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. I think you forgot one other left-wing anti-science issue: anti-vaccination. That could be restricted to the US though, and possibly may include some libertarian types as well.

  2. oh, it looks like you added that in at the end in an edit, or i was just thrown off by the italics

  3. Good post John. I especially like you pointing out the habit some of the Right have (and the media do this a lot too, looking for the false centre where no one will yell at them) of making false equivalence arguments & comparisons about various anti-science movements, especially the labelling of anti vaxxers as “left”, as if a few nutters & media types is equivalent to whole political parties pushing or assenting to a climate change denial view.

    If anyone wants to read more on the GMO issue, I suggest…

    http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2014/01/09/261076195/a-green-movement-website-shakes-up-the-debate-over-gmos

    Key quote for me… “”The most astonishing thing about the vicious public brawl over GMOs is that the stakes are so low,” Johnson wrote. Essentially, if you care about the environment or human welfare, it just doesn’t matter very much whether farmers are planting GMOs.”

    http://grist.org/series/panic-free-gmos/

  4. Listening to Dr Suzuki on Q&A a couple of months back, GM foods are still questionable when dealing with inter species (intra species seems a better solution). Due to the fact that we are still new to this technology and that long term effects are still not known

  5. But, when presented with a clearly beneficial, royalty-free proposal like Golden Rice, they change the subject.

    I was of the impression that Golden Rice isn’t feeding a single person.

    Anyone got figures or more info on how much the annual yield is and who it is feeding?

  6. Putting aside the arguments about the dangers of GM food, it’s a little more difficult to run freedom of choice arguments given the problem of cross contamination and the potential for holders of GM patents to take crippling legal action against non-GM producers for IP breaches resulting from negligence or industrial sabotage by the GM crowd.

    In principle, subject to suitable scientific evaluation, I have no problem with GM, but I’d like the rules written to put the onus on GM producers to prevent cross contamination and further, I’d put the burden of proof on them to show they had done everything reasonable to prevent it and attach swingeing fines for failure to sequester their genetic property. I’d also bar them from claiming IP infringement except in cases where there could be no reasonable doubt that another person had wittingly infringed.

  7. @Megan

    PS: It isn’t “royalty free” IIRC. Syngenta proposes to allow yields up to $US10000 to have the royalty waived at their discretion.

    PPS: Basically, what Fran said at #6.

  8. Fran, I have no problems with such conditions. And, from her PPS, it appears Megan agrees.

  9. BTW, the IP issues are largely independent of GM vs non-GM technology. Plant variety rights were pushed through long before GM was a significant issue, and applied to the products of standard plant breeding, not to mention traditional varieties “discovered” by multinational companies.

  10. Food irradiation is another issue where some in the left have been anti-science in their approach.
    I would love to have the choice of, for example, being able to buy irradiated spices from SE Asia, as that is the only practical way of dealing with the microbial contamination issue at this point. But the hysterical irrational arguments of Greenpeace and others means we do not have that choice.

  11. Tom
    One could argue that having the government mandate GM labelling gives spurious authority to anti-GMers.

    Either that or it’s a mark of respect for individual choice.

  12. Genetic Modification is a far more complex and potentially dangerous field (in terms of possible unforeseen outcomes) than is generally credited. I would equate being concerned about GM with being concerned about nuclear power. In both cases, vested interests have a high incentive to lie and cover up about possible dangers.

  13. Tom Davies :
    One could argue that having the government mandate GM labelling gives spurious authority to anti-GMers.

    Or one could state one’s own views on the matter without resort to the generic person

  14. Labelling of cross contaminated foods is not even remotely feasible. JQ you seem to be ignorant of the contradictions in this argument.

  15. It takes less than 2 minutes googling to determine that Golden Rice isn’t feeding anyone and that this has a lot to do with anti-gm thugs engaging in extra-judicial activities, like sabotaging trials. Thanks to the hysteria whipped up by groups like Greenpeace, the most important current trial of Golden Rice was sabotaged by farmers in the Philippines.

    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.

    The claim that GM food should be compulsorily labelled as such is absurd and legitimises the con job perpetrated by groups like Greenpeace. It will also further contribute to the current rapid growth in mutagenesis, a modification technique that the American National Academy of Sciences says is inherently more dangerous than GM yet less regulated.

    The compulsory labelling argument is the ethical and intellectual equivalent of the right wing luke-warmer argument of people like Steve McIntyre, Matt Ridley, Pat Michaels and Judith Curry etc… ) who deny the extent of the positive feedbacks that sustain AGW theory and propose adaption rather than mitigation to any residual global warming.

