Greenpeace splits on GM sabotage

Andrew Revkin of the NY Times has an interesting interview [Youtube with no transcript 😦 ] with Phil Radford, departing chief executive of the US branch of Greenpeace. The main focus is on the energy issues that have been debated at length in this blog, and on these issues I broadly agree with Radford’s take. Two points of interest

* While correctly arguing that new nuclear power is uneconomic, he concedes that a transition to 100 per cent renewable energy may involve some nuclear plants continuing to operate over future decades

* He gives an unequivocal condemnation of the Greenpeace Australia sabotage attack on CSIRO GM foods, which I discuss here.

The interview doesn’t cover the substantive policy issue on GM – I assume Greenpeace remains firmly anti-GM worldwide, even if the criminal vandalism seen in some countries is not widely supported.

For the record, I support compulsory labelling, on the basis that consumers are entitled to know how and where their food was produced, regardless of whether food from one source is, or isn’t) objectively different from food from another.

On the other hand, I see no case for banning or substantially restricting GM food production for those who are happy to consume it. It would be more effective and more honest for GM opponents to come out and say “we don’t like the idea of tinkering with DNA. We don’t care what the evidence is, or whether there is any observable difference from ‘natural’ foods, we just don’t want to eat this stuff”.

The use of anti-science arguments by anyone in the environmental movement is damaging to the movement as a whole, and particularly to efforts to combat the uniformly anti-science views of the political right. When called on their anti-science position, rightwingers rarely defend it, instead preferring tu quoque argument that the left is just as bad.

The only really good example of this is the anti-GM movement. The arguments presented against GM food are unconvincing in themselves, and strikingly reminiscent of anti-evolution and climate denialists. It’s clear that, as in these other cases, purported scientific arguments are a cover for cultural/religious beliefs. In the case of GM foods, opponents typically mix bogus claims about health risks with arguments about capitalist control of agriculture. But, when presented with a clearly beneficial, royalty-free proposal like Golden Rice, they change the subject.

The other two examples standardly used by the right are antivaxerism (there are a handful of lefties with antivaxer views, but very few, and counterbalanced by prominent rightwingers like Michelle Bachmann) and nuclear power, where it is, in reality, the right who are denying the overwhelming evidence. Experience around the world shows that nuclear power can’t compete with coal in the absence of a carbon price, and is beaten by renewables when carbon is priced correctly. It’s notable that Radford focuses on this point rather than on the overstated claims about radiation dangers belatedly refuted in, for example, Pandora’s Promise.

75 thoughts on “Greenpeace splits on GM sabotage

  1. @Megan

    I agree with Faustusnotes and BilB that the environmental and political consequences of GM are of great concern. Trusting modern corporations with such an over-powerful technology is like trusting Sweeney Todd to shave you. Many of the legitimate concerns with GM relate to corporate control of the food chain and the tie-in of GM crops with synthetic fertilizers and toxic chemicals that pollute waterways and soils. The corporate GM agenda is about control; control of food so it can be used as a monopoly profit generator and also as a weapon. Anyone who thinks the corporations actually care about feeding people properly is being highly naive.

    Beyond that I do have concerns about eating GM foods, though no doubt I have inadvertantly eaten some already. Uncritical support for GM foods seems to be rooted in the belief that the science is all nailed down and that it is simple, linear science like basic motion physics under Newtonian assumptions. The potential risks of unforeseen and unintended consequences are being too heavily discounted.

    Footnote 1:

    I would advise boggers here to read Margaret Atwood’s “Oryx and Crake” trilogy. Although it contains some great exaggerations and considerable pseudo-religious nonsense, it also contains sharp critiques of corporate dictatorship and genetic engineering along with explicit descriptions of a hotter world affected by major sea-level rise.

    Like all reasonable art (the works are patchy artistically) it can sensitise you to things and trends in your own world. At first I felt the absurdities and obviousness of the corporate propaganda in the books to be too extreme. But then I watched Canadian and US product and corporate ads (being in Canada at the time) and I thought “the author is not exaggerating at all. We are clearly progressing to that level of absurd and obvious brainwashing of the entire populace.” Atwood is obviously predicting further “progress” to the condition of corporate dictatorship in an envionmentally destroyed world. She’s right, no doubt about that. That is where we are headed.

    Footnote 2: There is only one sentence which appears to hold a double negative in Faustusnotes’ post. That is the last sentence. This is scarcely “far too many double negatives”. Stylistically, the double negative in context is arresting rather than awkward or incomprehensible. The arresting nature of the double negative emphasises the point. This is clearly the point of Faustusnotes’ construction.

  2. PrQ:

    You would be a more effective advocate for a pro-science left if you refrained from this kind of thing.

