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. They whippersnippered some plants!!!!!


    Thats worse than putting tonnes of toxic sh-t in our rivers isn’t it??
    [Now I wonder if anyone can catch the allusion there?]

    Really, the action calls for a bit of tut-tutting and rather gentle shaking of the head as one sips one’s port.
    Not hyperbole.

  2. Years ago I was involved with the National Organic Conference which had quite a few interesting speakers. The CSIRO were there and when they tried to speak there was uproar from some of the attendees due to the CSIRO work on GM (CSIRO were quite excited by the potential) It seemed some of the attendees were totally intolerant of the CSIRO and refused to consider the science. Not that they were unscientific as they followed the science of Steiner which include sprinkling 7herbs and spices that had been buried in a cows horn then mixed in a copper vessel stirred anticlockwise and spread on a full moon.

    CSIRO had done studies on calcium and phosphate levels in one of these farms and told them that the levels were decreasing due to lack of inputs. Nobody really cared as the science of Steiner did not deal with such matters.

    Similarly I think Greenpeace have also lost the plot.

  3. BigBob @32, do you have information that the activists didn’t allow themselves to be arrested. The article in The Conversation says ‘the protesters were not charged by police’. It’s unclear just who this refers to though.

  4. @Mel

    Right, so the moonbeam brigade (Chris Warren and Helen) think Monsanto is an omniscient and secretive organisation that kills suffragettes, Jews, dolphins and whales.

    We don’t need abusive strawmen here Mel. Let’s keep the discussion focused on issues of substance.

  5. Also note that the CSIRO has a track record for abandoning GM trials based on the science.

    “Research by CSIRO to genetically modify peas to resist insect attack and reduce the use of chemical sprays has been discontinued because the GM peas did not satisfy all categories of a stringent risk assessment process.


    CSIRO is finalising arrangements with the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator for the disposal of GM field peas produced during the project.”

    Contrary to what one might expect given Helen’s slur, this occurred after Howard’s “commercialisation” of the CSIRO. ( BTW, I’m no fan of Howard but it sickens me when alleged lefties carry on like Lord Monckton mini-me’s, which is all too often the case when the subject of GM is raised).

  6. I’m glad that it has been a very long time since I gave money to Greenpeace.

  7. @Mel

    Cross post from Deltoid:

    More recently CSIRO Plant Industry Deputy TJ Higgins has defended the safety of GMO crops by making an improper associations between regulatory tests required for current commercial GMO (such as Monsanto’s Roundup Ready Canola) , and with effectiveness of case-by-case evaluation of GM plants” (such as was done with Higgins GM Field Pea, abandoned because toxicologists found it caused immune problems and lung damage in mice.)

    But Higgins’ claims are “simply wrong” says nutritional biochemist and epidemiologist Dr Judy Carman, whom the West Australian government commissioned to undertake independent studies into the safety of GM foods.
    Carman told Crikey: “TJ Higgins’ GM pea provides a clear example of the failings of our current GM food regulatory regime. The pea failed miserably on all the [independent health] tests conducted.” And despite Higgins’ claims, “these tests are not required by our food regulator”.

  8. @Jim Birch

    Depends on the situation and information. If it is public safety vs commercial secrecy, then the answer is different than if other circumstances apply.

    I know this complexity has burst your brain by now, but take it slowly.

  9. @Mel

    Where do you get the notion that anyone thinks

    Monsanto is an omniscient and secretive organisation that kills suffragettes, Jews, dolphins and whales. For this reason, we can’t trust them and their employees deserve to be covered with boils.

    Given that you asked:

    Have I missed anything?

    The answer is – Yes, your grip on reality?

  10. Bolt, the Murdochracy, Alan Jones and the rest of the squawkocrats, the IPA, Lavoisier, the *cough* Galileo Movement, Carter, Plimer, Monckton, Delingpole, Watts, CEI, Heartland, Christopher Pearson, the Marshall Institute, et al= well, enemy.

    Greenpeace = not enemy.