  16. Professor Quiggin,

    Should it be compulsory for organic farmers to label foodstuffs that use the notoriously toxic bordeaux mixture? What about Nicotine Sulfate etc … ?

    And what about organic baby foods that are labelled GM free but contain unlabelled mutagenic products? Should these be labelled?

    Or should a different principle apply in these cases because organic aligns with the Left whereas GM aligns with the Right?

  17. Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
    Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind
    Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?

    Moreover, how about we give the Ministry of Silly Signs the power to label anything that could possibly be dangerous to anyone.

    Since we now agree that labels should be mandatory for harmless things, it surely must follow that it should be mandatory for things that may be truly harmful.

    This list would include the hundreds of foods that can cause anaphylaxis, such as the dreaded Chinese Gooseberry (Kiwi fruit) and potato. And the carrot. And the cabbage. And let’s not forget the Silver Birch- it isn’t edible but exposure to its pollen can cause anaphylaxis and even death in some people.

    And now that an increasing number of studies are implicating breast milk with allergies:

    Despite breastfeeding being recommended as the sole source of nutrition in the first six months of life, an increasing number of studies have implicated breastfeeding as a cause of the increasing trend in nut allergy,” Kljakovic says.

    If these study findings are confirmed, should the Ministry of Silly Signs consider mandating the discrete tattooing of the offending organ with an appropriate warning label?

    /sarc off.

  18. It took me a lot longer than 2 minutes to double-check my understanding that, despite GR1 coming on the scene in the 1990s and GR2 more recently and the whole “miracle GM rice” concept having been spouted in the establishment media since about 1984, it isn’t actually doing any of the things it has promised.

    Hundreds of millions have been spent on this stuff – supposedly because we care about poor kids getting enough vitamin A – but it is always just around the corner, just out of reach unless we embrace open slather GM (unlabelled of course) across all regions.

    It appears that my understanding was correct, ie: ‘Golden Rice’ is not yet the miracle it has been promising to be for about 20 years. But if you only spend 2 minutes searching it you would be forgiven for thinking it’s a great innovation just waiting to bust out of its green tape shackles.

    As with so many things, the spin and misinformation is overwhelmingly on the corporate side of the fence.

  19. The Golden Rice Project has been delayed by regulations and by the fouling of trials by anti-GM vandals.

    Hilariously, if the properties of Golden Rice had developed through the much more dangerous process of mutagenesis, it would have been available for use years ago and in fact organic producers would be able to use it.

    This claim is of course an outright lie:

    … but it is always just around the corner, just out of reach unless we embrace open slather GM (unlabelled of course) across all regions

    The anti-Golden Rice crowd has blood on its hands, far more blood than the Afghanistan War and Gulf War One and Two combined, as it so happens.

  20. I think this should just stand there:

    The anti-Golden Rice crowd has blood on its hands, far more blood than the Afghanistan War and Gulf War One and Two combined, as it so happens.

    Nuff said.

  21. Nuff said.

    LOL. Maybe the World Health Organisation is telling lies as part of the global corporate conspiracy.

    ps. Prof Quiggin, I know I’m not supposed to be interacting with Megan. Ultimately I’d prefer to be banned than not fully engage on a ostensibly left-wing web site where most of the participants call themselves left-wing but hold anti-science views.

    There was a time when the left were the champions of progress and science. What the hell happened?

  22. Oops. I made a mistake;

    Did you hear that a group of 400 angry farmers attacked and destroyed a field trial of genetically modified rice in the Philippines this month? That, it turns out, was a lie. The crop was actually destroyed by a small number of activists while farmers who had been bussed in to attend the event looked on in dismay.

  23. I think it is Quiggin’s not- best post for a long time@Fran Barlow ; Like everything else of neo liberalism, too much of what people have a right most of all to know, is hidden by security walls, spin and silence and GFM is itself becomes defacto, an apparatus for hegemony.

    Quiggin came so close to admitting this himself when he talked of the corporate role in late capitalist now veering to Huxleyian fascist cultural ass wellas material production, as the true target of dissenters.

    Mel, what people are sceptical of, is the long term capitalist habit of unconcern for others and psychopathic dishonesty; from Thalidomide to Dieldrin, to gas fracking and off shore oil drilling presented as already “safe”.

    Here is the source of the scepticism, although Quiggin may be right to imply that the latest processes might not necessarily end up defined through malice and in failure, as with so many scientific discoveries employed for anti social purposes in the past.

