Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938


By Simon Grose

Is this green warrior tribe a vulnerable species?

Three Greenpeace activists earned righteous opprobrium after they whippersnipped a plot of genetically modified wheat seedlings in one of CSIRO’s Canberra research stations.

The President of the Academy of Science, Professor Suzanne Cory, called it an act of mindless vandalism against science. A few weeks after launching a Respect the Science campaign, Science & Technology Australia said the action showed appalling disrespect to the work of scientists.

In not all of their campaigns do Greenpeace and other environmental groups deny the scientific consensus, as they do in the case of GM crops and their regulation.

The CSIRO plot was one part of a total of eleven Australian GM wheat trials approved by the Gene Technology Regulator since 2005. None involve strains that have been modified for herbicide resistance, the blackest bête noire for anti-GMsters. The wheat in the Canberra trial had been modified to lower the glycaemic index in the grain and increase its fibre content.

The plants that were destroyed were nowhere near setting grain, yet their destroyers got kitted up as if they were handling live Hendra virus and arranged “a decontamination area to safely dispose of the untested and potentially unstable GM organisms”.

Another stunt in the classic Greenpeace mode: intrepid trespass and minor lawbreaking designed to gain media coverage for a shock–horror message. It’s what Greenpeace still do best, but you have to go to their website to know because the general media doesn’t seem to get as excited about intrepid green escapades as it did a couple of decades ago.

Can Greenpeace evolve to regain its impact of days gone by? The immediate signs are not promising. A few days before the GM wheat raid on the outskirts of Canberra, the Executive Director of Greenpeace International, Kumi Naidoo, was scheduled to address the National Press Club in the centre of the city. The event was advertised on the club’s website and Greenpeace networks for several weeks, but a few days before the date only 19 people had booked to attend, setting the scene for an embarrassingly low turnout for Greenpeace and a financial loss for the club.

This was a golden opportunity for a media-savvy organisation to mobilise its supporters to fill the room for a nationally televised event in a respected forum where its global leader could promote its brand. But that’s not how they saw it. Instead they blamed the club for not promoting the event, relations got testy, and Naidoo’s big Aussie gig was cancelled.

One of the big lessons of science is that adaptive individuals and species are most likely to survive and prosper as environments change. Greenpeace could do well to learn that science lesson.

Simon Grose is a Director of Science Media (