    Sorry about that. I think I need to cut down on the caffeine 🙂

  3. The argument about GM and corporate control doesn’t stand up to scrutiny for two reasons

    1. Corporations behave the same way whether they use GM or standard breeding technology. For example “terminator” genes simply replicate the effects of sterile hybrids and legally enforced PVR. In all cases, corporations are going to stop farmers producing their own seeds if they possibly can

    2. Most of the attacks by GM opponents have been on public not-for-profit research (eg the CSIRO sabotage in Australia). In tactical terms, I assume this is because research scientists are softer targets than, say, Monsanto facilities. But it reflects a broader point: in my experience, anti-GM activists have shown no interest in approaches to GM that would undermine corporate control. Whenever anything of the kind is suggested, they change the subject. If anyone can point me to people involved in the campaign who actively support improved approaches to GM, I’d be keen to endorse them

  4. Adding to PrQ’s point, there is a vast black market trade in GM seeds and hybrids that have a GM parent in countries like India. Such is the state of the Indian judiciary and policing that there is nothing Monsanto can do about it.

    Also by way of interest, India has approx 200 home-grown GM crop varieties awaiting approval. There approval is currently being held up by anti-gm activist court action.

  5. Faustusnotes:

    The concern is not that they “don’t want to eat that stuff,” but that they are worried about its environmental and political consequences. If you accepted their actual arguments rather than your imagined ones, you might be less mystified by why they do not come out and admit to a position they do not hold.

    Nope. All the major anti-gm players question the safety of GM food. Here is a selection:

    Australian Greens

    Genetically modified foods have not been proven safe and the advertised benefits of GM crops are yet to be seen. Crop yields have not increased, but the use of pesticides on our food has.

    Greenpeace Australia‘s ten facts about GM food contains the following:

    2. GM foods have not been proven safe to eat

    3. GM foods are not healthy

    www. greenpeace .org/australia/en/what-we-do/Food/resources/FAQs/Ten-facts-about-GM-foods/

  6. @John Quiggin

    My position on GM is “nuanced” if you want to be kind or “hedged” if you want to be unkind.

    1. I would support a moratorium on the introduction of further GM foods until further research on safety is done by public, not-for-profit, scientific bodies.

    2. Failing that I want full labelling so that it is my choice to eat or not eat GM food. Being a first-worlder I have the luxury of that choice, I guess.

    3. I oppose physical attacks on persons, property or experiments. Such attacks are morally wrong (disproportionate force) in what is still a grey-area moral and knowledge case. Such attacks could unleash greater dangers from damaged or breached experiments.

    4. I would support public, peaceful demonstration against the headlong rush into GM foods.

    I think my above position is a reasonable response to the unknowns surrounding GM. On other issues I am sacarcely an unscientifc denier so my opinion in this area ought to be respected IMO;

    1. I accept climate science.
    2. I accept LTG (limits to growth) albeit in the strong form which hold limits are now near.
    3. I accept vaccination and am firmly of the opinion that the benefits far outweigh the risks.
    4. I am a little uncertain about flouridation and do not feel impelled to support it or oppose it.
    (There’s a limit to how many subjects a layperson can seriously research for him or herself.)

    Overall I am a philosophical and scientific empiricist but I respect the fact that the physical and natural world is not simple, linear and deterministic. It is complex, non-linear and probabilistic. We cannot approach modern scientific controversies with Victorian era deterministic certainty and simplism.

  7. Ikon:

    I think my above position is a reasonable response to the unknowns surrounding GM. On other issues I am sacarcely an unscientifc denier so my opinion in this area ought to be respected IMO;

    Actually, that is an embarrassingly unreasonable position for numerous reasons, including the fact that individual scientists and major scientific bodies, including the US National Academy of Sciences, have been *headdesking* for years now about how the unreasonable approach to GM by many jurisdictions has contributed to the growth of the much riskier, organic industry endorsed process called mutagenesis.

    As this most important and oft-repeated fact is apparently unknown to you and your plan of action would make the situation far worse, I venture to say that your opinion is prejudicial and ignorant.

  8. Indian farmers embrsced GM’s improved products then found out that it tkes only one failed crop containing the terminator gene to loose ones livelyhood completely. The secondary effect wad that tradional sred varieties very quickly banished from availability when they were not being grown havong been cast aside in favour of the GM crop which it turned oi was not hardy in all climatic outcomes.

    Corporate spin has no regard for good agricultural common sense.

  9. BilB:

    Indian farmers embrsced GM’s improved products then found out that it tkes only one failed crop containing the terminator gene to loose ones livelyhood completely.


    No crop in the world contains the “terminator gene”, and as Prof Q points out, a terminator gene is scarcely different from a traditional sterile hybrid or the seeds from a hybrid that don’t come true to type.

    Where are people getting these fantasy stories from?

