When Green Groups Go Mad

Posted by: Keith Kloor  :  Category: environmentalism, GMOs

Greenpeace continues its descent into anti-science oblivion.

Last Thursday, the environmental group carried out a destructive anti-GMO stunt that has outraged scientists in Australia. Over at Sustainablog, agricultural scientist Steve Savage describes what happened:

On July, 14, three Greenpeace activists dressed in hazmat suits scaled a fence, and used weed whips to destroy a GMO wheat experiment in Canberra, Australia.  The experiment was being conducted by CSIRO (the USDA equivalent for Australia).  The activists posted video of the attack on You Tube.  They also posted “explanations” by activists who could be easily identified.  Although this is technically a criminal activity, it was more likely about publicity.  Greenpeace has been at the forefront of the anti-GMO movement since the late 1990s, and it has claimed victory for stopping the development of GMO wheat varieties.   Those heady days are fading for Greenpeace. 15 years and billions of acres into the GMO revolution, Greenpeace may just be attempting to defend conquered ground.

So why is this stunt damaging, nonetheless? Christopher Preston, an agricultural scientist at the University of Adelaide, explains:

These trials are not just about the development of genetically modified crops that may at some future time be developed commercially, but frequently provide spin-off information that is of use in our understanding of gene action in the environment. This important information is also lost.

This particular act of eco-vandalism by Greenpeace seems to have struck a nerve in Australia’s scientific community and among some science journalists. Here’s a biting response from Wilson da Silva, the editor of Cosmos:

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

It 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, or campaigning against CFCs and HFCs that were depleting the ozone layer, Greenpeace did admirable work.

But in the last decade or so, Greenpeace abandoned the rigour of science. When the science has been inconvenient, Greenpeace chooses 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 electricity production. Or why it is adamant organic farming is the only way forward for agriculture, when organic could not feed the world’s population today.

In his must-read post, Steve Savage at Sustainablog explores the bigger picture:

…this argument about GMO wheat is a mere sub-set of something bigger than even agriculture.  It is really about the choice between risk management based on sound science or risk avoidance based on the “Precautionary Principle.”  The same is true of the Climate Change and Vaccine/Autism debates, as well as many more.

As for a certain leading group of the environmental movement, Silva in Cosmos ends his piece with withering contempt:

Greenpeace has lost its way. 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.

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15 Responses to “When Green Groups Go Mad”

  1. RickA Says:

    I did like your quote of Steve Savage’s about risk management versus risk avoidance based on the precautionary principle.
    Sometimes the precautionary principle is not cost effective, especially if applying it provides limited benefit.

  2. Dean Says:

    I think it’s a lot about fundraising, too. Prominent actions like this get a lot of free coverage and keep things afloat.
    I also want to point out that separate Greenpeace groups are pretty independent of each other and not all Greenpeace groups use the same tactics.

  3. Keith Kloor Says:


    So if they’re independent, nothing’s stopping one particular Greenpeace group from criticizing another, if they felt such tactics were counterproductive?


  4. Dean Says:

    I think that as a matter of principle, they will avoid criticizing each other, at least in public. There are plenty of debates “within the movement” about when and where direct action is actually useful. Useful as in to the cause, as opposed to the organization.
    I would add that the media fuels a lot of this with how it covers such actions. Activists know how to get media attention. I have participated in protests with half a million people marching peacefully down the street. Then 10 Black Block Anarchists threw a few bricks through a bank window and got 90% of the TV coverage for this “violence”, with only a passing mention of the other 499,990 peaceful marchers.
    Maybe this is as much the public’s fault as the media, but there are many ways in which steady and productive advocacy and organizing are undermined by politics and media coverage and the fundraising necessities of the organization.
    Non-profit actions are often motivated by reasons other than the underlying cause. For example, I think that the hysteria over gun rights when Obama was elected had more to do with driving up the price of guns and ammo, making a mint for retailers, than in any genuine threat to gun rights (I would add that it is bad for a non-profit if people think they completely succeeded - why give more money then?). I bet the retailers made some pretty nice contributions to the NRA after that episode. And gun rights advocates fell for it hook, line, and sinker. Ideologues on the left and right are easy prey for this stuff. And it allows the rhetorical bomb throwers on both sides to drive the public agenda.

  5. Tom Fuller Says:

    Darn. I guess I’ll have to go back to carrying my driver’s license in case I get hit by a truck. For almost a year I was secure in the knowledge that at least Greenpeace knew where I lived.

  6. Peter D. Tillman Says:

    Greenpeace also organized a repellent smear job on a prominent climate-skeptic scientist:
    “CASE STUDY: Dr. Willie Soon, a Career Fueled by Big Oil and Coal”

  7. Jack Hughes Says:

    Greenpeace is built on the idea that everything will turn to custard in about 20 years time.
    So why do they have a pension scheme for employees?

  8. Mark Lynas: Home » Australia » Greenpeace and GM wheat: time to stand up for science Says:

    [...] at Collide-a-scape, Keith Kloor has rounded up some of the comments from Australian scientists, who have naturally been appalled at the Greenpeace action. Most [...]