    Not always friend, or not always a clever friend, perhaps, but, Christ-on-a-bike, not ‘history’s greatest monsters’ (to paraphrase the Simpsons’ take on Springfield’s reaction to Jimmy Carter, admirably satirising the same sort of collective over-wrought over-reaction!)

    Let’s not get distracted into taking out our frustrations bickering with our allies – generally an indicator of an increasing sense of impotence – and lose focus on the real problems; this is a very real trap.

  11. Greenpeace cashed in it’s scientific credibility in the late 90s when they started their blanket opposition to GM food. In fact, the GM food issue is a great and simple litmus test for the scientific credibility of an environmental organization; if they are in favor of a blanket ban then they are anti-science. 

    The anti-GM policy originally had nothing to do with the science/risk – it was all about mistrust of corporations. Understandable. This was shown by the fact that all the protests (that I know of) up to now have been against corporations like Monsanto, scientific organizations like CSIRO have been left alone.

    Right now the science  does not support blanket opposition to GM technology. Neither does a cursory examination of the history of crop strain production – why is it fine to use random mutagensis to produce high yielding varieties but not a more targeted GM approach? 

    Now it appears that Greenpeace has started believing it’s own fantasical press releases and they have started going after well respected scientific organizations. That’s, well, stupid of them. In a PR battle between Greenpeace and the CSIRO I think most people will support the latter.

  12. Can anyone please give me a reason why CSIRO would, independently of a joint venture, conduct research on a patented product which has not yet been released? It seems to me that there is an undisclosed joint venture with a commercial interest and that CSIRO refuses to disclose this. Greenpeace seem to think the same. This seems more product testing than public science.

    I believe this is very different to climate research which as far as I know is not covered by patents or commercial in confidence clauses.

  13. @ chris warren

    Just to clarify, all anti science movements share the same tactics.

    Claiming the moral high ground when attacking the work of scientists is the last refuge of extremists.

    Where is your evidence if harm, except conspiracy theories? Give me peer reviewed science that backs your concerns.

    So the correctness of actions such as this come down to values? Whose. Yours? Tony Abbots?

    Tell me Chris, what other work of scientists would you have shut down?

    Should we all play by the rules of science, or opt out when it goes against our politics.

  14. Bill, among the other longstanding disastrous strategies I’ve observed over the years “no enemies on the left” is probably almost as prominent as “we need to protest, let’s blow something up”.

    More generally, in 65 comments quite a few critical of the original post, i haven’t seen anyone challenge the point that tactics of this kind have proved disastrous every time they have been tried. The most directly comparable example, since they largely targeted science experiments, was Earth First.

  15. Um, yeah this is a tactical disaster by Greenpeace, damaging to the Green Party, devastating to Australian scientists, and to boot, basically giving away a 50 metre penalty to the Murdochracy.

    You’d have to be a politicial naif of the first order to think otherwise.

  16. A further point in response to Bill. You can’t now be a friend of both Greenpeace and CSIRO, and for practical purposes, any enemy of CSIRO is a friend of Bolt.

  17. I understand what Prof Quiggin is trying to say and do.
    Within the limitations of that, it is still safe to suggest a conversation concerning some thing like, “that GM is itself a questionable practice”.
    To many people when corporations like Monsanto have such influence on the US government that trade deals are said to ensure the protection of a big corporation’s interests in a locale foreign to its own home (Bhopal is the extreme case), this is the precondition that pushes the switch from “off” to “on” as to a tilting of the terms of the issue , a bit like in the way people in Britain reassessed Murdoch’s fitness to control BskyB in the wake of the News of the World revelations.
    Can science be science (out of the paws of neanderthals) within an irrational poleco system, I guess?
    To tell the truth, haven’t read most comments yet, will be fascinated to see how posters contend with JQ’s proposition.
    I did catch a glimpse of one exchange to do with the CSIRO, an organising that, like AQIS, some claim to have suffered badly from politico-economic interference by zombies over the last fifteen years or so.