    But anyway, the bizarre claims on this thread and others in respect of GM clearly prove my point the Left has an anti-science problem that is not dissimilar from the one on the Right.

    Now I’m off to the local Saturday Market where it is not unusual to find Greens voters handing out anti-vaccination and anti-ninth element on the periodic table literature.

  10. @Mel

    Never mind, your opinion means absolutely nothing to me. It is clear that your scientific and philosophical understanding belongs in the Victorian era with its deterministic certainty and simplism. Words like prejudiced and antedeluvian come to mind as good descriptors.

    (This will probably get moderated.)

  11. As regards the moratorium idea, worth pointing out that it’s now nearly 40 years since the Asilomar Conference, which imposed exceptionally strict restrictions on early experiments.

    We’ve now gone for decades during which all the scientific evidence has supported the conclusion that, in general, there is no difference between the products of GM technology and those of older breeding methods (which, of course, involve manipulating the genome).

    And, whether you like it or not, Americans have been eating GM foods on a large scale for decades, with no evidence of any harm (except the obvious harms from eating too much food of all kinds).

  12. John, how can you say that anti-gm campaigners “change the subject” away from corporate control Immediately below a comment about corporate control? Does this make any sense to you? Immediately below you someone who agrees with you has trawled through a green peace FAQ and disingenuously sliced a tiny part of it to “show” greenpeace is only focused on food safety. The second sentence of the intro to that FAQ states concerns about “ecology, wildlife and human health,” and there is a whole section about corporate control of agriculture, as well as food abundance. It’s completely false to focus on the food safety angle, and you are doing it because it’s the only angle where their science is weak.

    As for anti gm activists only attacking govt research centers… Do you actually know anything about what these people do? The environment movement has a rich history of attacking private actors and wearing serious consequences for it. The animal rights movement attacks exclusively corporate property. Think kingsnorth, or the recent Russian arctic adventures for other examples. You cannot seriously suggest greenpeace isn’t aware of and focused on corporate activity. The most likely reason they attacked Csiro is because they could. And spare me the idea that a Csiro research effort in this area is not a corporate partnership…

    You are showing significant confirmation bias here. It’s noteworthy that you won’t discuss the corporate or environmental aspects of anti-gm campaigns, and want to pretend they do not exist. How can a supposedly left wing economist accept corporate claims to a technological solution to world hunger so uncritically, for example?

  13. Faustusnotes:

    Immediately below you someone who agrees with you has trawled through a green peace FAQ and disingenuously sliced a tiny part of it to “show” greenpeace is only focused on food safety.

    This is a dishonest misrepresentation of what I did. I very clearly said the Greenpeace document I quited from contained contained 10 points and left the numbers on the two points I quoted in the quote. I did this to rebut your false claim that:

    The concern is not that they “don’t want to eat that stuff,” but that they are worried about its environmental and political consequences.

    Contra your claim, the major anti-Gm players are concerned about GM on safety, environmental and political economy grounds.

  14. Faustusnotes:

    The animal rights movement attacks exclusively corporate property.

    This is a breathtakingly absurd falsehood that rivals BilB’s claims about the dreaded terminator gene.

    Animal rights activists have a long history of destroying university property (for example at the University of Milan, University of Michigan, University of Arizona) and then attacking university staff (for example the 2008 firebombing of the home of a UC-Santa Cruz researcher; the 2008 home invasion of another UC-Santa Cruz researcher; the 2009 firebombing of a UCLA researcher’s car; the 1990 bombing of a Bristol University medical science researcher’s car; Etc..)

    As Helen Dale (Skeptic Lawyer) has noted, the reign of terror imposed by animal liberationist groups has occasioned numerous student-academic solidarity marches in recent years in British universities including Oxford and Cambridge.

  15. And here is a little more on the sterile seeds subject. There is an amazing shortage of coverage on the subject from 2003 on, until this article. Then a gap till last years gm seed scandle.

    Its almost like the Jedi mind trick has been applied to the media.

  16. BilB:

    Umm, BilB, the Global Research Centre is a Far-Left group that runs anti-vaccination and anti-ninth element on the periodic table propaganda as well as a vast range of conspiracy theories about government involvement in the assassinations of Martin Luther King and JFK. A Far-Left commenter who sometimes turns up here (Malthusista?) has a blog that quotes extensively from the Global Research Centre blog and promotes the idea that Martin Bryant (of Port Arthur massacre fame) was framed by John Howard’s secret operatives.

    But again I’m feeling mighty chuffed because the increasingly bizarre accusations and promotion of Far Left conspiracy theorist sites as credible sources of information once again confirms my point about how the Left, my side of the ideological battlefield, is almost as nutty, anti-reason and anti-science as the Right.

