Verdict on Greenpeace’s CSIRO Vandalism

Greenpeace activists Jessica Latona and Heather McCabe leaving the ACT Supreme Court at an earlier hearing. Photo by Rohan Thomson, Canberra Times.

Two convictions and a hefty fine bring a close to a case of Greenpeace destroying a plot of experimental genetically engineered wheat, but whether this will be the last of such incidents is unclear.

Last year, Greenpeace planned and executed a public relations campaign to go after genetically engineered wheat being developed by CSIRO in Australia. The wheat was developed to have an altered starch composition, making it slower to digest and release sugars into the body, and thus lower in its glycemic index. The project was headed toward human efficacy testing, having already been evaluated in mice. Greenpeace hoped to draw attention to the project and shut it down.

They filed a freedom-of-information request, which was turned down. They drafted a letter from scientists objecting to the experiment, but it was plagiarized from another source and had few signatories. Greenpeace also put together a brochure that claimed that the wheat was risky, but it was criticized. Then, they broke into CSIRO to destroy the wheat itself. Proudly publishing a video of the break-in, and an interview with one of the activists involved, the public response would be swift.

Instead, the authorities searched the local Greenpeace headquarters, seized evidence, and arrested the activists who broke in: Jessica Latona and Heather McCabe. Meanwhile, criticisms poured in, comparing the nonprofit organization’s stance to climate denialists, and some questioned the group’s status as a non-profit as well. Videos were pulled from the internet as Greenpeace faced a legal battle as well as a public relations disaster.

Earlier this week, Justice Hilary Penfold convicted Latona and McCabe, handing them suspended nine-month sentences and charging them for the $280,000 in damage that they caused. Greenpeace picked up the tab, becoming a de-facto financier of transgenic research. Despite the setback, and the loss of member donations as a result of this campaign, Greenpeace vowed to maintain their efforts, not ruling out similar actions in the future.

The wheat plants were destroyed using whipper snippers, setting the research back by a year.

The global environmental activist organization may have inspired similar efforts against transgenic wheat being tested at England’s Rothamsted Research station, however, the organization was notably absent from the Take the Flour Back campaign. It is difficult to tell whether Greenpeace will consider a change in their approach.

Peter Langridge, the CEO Professor at the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics (ACPFG) said,

“My hope is that Greenpeace has learnt their lesson that this type of behaviour is not acceptable in Australian society.”

“I’d like to see them discuss these issues at a scientific level.”

Stock and Land has the rest of the story: Greenpeace will keep fighting GM

Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He currently works as a public research geneticist in Madison, WI. His favorite produce might just be squash.


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6 comments to Verdict on Greenpeace’s CSIRO Vandalism

  • That was a horrible criminal act. And it was nice when the climate researcher community came out and said so. Imagine the outrage if weather stations had been chopped down.

    At least they haven’t started fires and bombing yet like these eco-anarchists: Nanotechnology: Armed resistance.

    The sentiment is echoed by Beatriz Xoconostle Cázares, a biotechnology researcher at Cinvestav, who is experimenting with transgenic crops resistant to drought and insects — and who regularly debates with ETC in public forums. Last September, Xoconostle arrived at work to find that her lab had been set on fire. A month later, arsonists attacked the lab of a neighbouring researcher.

    Let’s hope that weed-whackers aren’t a gateway crime to arson and bombing.

  • Yeah I think that public opinion of the wrongness of vandalism as a means of enacting policy change on genetically engineered crops is crystallizing. CSIRO, Rothamsted – none of these acts or threatened acts were considered acceptable. Greenpeace should realize that times are changing and that if they want to have a voice in the debate they should be more responsible citizens.

  • theoldtechnite

    I wonder, has anyone given thought to the possibility that strong implementations of the so called, “Precautionary Principle”, may be incompatible with freedom of speech ? Given a strong implementation of said principle, whereby cautionary intervention would be mandated even when no links to danger can be produced, then it stands to reason that those that speak out against such cautionary interventions can be viewed as increasing the chances of perceived harmful actions taking place. Therefore, as a precaution, those who oppose such precautions would have to be silenced. They may, as a precaution, have to be made examples so as to increase the strength of precautionary interventions.

    This may not be limited to scientific endeavors alone as risks to human life and the environment are not limited to innovation. Strong versions of the Precautionary Principle could even apply to areas of literature and art. After all, Hitler was a painter and wrote, “Mein Kampf”, and no one can argue that WWII wasn’t an environmental disaster as well as a huge loss of human life.

    We may already be seeing examples of this with Greenpeace’s stance against golden rice. One of their arguments is that even if golden rice itself proves to have no risks and saves hundreds of thousands of lives per year, it should not be used as it would increase the chances of other, possibly risky, GMO’s being released.

  • theoldtechnite, This argument has been raised lately over GM salmon, i.e. their approval is bad as it will open the door for other GM animal uses. Although the PP and this stronger interpretation are out there, however, my feeling is they will ultimately be trumped by human needs. The PP is easy to promote with a strong economy, full belly and healthy body. If we or others restrict ourselves, someone, somewhere else, will not have such reservations. GM salmon, again, is an example. Panama was evidently willing to help with the endeavor and no doubt others would be too. China, for example, has been growing Bt poplars for decades, in spite of the outcry over (and I believe sabotage of) similar work in Oregon. Hopefully the PP will not cripple those who desire these new technologies.

  • theoldtechnite

    pdiff, My question goes a little deeper. Let’s say country A adopts a strong PP as statute law. Then country B successfully deploys a number of GMO’s. Country A promptly bans them. Then scientists in country A start publishing how successful country B’s GMO’s are. Lawmakers and anti-gmo groups in country A notice that the opinion of their populace is swinging towards a pro-gmo stance and they believe it is due to those scinetists articles. However, they still feel that, even though those GMO’s are proving successful, it is not proven enough that they are safe for the environment. They also reason, that if their country’s opinion keeps swinging towards a pro-gmo stance, then it will be likely that GMO’s will be deployed in country A. So, as a precaution under the PP, they arrest those scientists for violating the PP by enhancing the chances of, “unproven to be safe”, technology being deployed. Depending how strongly they feel they must not allow favorable press of GMO’s, they may also round up bloggers and others that have expressed favorable opinions abut GMO’s. PP ends up trumping freedom of speech in this hypothetical case.

  • Daws

    Now I’m curious about the modification itself what’s the advantage to “making it slower to digest and release sugars into the body, and thus lower in its glycemic index,” I’m assuming something to do with diabetics or hyperglycemics?

    Also I too am getting into a debate with someone about the GM salmon, can we expect to see a blog post on the sometime in the future?

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