  18. In case people think this action does not have “official” Greenpeace support, I’d direct them to the Greenpeace Australia web site:

    I quote: “All of the evidence shows that GM can’t be contained in the field. Greenpeace has taken action to protect our food supply being contaminated by experimental GM wheat. Now the Australian Government must step in and protect the health of Australian people.

    “We had no choice but to take action to bring an end to this experiment,” said Greenpeace Food campaigner Laura Kelly. “GM has never been proven safe to eat and once released in open experiments, it will contaminate. This is about the protection of our health, the protection of our environment and the protection of our daily bread.”

    This is an “official” Greenpeace action.

    Let’s put aside the question of GM, and focus on the methods used.

    An attack on science is an attack on science. Greenpeace are distancing themselves from this, but proudly proclaiming responsibility. They rejected the protocols established, the science and attacked the work of scientists.

    The excuse of Greenpeace and these activists is essentially “the end justifies the means”.

    If climate sceptics broke into CSIRO labs and destroyed computers or started destroying temp stations we’d be outraged.

    As someone once broadly sympathetic with Greenpeace they’ve lost my support.

  19. John Quiggin :
    A further point in response to Bill. You can’t now be a friend of both Greenpeace and CSIRO, and for practical purposes, any enemy of CSIRO is a friend of Bolt.

    This is just nutty.

    Of course anyone with an ounce of rationality can support both Greenpeace, CSIRO, and also the critics of Greenpeace and CSIRO, depending on circumstances.

  20. Well, now I’ve read the comments I’ll say I subscribe to what ChrisW, FB, et al make of it, much of the rest seems disappointingly unreasoned and one dimensional in quality of thinking; emotive claptrap at worst, so I’ll presume it’s just to start up or keep going (a)conversation.
    I see as I write this, Jim Birch up with a comment that pretty much defines what I dont like about the second approach…

  21. I don’t see this act or Greenpeace’s stance against GM as being anti-science. I see it as being anti an unacceptably dangerous type of science in the way of Fracking or Nuclear power.

    In other words, in the hands of big business and a lack of very tight regulation taking account of environmental and social concerns and the precautionary principle, best not to use it at all.

    I also think it is too early to say if this is a clumsy mistake by Greenpeace or a clever way to shine a light on a dark practice but even if it’s the former, it should be seen as a small bad among so many good things they have done for the environment.

  22. what other work of scientists would you have shut down?

    Hmm, we’ve already been Godwinned and that was embarrassing enough, so chemical and biological weapons research, cosmetics testing that involves cruelty. I’m sure there’s plenty more examples

    There is no unrestricted right to conduct scientific research except in the fantasies of science nerds. Those of you that actually do research would deal with ethics and safety committees. Research is permitted by society subject to these checks. Someone earlier said they’d back CSIRO against Greenpeace for credibility. I’m not so sure its CSIRO that’s more in step with community thinking around the ethics of this research.

    It doesn’t help that CSIRO will not admit any details of its relationship with the licensor.

    Personally I came to this thread seriously considering stopping my support for Greenpeace. I’m now comfortable to continue. And I now think the whipper snippers were an inspired choice. But how long would it take and how noisy would it be to whipper snipper the whole crop in a supposedly secure area – surely they must have expected to be caught before they finished.

    I’d note that it’s probably also a good thing that the ethics around direct action are also difficult

  23. “surely they must have expected to be caught before they finished.”

    As I said in the original post, they can always turn themselves in if they think their actions are genuinely defensible.

  24. If the police are interested I think a look at this may be helpful. I wonder if they want to prosecute?

  25. I looked at the link, and I’d say the post and video have been carefully constructed to claim credit for the destruction of the experiment while avoiding anything that could be used in evidence.

    On a casual reading, it seems obvious that the Heather McCabe referred to in para 5 and (I assume) shown in the video was the person referred to in the introductory para as having taken part in the action, but look a bit closer and it all dissolves into ambiguity. There’s enough plausible deniability there to put any politician to shame.

    Not, in my view, a particularly forthright way of proceeding.

  26. I suppose there is some sort of process involved in the selection of projects at an institution like CSIRO, but how open is the process?
    I see why people think Greenpeace is a bit tabloid on this one after a read of the link.
    In the meantime I return to my Robin Cook gothic science thriller and hot brew.

