. 1996; MSL-14778), ACAF is not satisfied that the subsequent feeding study satisfactorily supports this hypothesis as the two studies are not equally comparative. Therefore ACAF remains of the view that the adverse response in rats to a diet containing 15% GT73 requires further explanation.”

    “ACRE and ACAF are not satisfied that the notifiers have supported the hypothesis that
    increased liver weight in rats fed GT73 compared with controls is attributed to higher
    glucosinolate content levels in the test material. A satisfactory explanation for this potentially adverse response observed in the rat feeding study is required.”

    It would help the debate if groups like Greenpeace admitted that they weren’t really concerned about health effects but had moral/cultural objections to GM as such. .

    Unfortunately this reads as an uninformed allegation from JQ in light of the evidence. Surely John, proper feeding trial protocols are required? Demanding such is pro-science and pro-safety. This in in contrast to the action of Monsanto who block access to independent researchers wanting to test their product.

  18. To put the question back to you jakerman, do you think that Greenpeace would support production of GM foods for which feeding trials had shown no evidence of harm, and for which their were positive benefits?

    This isn’t hypothetical – the much touted “golden rice” is approaching release, and there is no seen of any change in Greenpeace stance on this, even though all of the usual concerns appear to have been addressed. Notably, IP has been managed so as to allow free access for subsistence farmers.

    I’d be happy to make this a test case – if Greenpeace are assessing the issue on the scientific merits and with an actual concern for poor people, they ought to support golden rice, while still demanding more rigorous scrutiny of GM in general. If, on the other hand, their objections are essentially religious, they’ll doubtless apply them consistently regardless of the evidence.

  19. JQ, the whole point is that we need open transparent feeding trial protocols, with access to product for independent verification of test results. Please demonstrate how you think this is on offer with the Golden rice.

    Of the three clinical studies listed on the US clinical Trials website, two involved children 6-10 years old, to compare the vitamin A value of the b-carotene in oil capsule, spinach and Golden Rice. The third was on 6 adults 40-70 years of age. These trials were carried out at different times between 2004 and 2009. None registered any results whatsoever. Although WHO succeeded in making it mandatory to register clinical trials, that did not extend to reporting the results.

    What’s more, the Golden Rice in the trials (GR2) was not one identifiable variety. Instead, it was an experimental collection of transgenic events still in the laboratory [5] (The Golden Rice Scandal Unfolds, SiS 42), not characterised in terms of basic molecular genetics or biological and biochemical properties, not tested pre-clinically on animals, or subjected to any other safety assessment.

    Without this we have a secret tests with (and again they are improperly smearing the sensitivity of the test by not comparing one strain but smearing experimental collection of transgenic events). Hence Golden rice is far from the test case that would assure me or I assume GP that past improper practice has improved to a reasonable standard of safety.

    The significance of lack of animal feeding prior to human trials is not just about the risks to the exposed subjects. But proper feeding trials include detailed organ dissection (such as the damage found in mice and rats from GM pea, potatoes,m canola etc) this step is not possible in human trials.

  20. John Quiggin :
    if Greenpeace are assessing the issue on the scientific merits and with an actual concern for poor people, they ought to support golden rice.

    On the contrary, Greenpeace assessing the issue on the its merits found that:

    generous funding channelled into the development of golden rice would be far better applied toward existingmethods to fight VAD, those which favour sustainable food systems, provide food security and increase agricultural diversity in a way that is empowering women, providing income to rural farmers, and improving the nutritional status of women and children around the globe.

    Click to access Golden%20rices%20lack%20of%20lustre.pdf

  21. @John Quiggin

    circumstances alter cases?

    yore withus or a guinness?

    depending on individual situations in a long term, moving scenario such as this one,to make either/or judgements in a debate that is at last coming into general awareness,could mean painting oneself into an untenable corner as knowlege increases.
    separating corporate studies and public relations from uncommercial research and peer reviewed scientific studies can be very confusing.

    at least people are starting to pay attention to what is,after all,our very staff of life.

    i’m not going to relegate greenpeace to the ragbag
    and i’m not going to relegate csiro to corporate puppet.

    steady as she goes—“brilliant”

  22. @jakerman
    I’m not qualified evaluate your quote but I do know that a single result doesn’t usually count for a lot in science. No one is suggesting that independent testing of products isn’t required for Monsanto or anyone. What we want is scientific evaluation to be performed and accepted even when it doesn’t suit commercial interests or prejudices. Generic “GM = Evil” statements don’t rate as scientific evidence; they corrupt the process.

    You can be certain that some potential GM foods will be toxic. It’s not a surprise. All plants, GM or not, are stationary meals, so devote a significant part of their energy to making themselves toxic. (For example, look at Solanine in potatoes.) There is nothing inherent in the GM process that provides a radical new source of food risk. In fact, the process will tend towards less toxic food over time if proper testing is used.

    We need to evaluate the risks and benefits of any food, especially new foods, but the way to this is with science, not preset ideas. If anyone wants cede the process to the likes of Montsanto, dropping science is a great place to start.

  23. @jakerman
    Really? Anyone can write a motherhood statement about all the wonderful things that might be achieved without GM, if avoiding GM is a religious issue.

    Even if the money would have been better spent on some unspecified “sustainable food system” rather than developing the rice that is not the choice now. Golden rice is ready now. The current existing vitamin A deficiency treatment for the people who are at risk of blindness and other diseases consists of an occasional large dose. This has some medical issues and is an ongoing cost and distribution problem. Golden rice is a sustainable solution.

    Why not use it?

  24. @jakerman

    That’s exactly the argument Lomborg makes against climate mitigation (except he talks about clean drinking water).

