It happened before sunrise on 14 July. At least two activists sporting white Hazmat suits with the Greenpeace logo branded on each arm gained illegal entry into a CSIRO-operated farm in northern Canberra.
Using gas-powered weed trimmers they mowed down an experimental field trial of genetically modified (GM) wheat, roughly the size of a regulation soccer pitch. They filmed the protest, which was later posted online, making headlines around the country.
Greenpeace Australia Pacific claimed responsibility for the attack and even named one of the protesters on its website, Heather McCabe, a mother concerned for her family’s safety.
Australia was almost ready to begin human feeding trials with GM wheat, Jeremy Burdon, chief of the division of Plant Industry at CSIRO told New Matilda. It had been given approval to do so in June 2009 by the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR), the federal agency that governs genetic engineering.
When the OGTR granted the field trial licence it prohibited the GM wheat from entering the human or animal food supply, however, it stated that "some products … may be fed to rats and pigs in controlled laboratory experiments, and some products from the GM wheat may be used as part of a carefully controlled nutritional study in humans."
The particular strain of GM wheat destroyed by the Greenpeace activists is engineered with altered starch levels to improve digestive health and to help reduce the risk of colorectal cancer. It also has a lower glycemic index, which is good for people with diabetes. Field trials are undertaken to assess how new crops behave in real world environmental conditions.
The Greenpeace protest cost CSIRO $300,000 — the result of damaged property and research. Data from the field is now lost, setting the program back at least a year, Burdon told New Matilda.
If the protest was a public relations stunt by Greenpeace, it worked masterfully. The crop destruction got plenty of media attention and reignited the fiery debate around GM foods.
But the fallout left many in Australia’s scientific community outraged.
"Destroying research that provides answers to important questions affecting our health and safety is counterproductive," said Anna-Maria Arabia, head of the advocacy group Science and Technology Australia. "To shut down a scientific trial by effectively destroying the laboratory it is conducted in is deplorable [and]undemocratic."
"Greenpeace is treating important issues to do with food security very carelessly in terms of science," echoed David Tribe, a microbiologist and food safety lecturer at the University of Melbourne. Tribe is a prominent GM advocate who blogs here.
"We’re talking about efforts to sabotage work that is intended to benefit developing countries — how can such an organisation call itself civil society?," he said to New Matilda. "I’m absolutely appalled with almost everything they do in this area and they should be held accountable for these criminal actions."
And the criticism didn’t end there. "Greenpeace has lost its way," wrote Wilson da Silva, editor-in-chief of the Australian science magazine COSMOS in an editorial. "Its former glory rested on the righteousness of its actions in support of real evidence of how humanity was failing to care for the environment. Now it is a sad, dogmatic, reactionary phalanx of anti-science zealots who care not for evidence, but for publicity."
Despite the backlash, Greenpeace continues to question the safety of GM wheat and they have plenty of supporters: organic farmers and grassroots organisations, such as Madge and the Truefood Network, for starters.
Some of the country’s top chefs have also weighed in. In a 19 July opinion piece in The Age, chefs Neil Perry and Martin Boetz wrote that they were "disturbed by the prospect that Australia may become one of the first countries in the world to grow and eat genetically modified wheat" and raised doubts about safety testing, or what they perceive to be a lack thereof.
Burdon said safety is a top priority when it comes to the testing of GM crops and that the CSIRO has abided by all the necessary protocol stipulated by the OGTR as it has moved through different trial stages, testing the wheat on rats and pigs with no indication of negative effects.
But Greenpeace isn’t satisfied. It has criticisms of the OGTR protocols themselves, as well as the corporate interests in GM food production and the continued survival of Australia’s wheat industry.
In a 2010 report entitled Australia’s Wheat Scandal: The Biotech Takeover of our Daily Bread, Greenpeace claims that GM wheat will "inevitably" spread unabated, contaminating Australia’s bulk wheat supply. This could wreak havoc with the country’s multi-billion dollar wheat export industry, it claims, resulting in the potential loss of key export markets. The report cites 29 incidents of GM crop contamination in Australia, half of which, it states, happened during contained trials.
In an interview with New Matilda, Brian Campbell, head of campaigns for Greenpeace Australia Pacific, called the OGTR a "weak institution" that did little more than "rubber stamp experiments".
A spokesperson for the OGTR told New Matilda by email that 11 GM wheat trials have been approved in Australia and of these trials, not a single breach of containment has resulted. The spokesperson also confirmed that no licence applications for the commercial release of GM wheat have been received.
Peter Langridge, director of the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics (ACPFG) at the University of Adelaide — a centre that was also singled out by Greenpeace in its report — defended the Australian regulatory framework as one of the most stringent in the world. He told New Matilda that there is no empirical evidence to support the claim that GM wheat poses a contamination risk, as cross-pollination with wheat is typically very low.
His colleague, genetic engineer Andrew Jacobs, said he was "amazed" at the inaccuracies in the Greenpeace report. "I find it very disconcerting and frustrating that they’re putting this kind of information out into the public sphere."
"A single gene in the background of a plant is not going to have an effect on the overall quality of the grain in terms of any health concerns," Jacobs said. "And the notion that these crops will outgrow or out-compete other species of wheat and barley is completely false."
In its report, Greenpeace also argues that corporate interests have tainted the CSIRO’s research directive. It shows an infographic outlining corporate partnerships and funding between CSIRO and several large biotechnology companies and their offshoots, and names two former CSIRO board and chair members that were simultaneously working as high ranking officials for Nufarm, an Australian company that sells crop protection products and is closely linked to Monsanto, the world’s largest seed company.
"We have concerns that there is commercial activity masquerading as science — that big biotech firms are involved, not to solve global poverty but to make billions of dollars," said Campbell.
Greenpeace stops short, however, of making any direct suggestion that the two men received any personal benefit from their dual roles. Campbell said the organisation has submitted multiple freedom of information requests to learn about the financing and conduct of the GM wheat trials, but these have all been denied.
In late July, ACT Policing, a branch of the Australian Federal Police, raided the Greenpeace headquarters in Sydney, seizing property and equipment related to the Canberra protest for forensic analysis. The police have since issued a summons for two protesters to appear in the ACT Magistrates court charged with numerous offences, including trespassing and destruction of Commonwealth property. Its investigation is ongoing.
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