  27. And for those who doubt the resemblance between Greenpeace and the delusionists, look at this “open letter from eight international scientists and doctors” attacking the proposal. This is startlingly similar to the various lists of bogus scientific sceptics put out by Heartland, Inhofe and so on.

    Admittedly, Greenpeace is a little more honest in describing its signatories than, say, Heartland, but if you can’t find a single Australian scientist to back your case (both the Australian signatories are GPs) and you have to resort to the Maharishi University of Management (not joking!) to get to eight worldwide, you might as well admit that there is not a lot of scientific support for your position.

  28. Right now the science does not support blanket opposition to GM technology.

    This sort of disguised ideological statement is precisely the reason I think accusations of “anti-science” are propaganda when these sorts of issues are concerned. The “science” (i.e. available scientific evidence) does not “support” or “oppose” any particular position vis a vis GM technology. The support or opposition is all supplied by value judgments, which are mostly derived from cultural or ideological beliefs.

    I mostly agree with the underlying point made by Prof Q’s post, and stated explicitly at #67, which is that tactics of this kind are generally counterproductive (although not always – for example, unlawful interference with whaling operations by Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd has been effective, both in practical and public relations terms. There is a relatively broad consensus that whaling is bad, however, unlike GM).

  29. ” … the Maharishi School of Management…to get eight world wide…”.
    One more and they’ll be actually change a light bulb, having the eight to experience it, like?

  30. @Tim Macknay
    I think the problem arises when you have a position based on cultural beliefs, essentially irrefutable by evidence, but are unwilling to say so, and therefore keep dancing between factual claims, value judgements and conspiracy-theoretic explanations of contrary evidence. It seems to me that this is a pretty good characterization of Greenpeace as regards GM (also of some unqualified supporters of GM when challenged on the point that the benefits haven’t lived up to the claims made in advance).

    At this stage, I would say there is enough scientific evidence to regard the claim that GM technology, per se, poses significant human health risks, as having been refuted. That’s not to say that some GM products might not be dangerous or that other concerns about GM aren’t valid.

    Turning to legality, as I said in the original post, the problem isn’t illegality as such, Although the distinction between civil disobedience and criminal action isn’t exactly sharp, this action clearly crosses the line. And as the history of the left in the 60s shows, there really is a slippery slope here. By contrast, in the case of whaling the actions have mostly been defensible on the basis that the Japanese operations being disrupted are themselves unlawful. It’s only when they create (or are alleged to have created) a serious risk of a collision that they have been subject to criticism.

  31. Thanks for link. How credible are these eight intrepid folk and what sort of support could the CSIRO director expect to muster in response?

  32. This is all gutter stock-in-trade propaganda….

    I think the problem arises when you have a position based on cultural beliefs, essentially irrefutable by evidence, but are unwilling to say so, and therefore keep dancing between factual claims, value judgements and conspiracy-theoretic explanations of contrary evidence. It seems to me that this is a pretty good characterization of Greenpeace as regards GM (also of some unqualified supporters of GM when challenged on the point that the benefits haven’t lived up to the claims made in advance).

    The problem that sort of manufactured accusation can be rolled-out on any occasion.

    The same can be said for economists who propagate their ideo-cultural beliefs in capitalism, markets, and models even as the contary evidence sinks their ships.

    The disruption of Japanese ‘science’ is based on the mode or quality of that science and has nothing to do with being “unlawful”. Even if some power decreed the Japanese ‘science’ to be lawful, other deeper considerations still underpin activist counter-actions.

  33. @John Quiggin

    I think the problem arises when you have a position based on cultural beliefs, essentially irrefutable by evidence, but are unwilling to say so, and therefore keep dancing between factual claims, value judgements and conspiracy-theoretic explanations of contrary evidence. It seems to me that this is a pretty good characterization of Greenpeace as regards GM (also of some unqualified supporters of GM when challenged on the point that the benefits haven’t lived up to the claims made in advance).