    More generally, as Jim Birch says, this kind of whataboutery can be used on any occasion when you want to oppose something but don’t have an actual case.

    My opinion of Greenpeace is substantially lower, thanks to the links you have provided, than it was on the basis of the original vandalism.

  25. John Quiggin :
    That’s exactly the argument Lomborg makes against climate mitigation (except he talks about clean drinking water).

    I don’t see the likeness, Lomborg argument included spending money on priorities other than on mitigation.

    GP on the other hand want mitigating malnutrition put ahead of GMO rice. They find that The rice has not been through proper safety trials and that is more cost effect to use direct methods to mitigate VAD.

    GP is more like arguing for bed nets instead of broad acre spraying with DDT.

  26. Perhaps you should revisit the history of the suffragettes before talking about “disaster,” professor Quiggin. Women got the vote through wanton violence, vandalism, and hunger strikes, during which some women died through force feeding. They did not get it through writing letters to their political masters. vandalism is actually a very useful tool in the right hands.

  27. Jim Birch :

    No one is suggesting that independent testing of products isn’t required for Monsanto or anyone. What we want is scientific evaluation to be performed and accepted even when it doesn’t suit commercial interests or prejudices.
    We need to evaluate the risks and benefits of any food, especially new foods, but the way to this is with science, not preset ideas.

    Great points Jim. Couldn’t agree more, that is if part that testing includes proper long term feeding trials.

    Unfortunately regulators are saying this is not required, based on the false assumption that GMO are substantially equivalent to other food. This despite the multiple findings to the contrary.

  28. faustus you should reread the post and comments threads – your comment has already been answered in both places

  29. Also faustus, as you’re commenting on an Australian blog, you should at least mention that you are talking about another country. Australian women did get the vote by peaceful agitation “writing letters” in your phrase.

    That doesn’t invalidate the need of those elsewhere to struggle, but as I’ve repeatedly said, civil disobedience methods, including hunger strike, proved much more effective than criminal attacks on people and property.

  30. @jakerman

    …based on the false assumption that GMO are substantially equivalent to other food.


    A typical food plant has 30k to 60k genes, eg, soy bean is estimated to have 46,430 genes. GM will modify or add a few genes to this to achieve some end like higher yield, disease resistance, etc. That means that a GM variety will be genetically (like) 99.99% identical to the conventional cultivar it was based on: the GM plants are substantially the same their source cultivars. What’s more, the added genes they add typically come from known genes in other plants with known properties because building biochemistry from the ground up is horrendously complex.

    You might think that the source cultivars are safe? Actually, no, it depends. Plants devote a significant proportion of their metabolic activity to making themselves toxic. They are loaded with fungicides, antibacterials, insecticides, and chemicals that are toxic to us. There are loads of them in common foods. Plants have to devote their energy to creating them because they can’t run away from things that would otherwise eat them. A higher plant genome typically contains two or three times the number of genes as a higher animals – including us – largely because of the need to create an arsenal of these poisons.

    The reason we can eat a lot of plants is not that they are actually benign. They are toxic, but we have a liver that can neutralise a wide range of toxins, including previously unknown ones. If you don’t have a working liver normal food will kill you. It’s not a perfect organ, a few unpeeled green potatoes can kill you, persistent copious herbal tea drinking can wreck your liver, etc – it’s the usual situation of dosage and exposure, biological costs and benefits. We deal with these toxins all the time, they can injure us, but our systems cope up to a point. Some of these toxins may, at the right dose, have have some beneficial effect too, or produce pleasant effects, and many just taste good.

    All this is pretty established biology. It seems to be lost to the simplistic “good versus evil” natural food mythology.

    This all strongly suggests that using GM, eg, adding a couple of genes to rice to add a vitamin A precursor to the food, is very unlikely to produce anything toxic contrary to your claim. That is, of course, anything more toxic than the arsenal that is already lined up in the plant. Of course, it is always possible that some a new plant strain will have some nasty toxic effect, but that applies about equally to strains produced by conventional mutation and selection processes. In fact, potential GM projects that remove some of the nastier “natural” toxins from plant foods (eg, removing solanine from potatoes) should produce significantly safer food. I expect this project to develop as the GM scare wanes.

  31. @Jim Birch

    Jim, your numbers are wrong. genetic mutation resulting from the combination of gene insertion and tissue culture, which can change 2-4% of the DNA (Bao, Granata et al 1996; and Labra, Savini et al 2001).

    Gene insertion has significant effects on gene expression through the organism. Srivastava et al (1999) found that 5% of the host’s genes changed their level of expression after a single gene is inserted.

    It is difficult or impossible to assess the safety of such complex changed to hundreds of thousands of interacting proteins and enzymes without long term comprehensive feeding studies. These have not been done.

    Here is some background on the unintendd changes that vastly outnumber the intended chagnes in DNA with current GE techniques:

    Click to access 025376.pdf

  32. Much of the debate on here seems to be particularly concerned with the effects of GM food on human health. There seem to be few concerns, probably similar levels to contamination of other non-GM products. As in these other cases, it seems to me that product source labelling is a critical public health measure – whether GM or not – and should be readily available on the packaging.

    Aside from the human health aspects, there are biodiversity problems with any monoculture crop, but particularly so with GM crops. The cost of transforming, testing and marketing individual breeding lines means that diversity levels among GM crops are extremely low, and escape into the wild is quite common. While the wild release of GM wheat in Australia may not be a significant biodiversity problem, there are wild relatives of soya in Australia. We shouldn’t be to human centric in our concerns.

    Finally, as this is an economics forum, where is the support for simply informing the consumer and letting the market decide what it wants? Why can’t we have a simple competitive market battle of GM versus non-GM?

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