Verdict on Greenpeace’s CSIRO Vandalism

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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

Follow Karl Haro von Mogel:

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 recently moved back to his home state of California. His favorite produce might just be squash.