    You may be right.

  34. John Quiggin :I would say there is enough scientific evidence to regard the claim that GM technology, per se, poses significant human health risks, as having been refuted. T

    Based on what trials John? Surely you can’t find GM technology per se poses no significant health risks. Even if long term feeding trials were conducted on one GMO that is different to every other. We cannot find all GE strains are safe until we test each one.

  35. Reread the comment, jakerman. I’m not claiming that all GMOs are safe or that any should be approved without testing.

    Just that, if there were a general and significant health risk with GM as such, the 40-odd years of research since Asilomar ought to have found some evidence of it.

  36. The limited feeding trials (even thought most have been inadequate) have found evidence of potential health risk.

    But when found responses such as this have resulted:

    In the mid-1990s, the UK government decided to institute what US leaders refused to—rigorous, long-term safety testing. They commissioned scientists to develop an assessment protocol for GM crop approvals that would be used in the UK and eventually by the EU. In 1998, three years into the project, the scientists discovered that potatoes engineered to produce a harmless insecticide caused extensive health damage to rats. The pro-GM government immediately canceled the project, the lead scientist was fired and the research team dismantled. The assessment requirements that were eventually adopted by the EU were a far cry from those that were being developed in the UK. The superficial testing schemes still have yet to meet the demands of the FDA’s stifled scientists

  37. Jakerman, I can find loads of material like this on anti-science sites of all kinds (AIDS reappraisers, pro-smokers, climate deniers etc etc). Why should I think this one is any more credible?

    I’m guessing that the case in question is this, which makes the research sound rather less impressive. I don’t think Pusztai was well treated, but it certainly looks as if he went to press early on research that didn’t stand up

  38. Two points of objection JQ.

    1 Your comment at #69 seems unduly absolutist. One needn’t be an all-in friend or enemy of CSIRO, Greenpeace or Bolt. It’s perfectly allowed to pick and choose particular issues from all entities. One could be against global warming and whaling, against GM foods and nuclear power, and against Islamic absolutism. By your standards, I have no such “friends.”

    2 I have no sympathy at all for your belief implied in #84 that an act which is illegal is made even slightly less moral. Laws are deeply troublesome things, usually far inferior to a good person’s conscience. The law the Japanese whalers are breaking (the one you say justifies obstructive action) was arrived at by an incredibly flawed international process brokered by politicians busily engaged in the horse-trading of realpolitik. It could just as easily not have passed, but the Sea Shepard’s actions would be moral just the same.

  39. John, you haven’t demonstrated that the site is an anti-science site. You’ve simply tried to associate it with other sites . Barry Brook could just as similarly dismiss sites such as yours that point out the risk of nuclear power. Anti science is throwing out testing protocol when you find health risks. Its anti-science to block access to GMO seed to conduct safety trials.

    When there aren’t appropriate feeding studies how can you expect to find harm from products.

  40. Coming back to the political consequences of this kind of action, I’m aware of the limits of online polls but the reaction of Canberra Times readers was pretty overwhelming. Only 11 per cent supported Greenpeace, with 80 per cent taking the “anti-science vandalism” option

    Regrettably, that doesn’t mean the action will be bad for Greenpeace, who will attract the support of the more infantile members of the left/environmentalist movement, while doing great damage to the movement as a whole.

  41. It’s more concerning that silly elements in the Greens power structures have supported Greenpeace’s thuggery, both on this occasion and in the past.

    I was a member of the Greens for several years but became disillusioned for a number of reasons, not least the anti-democratic tactics that the leading light and perennial candidate in my local branch thought was OK.

  42. It is, in my opinion, the same mistake to assert that GM is inherently unacceptably risky and/or harmful to human interests as to assert it’s inherently worthwhile. GM innovations ought to be decided on a case-by-case basis for their poitnetial to contribute usefully to contemporary life.