    But I do not trust that corporations like Monsanto are ever likely to adhere to rigorous safety standards when these get in the road of the bottom line, particularly when, a s practiced liars and employers of law for anti social and anti justice purposes, they can get themselves out of trouble if their schemes do end up damaging others.

  24. Are organizations that specialize in food insecurity and malnutrition encouraging development of Golden Rice, as opposed to developers of Golden Rice trying to promote it as a solution?

  25. @Mel
    These days Mel, with smart phones and the ability to shrink data to a series of magnetic charges you could have extensive data on the provenance of each product. One could have information for example, on the chain of hands and stakeholders in bringing each product to market, their labour management practices, their ecological footprint, their treatment of animals, their links to the various states in the chain, their propensity to pay taxes, and much more.

    That sounds good to me.

  26. @ Fran Barlow,

    You write, “I’d like the rules written to put the onus on GM producers to prevent cross contamination and further, I’d put the burden of proof on them to show they had done everything reasonable to prevent it and attach swingeing fines for failure to sequester their genetic property.”

    Fran, “sequestering genetic property” is obviously impossible when we’re talking about growing crops in fields. No one could ever “prove” that a GM seed cannot blow into a neighboring field and cross with another plant. The standard you’re advancing here is simply a formula for strangling GMO technology with insurmountable regulation. It’s a soft and seemingly reasonable way of accomplishing the same ends as the crop-burning Greenpeace zealots are aiming for.

  27. @Will Boisvert

    If it really is impossible then in practice one can’t allow it while defending the right of consumers to choose. I don’t agree that it’s impossible to do, but one would need substantial set-offs between GM and non-GM producers.

    The problem with not doing so ought to be obvious. An organic producer can have their business ruined either through thevmalice or carelessness of a GM producer, and so this can become unfair competition. The onus on a business the practice of which entails risks to the public good is to mitigate those risks to something acceptable and in a worst case scenario, manageable. Giving GM a pass on this principle would be arbitrary.

  28. @Will Boisvert
    If it really is impossible then in practice one can’t allow it while defending the right of consumers to choose. I don’t agree that it’s impossible to do, but one would need substantial set-offs between GM and non-GM producers.

    The problem with not doing so ought to be obvious. An organic producer can have their business ruined either through the m@lice or carelessness of a GM producer, and so this can become unfair competition. The onus on a business the practice of which entails risks to the public good is to mitigate those risks to something acceptable and in a worst case scenario, manageable. Giving GM a pass on this principle would be arbitrary.

  29. Declaration of Interest: I buy organic goods wherever they are available in preference to non-organic goods and I’m confident that an adequate standard for such goods is being imposed.

  30. @ John Quiggin on nuclear being “uneconomic.”

    John, you write, “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.” I don’t know about that.

    In China, which is the best test case because it is deploying both nuclear and renewables systematically at large scale, nuclear is definitely cheaper than non-hydro renewables. Nuclear construction costs there are in the $2500-3500 per kilowatt range, nominally more expensive than wind and solar’s roughly $1500-1700 per kilowatt. But when you factor in Chinese nuclear’s 88 percent capacity factor versus Chinese wind’s 22 percent capacity factor and Chinese solar’s 14 percent capacity factor, construction costs per kilowatt-hour produced are much lower for nuclear than for wind and solar. As of last summer China’s wholesale feed-in tariff for nuclear was 0.43 yuan per kwh, substantially lower than wind’s FIT of 0.51-0.61 yuan per kwh and solar’s 0.75-1.15 yuan per kwh. And those comparisons don’t count the extra costs of transmission and backup for wind and solar or the greater longevity of nuclear plants.

    Nuclear costs are way higher in the West, but even in Britain feed-in-tariffs are running slightly lower for new nuclear than for new onshore wind and solar, and substantially lower than for new offshore wind.

    As for the comparison with coal, that’s iffy too. Nuclear plants have higher upfront capital costs than coal plants, but lower operating costs. After the mortgage is paid off nuclear plants will spend several decades generating electricity cheaper than coal generators do; in China it’s a good bet that nuclear is cheaper than coal over the long term. Did you consider that long-term cost differential when you were calculating your coal vs. nuclear comparison?

  31. Mel and Megan. I think you’ve both had your say on Golden Rice. Nothing further from either of you on this topic, please. And try to keep clear of each other more generally.

    Will, it may be that, under current conditions, China can do nuclear economically. If so, that’s fine with me, but I doubt it can be sustained over the long haul. I plan a long piece looking mainly at France in the 1970s, but drawing a comparison with the current situation in China. I think you’ll find it interesting when it’s done.

