August 01, 2011

Article at Cosmos Magazine

OPINION | The Sad, Sad Demise of Greenpeace

Science is not a belief system we can opt in and out of depending on our ideological or political points of view.

By Wilson da Silva

GREENPEACE WAS ONCE a friend of science, helping bring attention to important environmental research. These days, it’s a ratbag rabble of intellectual cowards intent on peddling an agenda, whatever the scientific evidence.

Harsh words, I know. And it pains me to use them, for Greenpeace was once the most active, independent and inspiring civilian group for the environment. Whether riding zodiacs alongside boats carrying barrels of toxic waste to be dumped in the open sea, campaigning against deforestation or CFCs and HFCs that were depleting the ozone layer, Greenpeace did admirable work.

I didn’t always agree with them, but I appreciated their role. However, in the last decade or so, Greenpeace has abandoned the rigour of science. 

When the science is inconvenient, it has chosen dogma. Which is why it has a zero-tolerance policy on nuclear energy, no matter how imperative the need to remove coal and gas from our electricity production. Or why it is adamant organic farming is the only way forward for agriculture, when organic farming could not feed the world’s population today.

And why, in the early hours of 14 July 2011, three Greenpeace protesters broke into a CSIRO Plant Industry experimental station in Ginninderra in northern Canberra, and destroyed an entire crop of genetically modified (GM) wheat, erasing years of work and valuable data.

Greenpeace has always been media savvy. But in the past decade publicity seems to have become almost their raison d’être. This has led to campaigns that grab attention, but have doubtful merit: witness its attacks in 2007 on Apple’s iPhone as being toxic and hazardous. It later admitted these had been exaggerated, and used to grab headlines.

The CSIRO break-in was also a stunt, complete with hazmat protection suits and the ever-present video camera.

Greenpeace protesters destroy a crop of genetically modified wheat at the CSIRO experimental station at Ginninderra

GM wheat has not been approved for human consumption in Australia, but CSIRO did have permission to conduct trials. And what was so ‘toxic’ about this wheat strain that it had to be destroyed? Its genes had been modified to lower its glycemic index and boost fibre content, for use in bread and other wheat products that might one day improve bowel health and nutritional value.

Greenpeace claims CSIRO has been ‘secretive’ about the GM trials; so secretive that details could be found on the CSIRO’s website, including directions to the Ginninderra facility, which the protesters no doubt found useful. 

Greenpeace also objected that GM is “not proven to be safe” – which is exactly why the trials were being undertaken. Once harvested, the crop would have been fed to rats and pigs in controlled experiments to determine whether the grains had elevated nutritional properties. 

None of the crop was to enter the commercial food or feed supply chain – in fact, was prevented from doing so by the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator.

What’s troubling about Greenpeace’s more recent campaigns – whether against GM crops or nanotechnology – is that they are not about specific concerns, some of which are worth raising. At their heart, the campaigns have an ideological stance against the science per se: genetic engineering is ‘unnatural’; dangerous ‘Frankenfoods’ will destroy the balance of nature and be harmful to human health.

No amount of safeguards, independent scrutiny, scientific testing, randomised trials or large-scale studies will suffice – Greenpeace has decided GM crops or nanotechnology are evil and must be stopped.

The experimental station where the CSIRO is developing wheat with cholesterol lowering qualities

Greenpeace has lost its way. Its former glory rested on actions based on 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 – it seems – for publicity.

And yet, Greenpeace is happy to endorse science when it comes to combating climate change, protecting biodiversity, halting deforestation, or saving the Murray-Darling River basin.

It’s not just Greenpeace: in today’s debates, science doesn’t matter. As John Birmingham wrote recently in The Sydney Morning Herald, “If the science doesn’t suit your argument, ignore it. Or cherry pick the parts that do suit your case.”

In June 2011, Science & Technology Australia launched 'Respect the Science', a campaign to counter misleading claims about climate science which are starting to spill over into attacks on the work of scientists in other disciplines.

“We need to respect the science produced by our best and brightest, and the methodology used to produce it, more than ever,” said Cathy Foley, president of the group and a respected CSIRO physicist. “Science is not a belief system that we can choose to opt in and out of at our leisure.”