SYDNEY: In the early hours of July 14, Greenpeace protestors gained illegal entry into an experimental CSIRO operated farm near Canberra and destroyed a crop of genetically modified (GM) wheat.
Australia’s national science organisation had been growing GM wheat at its Ginninderra Experiment Station, and was recently granted approval by the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR), a government oversight agency, to begin human trials.
“Human trials were expected to begin sometime in the next few months to a year,” said Jeremy Burdon, chief of the division of Plant Industry at CSIRO. “The worst case scenario now is that the [field] trial will have to be abandoned and resumed some time next year.”
The wheat’s genetic makeup has been altered to improve its nutritional value, said Burdon. Modifying the level of resistant starch could impact where the digestive process takes place in the gut, and could have health benefits for obesity and bowel cancer.
Greenpeace films destruction
Wearing white Hazmat suits that don the Greenpeace brand down each arm, the protestors used weed trimmers to methodically mow down the GM crops housed in the CSIRO’s compound, and filmed themselves in the act.
Greenpeace is citing fears that GM wheat crops are unsafe for human consumption and could spread unabated, contaminating Australia’s bulk wheat supply, as the reason for their action. The protestors created what the organisation calls “a decontamination area” to dispose of the crops.
“The EU, Russia, and even North America have rejected GM wheat because it hasn’t been proven safe to eat,” says Laura Kelly, who heads the food and farming campaign for Greenpeace Australia Pacific.
Kelly also claimed that the CSIRO “is in bed with foreign biotech companies,” which she said stand to make billions of dollars by attaching patents to Australian wheat. She said this affiliation is compromising their research direction and adherence to safety regulations.
Australian regulation is stringent
According to Burdon, however, CSIRO would not proceed with any project it wasn’t entirely certain about. “We’ve been down this road in the past, where we had a program around modifying legumes,” he said. “That had a problem with activating some allergies in mice and we canned it – it didn’t go any further.”
“CSIRO takes very seriously its responsibility to safety around everything it does,” he added, noting that the OGTR regulations are incredibly strict and the CSIRO has carefully abided by all protocol as it’s moved through animal trials with its GM wheat.
Internationally, Australia has some of the most stringent guidelines and regulations surrounding GM work, agrees Andrew Jacobs, a genetic engineer with the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics (ACPFG) at the University of Adelaide. “The process to get to field trials is longwinded and rigorous… If there was a significant concern that sort of thing would get picked up well before human trials.”
“Wheat and barley are some of the most advanced GM plants in Australia,” Jacobs added. “The ones proposed for field trials have probably been grown and monitored in a controlled environment for the last 10 years.”
Delay research without sabotage
Researchers involved in CSIRO’s field trials are frustrated about the attack on plants. “There are enough natural postponements such as drought that delay this kind of biological research without adding to them,” said Burdon.
“As far as we’re concerned this is an outrageous incident,” said Michael Gilbert, general manager of the ACPFG. “There’s no evidence that any of their claims are founded.”
Jacobs agrees. “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. And the notion that these crops will outgrow or out compete other species of wheat and barley is completely false.”
The Australian Academy of Science also condemned the crop destruction. “For an organisation that claims to be dedicated to the protection of the environment, this is an unconscionable act,” said the academy president Suzanne Cory.
“This kind of mindless vandalism against science is completely unacceptable.”
Greenpeace released a report recently called Australia’s Wheat Scandal: The Biotech Takeover of our Daily Bread, in which they cite their concerns over GM wheat.
“I’ve read through it and I’m amazed at the number of errors within it,” said Jacobs. “I find it very disconcerting and frustrating that they’re putting this kind of information out into the public sphere.”
After learning about the organisation’s concerns, the ACPFG invited Greenpeace representatives to discuss the issues raised in greater detail, but according to Gilbert they’ve declined.
“The invitation is always open,” said Gilbert. “I communicated with them after the report that there were a lot of problems … a report is one thing, but trespassing and chopping someone’s field trial down to the ground is a criminal activity.”
Responsibility claimed, now what?
Greenpeace has claimed responsibility for the sabotage on its website, and has even published the name of one of the protestors, a mother concerned for the safety of her children. Heather McCabe was quoted as saying: “This GM wheat should never have left the lab… GM wheat is not safe, and if the government can’t protect the safety of my family, then I will.”
“We are absolutely taking responsibility … this mother was fully aware that it was an illegal action, potentially,” said Kelly, who noted that the organisation would stand by her through all stages of the resulting investigation and any criminal charges she may face.
Normally these kinds of acts would be liable for criminal prosecution because there is malicious intent to damage property, but you could apply terrorism laws as well, says Ben Saul, a professor of counter-terrorism law at the University of Sydney.
He says it technically fits the bill of a terrorist act, which under Australian law, is defined as an act of criminal violence intended to coerce the government for an ideological purpose. “This was ideologically motivated, you could argue it was done to coerce the government to change its policy on genetically modified foods, and it was violent in that it destroyed private property,” he said. But whether terrorism charges are actually laid will be up to the discretion of police and prosecutors, he says. “This would likely be seen as an excessive use of the anti-terrorism laws, which were ultimately not designed to interfere with a protest in a democratic society.”
ACT Policing received a formal complaint from CSIRO following the break-in, and have begun an investigation into the allegations. They have not yet released any additional information. The OGTR has also been notified and is conducting another investigation.