  32. John, are you going to do an analyis on Andrews Soc Sec announcement this week, that seems to have slipped under the radar?

  33. @ Fran Barlow:

    Fran, no, seeds can blow a long way, or be carried by birds. There’s no “set-off” that can sequester GMO crops. Your sequestration requirements imply a complete ban on GMOs.

    And no, I don’t care two figs about the organic farmers who might lose their ability to charge an inflated price premium if their crops are “contaminated” by GMOs. The whole concept of harmful GMO contamination is a howlingly false superstition, and the regulatory state should not have the job of enforcing superstitious taboos just because they boost the profits of up-market food brands. It’s disgraceful for leftists to pander to such interests.

    Here’s my declaration of interest, Fran: I am too poor to afford organic food. If GMOs can make food cheaper and more abundant, I want them deployed massively, immediately, with no reservations. There have been no cases of public harm stemming from GMOs in the decades since their introduction; GMOs are safe, and the science on this is at least as clear as it is on global warming. By turning their backs on food security because of irrational purity phobias, some leftists have gone very far astray.

  34. I agree with John Q about Will Boisvert’s comment about nuclear being cheaper than renewables in China. I would add that the price of solar going down the way it is, it is likely that soon, even in China, renewables will be cheaper than nuclear. Also you need to add in higher running costs for nuclear as compared to renewables. Relative prices for energy production are changing so rapidly it’s hard to keep up. I would not have predicted 10 years ago the prices of renewables now relative to non-renewables.

  35. There was a time when the left were the champions of progress and science. What the hell happened?

    We discovered that “progress” and “science” weren’t synonyms.

    [this should not be new information to you, which means you shouldn’t have needed to ask the question, which means you should ask yourself why you — mistakenly — thought that asking the question was needed. Most errors are conceptual, these days.]

  36. We discovered that “progress” and “science” weren’t synonyms.

    Well there are still plenty of us left on the Left who think little things like germ theory, vaccinations and the Green revolution have represented real progress while lukewarming on climate science and genetic engineering represent real regress.

    By way of interest, I live near a rural community in Victoria with a large population of “alternative lifestylers” who eat organic gluten free food, experiment with New Age spiritualism and who are decidedly anti-vaccination, anti-genetically modified crops and anti-the ninth element on the periodic table. These simple folk, some of whom I count as friends, may vote for the Greens but I don’t personally see them as left wing.

    I suspect the leaders of the intellectual and industrial Left of the late 19th and early 20th century would have farted in the general direction of such characters if they had shared the same window of space and time.

  37. Ha, ha..so THAT’s the real Mel?
    Agree but think you generalise a bit..don’t forget the reaction to corporate pharma, etc came from a mistrust derived of the failures of ethics within some industries, it was originally a rational response, until TDT and ACA got onto the act with night-terror stories about vac and chemicals in food disrupting kids- when broadsheet covered these things there was less hysteria, now its all slipped to home schooly contrarianism, a la USA.

  38. @Mel

    Well there are still plenty of us left on the Left who think little things like germ theory, vaccinations and the Green revolution have represented real progress while lukewarming on climate science and genetic engineering represent real regress.

    You’re blurring doing equivocation here. To say science and progress aren’t synonyms doesn’t entail rejecting science. It merely entails setting it within a context in which it serves the empowerment of working humanity.

    One often hears the slogan “science” (and for that matter progress too) deployed by people with no interest in either but sharp enough to know that enough casual observers may be confused by the sloganeering into supporting all manner of cant.

    You seem to be a regular offender in these respects.

  39. Mel, I’m on your side on most of the substantive issues, but I have to say that, with friends like you, science doesn’t need enemies.

    It’s one thing, for example, to be pro-science in the sense of believing that the scientific method is our most reliable way of approaching the truth in a great many domains of inquiry. It’s quite another to equate “science” with an undefined notion of “progress” and to denounce anyone who questions this as an opponent of the germ theory of disease.

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

  40. Yes, that last fits very nicely with Alfred Venison s example…the breakdown of trust, essential both for successful social interaction but obversely to political divide and conquer, continues apace.

  41. John, are you ever going to stop using this slippery misrepresentation of anti-gm politics? 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.

  42. I’m in the main anti GM mainly because I distrust the ethics of the multinationals who take control of otherwise useful research. I need no more proof of this lack of ethical shortfall than the very early development and use of the “terminator gene” to maximise profit.

    On the other hand I know of a development programme here in Australia that is producing “dry field” rice. Developments such as these can only be good.

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