    As things stand, the business of evaluating them for their utility is seriously complicated by two types of “noise”within the system. The largest part of the noise comes from large corporations, like Monsanto, who, as we know from past experience, care not a jot about their “externalities” (apart from wanting them to continue to assist them) and are willing to go to the mattresses for their equity and other stakeholders. That is after all, their brief. These people are very well connected and have huge resources they can throw into this, and so it’s not surprising that they are able to frame the ways in which their activities are reported upon.

    The mere fact that they are hugely powerful and able to lie shamelessly and get away with it doesn’t mean they are wrong of course.

    The other noise in the system comes from those who have an idealised view of “the natural” as inherently superior to anything that can be presented as non-natural. The natural has, ipso facto, authenticity on its side. The natural is much closer to what most of us take to be our own experience of the world and so it’s not surprising that GM is being assailed as an unnatural think. As sympathetic as I am to “whole foods” it’s easy to see why those pushing for this describe their competition as “frankenfoods”. It trades on the FUD factor, and the sense that that which comes from nature untainted by human hand is the very best thing of all for us humans.

    That’s a very sweeping claim of course, because by a great many criteria, contemporary society, which has the grubby fingerprints of human innovation with nature all over it, has done pretty well. The small bands of humans living 13,000 years BP could not have dreamed how well we mostly live now. They lived a very “natural” but brutish and short existence. They were scarcely to be distinguished from other primates.

    The virtue of contemporary society is that we can choose how “natural” the things we want to consume should be on an approximately rational basis. We can also decide how to define “the natural”. It’s one of those things many think they can understand, but which is utlimately, I would say, arbitrary and at best, a matter of subjective aesthetics.

    It’s here one can see the parallel between the anti-GM crowd and the anti-mitigation crowd. Both regard science as invading and trampling both upon their personal space, their domain. Both regard themselves as on the worng end of powerful and privileged forces, and wish cultural life to remain (at least in the case of GM/mitigation) as it once was. Both are an appeal against human agency and trade on the virtue of the authentic over the human-contrived. I imagine that it would not be hard, if one held a meeting in a town in Iowa, to have meetings on successive nights in which ,much the same crowd roared their approval for those declaiming against “Gore/carbon traders” and “Monsanto/GM”.

    Yet rational public policy, if it can be had, demands something more impressive than hatred or suspicion of elites or big business or big government, of the non-natural and non-local and inauthentic. It requires a thoughtful examination of the ways in which this or that technology or set of social arrangements advances or diminishes the power of communities to live well and suatainably over meaningful timelines. For that we need adequate and salient data, good modelling and a robust dialog over what communities can have and might one day wish for.

    Sweeping claims that this or that technology is simply beyond the pale, unconnected with rigorous examination qualifies as agnotology, in my opinion.

    As I suggested above, there are a great many social and ethical issues attached to the roll-out of biotechnology (including GM). The noise in the system makes it harder for those of us who want evidence-based policy to distinguish what adds to from what subtracts from collective human utility. Our governance challenge is to work out how to filter out that noise and empower working humanity to make the best choices.

  43. John re #78 (been out all day so first I’ve seen it), one of the criticisms of Greenpeace is that this was tactically stupid. A post which was a signed confession could limit their options in court, I’d imagine Greenpeace may like to hear evidence eg from the people responsible for security. If there are no facts in issue this may be difficult. In any case they’ve pretty much said to police, ‘start investigating here’.

    I agree with you about the weakness of the letter from the concerned scientists.

    Generally speaking I’d be less concerned about this action if it was against a corporate biotech property. It seems with all the statements about being a ‘friend’ of CSIRO many people see CSIRO as having special status. But the commercialisation and commercial secrecy of CSIRO makes this difficult. If CSIRO are conducting this research on behalf of biotech companies then I believe this is no worse (or better) than an action against a commercial research operation. Unfortunately there has been no disclosure of the commercial relationships.

  44. Greenpeace have done some wonderful campaigns – I’ve plugged their one about VW recently, but this is diabolically bad, for all the reasons outlined here. I’ve tried to set it in context of my wider perceptions as a science communicator and environmental activist here

    At any time I would consider this a bad action, but with the climate debate white-hot at the moment promoting the notion that the Green movement is anti-science is diabolically bad.

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