  17. Mel, I’m happy to moderate my claims to: anti-GM campaigners aren’t only concerned with food safety (I would have thought this was clear from previous comments); and animal rights activists mostly target private property. Even your list contains primarily private, not state-owned, property (people’s cars). Also anti-experiment vandalism and violence is a tiny minority of what animal rights activists do: mostly they target farms and butchers, all privately run.

    You’ll note the things that Helen Dale (Helen Demidenko) doesn’t credit to animal rights activists: the root-and-branch reforms of the animal experimentation industry since the 1980s to outlaw the kinds of cruelty that Dale probably never believed possible, and to force animal experiments to be subjected to proper ethical oversight. Their actions against the cosmetic industry also had profound impact on the way animals are treated there. You’ll note in that wikipedia link that the baboons video-taped by the ALF were being treated “in accordance with NIH guidelines.” It wasn’t libertarian plagiarists like Dale who reformed the animal research industry: it was the vandals and thieves of the ALF.

    What John is doing is identifying the easiest-attacked part of the anti-GM campaign (the food safety bit) and elevating it to the centrepiece of their campaign by ignoring the environmental and social justice parts that are clearly the key goals of the campaign. I think he’s doing this because the scientific arguments are much harder to win on the environmental part of the issue, and he knows that the greenie ratbags are right about the social justice part but he doesn’t want to support them because then he might be tarred with the anti-science brush by people using the same un-nuanced arguments he is deploying.

  18. Wow, faustusnotes, we really are a piece of work:

    – you mischievously misrepresent Prof Q’s opinion;
    – you continue your bizarre campaign against Helen Dale (yes I’ve seen your other creepy remarks like: Still, Helen Dale has a history of ascribing a privileged position to the victims of history, doesn’t she…
    – you mendaciously misrepresent what I have said

    And now you make this false claim after I’ve already shown it to be false:

    … ignoring the environmental and social justice parts that are clearly the key goals of the campaign.

    I repeat, the major anti-GM players in Oz, Greenpeace-Australia and the Australian Greens, at the very least put health concerns on an equal footing with environmental and social justice concerns.

    Here is more evidence, the first sentence of the Greens press releases in relation to their campaign for GM labelling:

    The Australian Greens today renewed calls for a halt on all Genetically Modified food approvals until they are fully tested for safe human consumption and rigorous national labelling laws are in place. greensmps /content/media-releases/gm-labelling-desperately-needed

    Or one might look at what Christine Milne has been saying:

    I think when the community comes to realise that there are real health issues associated with GMOs, not to mention organic growers actually being put out of business by the fact that there is contamination of organic certified areas as a result of GM trials, that’s going to make people even more frustrated … planetearthherald. com /gm-crops-could-destroy-bio-diversity/

    And if two of the 10 points on Greenpeace Australia’s FAQ doesn’t suggest equal footing, what about the opening para on the Greenpeace-Australia petition on the Australian Green’s website:

    For the first time, genetically modified (GM) food crops are being grown in Australia, posing potential risks to the environment and human health. However, there is currently no way for shoppers to ensure that their groceries are GM free, as labelling is not required for most products containing GM ingredients. Australians want GM food labelled for health, environmental and ethical reasons. vicmps. au /content/greenpeace-petition-gm-our-right-know

  19. @John Quiggin

    Other such long-term danger issues have been going on for forty years or much longer. For example, I mean the release of potential slow-acting toxins, carcinogens, allergens, drugs and hormones into the environment from modern manufacturing, industrial chemistry and pharmaceuticals. With some of these things, negative effects take a long time to manifest. The decline in male fertility (sometimes still disputed) and the steady rise in immuno-suppressive diseases, allergies and so on (also some disputes) seem to indicate some kind of “smoke” is there and maybe a “fire” in terms of long term dangers of pollution which can take a generation or two to manifest. The same may yet prove true of GM so 40 years is not necessarily a long trial period.

    How long was asbestos used before it was banned? The answer may be anywhere from 4,000 years to 100 years depending on what you consider the significant starting point. Asbestos mining began more than 4,000 years ago, but did not become large-scale until the end of the 19th century. In late 2011, Canada’s remaining two asbestos mines (both in the town of Asbestos, Province of Quebec), including the Jeffrey mine, halted operations.

    It is still significantly possible that serious long term dangers of GM could be discovered. After all, can we be entirely sure that GM foods are NOT playing some role in disturbing appetite regulation in addition to advertising inducements and unnaturally high levels of fats, salts and sugars?

  20. Unfortunately, we’ve reached a level of mutual misinterpretation such that I don’t think further discussion will be helpful. I’m going to close this one off. Future comments to the Sandpit, please. Mel, I’d prefer it if you avoid intra-left disputes of this kind for the time being. There are plenty of other topics on which you could more usefully comment

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