  9. Ed Forbes Says:

    “..Now it is a sad, dogmatic, reactionary phalanx of anti-science zealots who care not for evidence, but for publicity…”

    Not much to add to this statement. Kind of says it all

  10. Leo G Says:

    Keith, you may want to interview Dr. Patrick Moore, you know, one of the founders of GP and get his take on this group.

  11. Jarmo Says:

    The way Greenpeace Australia presents the case, they are acting in the name of science and family safety against alien life forms:

    A mum takes action against GM wheat

    On this page

    Safety in question
    Conflict of interest
    Inevitable contamination
    Trials of potentially unstable GM wheat strains are currently planted in five states and territories across Australia

    - 14 July, 2011

    Greenpeace activists, including one mother who wants to protect her family, have stopped a GM wheat experiment outside Canberra this morning.

    Three women used whipper snippers to remove a controversial genetically modified (GM) wheat crop before day break.

    The activists constructed a decontamination area to safely dispose of the untested and potentially unstable GM organisms.

    “This GM wheat should never have left the lab,” said activist and mother, Heather McCabe. “I’m sick of being treated like a dumb Mum who doesn’t understand the science. As far as I’m concerned, my family’s health is just too important. GM wheat is not safe, and if the government can’t protect the safety of my family, then I will.”
    CSIRO’s wheat experiment came under recent scrutiny when eight international scientists and doctors questioned the ethics and scientific rigour behind it. In an open letter the scientists questioned the safety of human feeding trials planned for later this year in which Australians would be fed GM wheat from the Canberra based trials.


  12. harrywr2 Says:

    Greenpeace, along with many other activist organizations never seem to be able to define ‘victory’ and go home.
    Whether it was Ghengis Khan or the Roman legions…without a definition of what ‘victory’ looks like eventually the supply lines run thin and the support from ‘home base’ dries up and the army collapses on itself.
    Greenpeace achieved it’s primary objectives decades ago. It’s nothing more then a handfull of ragtag rebels without a cause now.

  13. BBD Says:

    KK says:

    Greenpeace continues its descent into anti-science oblivion.

    It started that a long time ago. I’m sure this is familiar to many, but I’ll risk it anyway:

    From Stuart Brand, <a href=”http://web.me.com/stewartbrand/DISCIPLINE_footnotes/5_-_Green_Genes.html”>Whole Earth Discipline (ch 5)</a>:


    The story: In 2001 and 2002, a severe drought in southern Africa threatened the lives of 15 million people in seven countries. A 15,000­ton aid shipment of U.S. corn about one-third GE) from the UN World Food Programme was turned away by the government of Zimbabwe on the grounds that some GE corn kernels might be planted rather than eaten, and that would endanger the country’s exports to GE-averse Europe. The United States offered to grind the corn to meal so it could not be planted. Meanwhile, part of the shipment was diverted to Zambia, just to the north, where 3 million were facing famine. Zambia had accepted and eaten such shipments for six years, but this time it was rejected. “Simply because my people are hungry, that is no justification to give them poison, to give them food that is intrinsically dangerous to their health,” President Levy Mwanawasa declared. “We would rather starve than get something toxic.”


    The lethal change of policy in Zambia was the result of a concerted effort by Europe­based environmental organizations to frighten African nations about GE crops. South Africa had already adopted GE cotton, soybeans, and white maize ­ a favorite food locally - but other nations were susceptible to pressure. The leaders of the Africa campaign were Greenpeace International and Friends of the Earth International, both based in Amsterdam. Greenpeace, with chapters in forty countries, had a thousand full-time staff members, and Friends of the Earth had chapters in sixty­eight countries and 1,200 full­time staff. You can find thorough documentation of the players, techniques, and effectiveness of the campaign in Robert Paarlberg’s book, Starved for Science. Decision makers in Zambia and elsewhere were persuaded that GE crops would cause allergies, would infect their digestive tracts, would spread HIV/AIDS, would contain pig genes, and would deny them any possibility of selling their crops to European markets.

    Starvation was treated as a measure of commitment to the cause. In the service of what was thought to be a higher good, the environmental movement went sociopathic in Africa. In a panel discussion in Johannesburg, Bill Moyers asked the Indian antiglobalist Vandana Shiva about the situation in Zambia. She said:

    When the same situation happened in India, with the cyclone ­ 30,000 people dead and many hungry ­ when we tested the food and found it to be GM, and we just gave the information to the people who were victims, who were hungry, they led a protest to the aid agencies and they said just because we are poor, just because we are in emergency, doesn’t mean you can force us to eat what we don’t want to eat. Emergency cannot be used as a market opportunity.


    Just as it’s worth knowing and remembering who was CEO of Exxon Mobil when it spent millions trying to discredit climate change (Lee Raymond), it’s worth knowing and remembering who was leading Greenpeace International (Thilo Bode, then Gerd Leipold) and Friends of the Earth International (Ricardo Navarro) when those two organizations went to great lengths to persuade Africans that, in the service of ideology, starvation was good for them. On their watch and among their many other beneficial campaigns, their organizations ­ and the European nations and humanitarian NGOs they influenced ­ screwed up royally in Africa.

  14. Leo G Says:

    My wife works in exporting specialty grains (pulses). Some other company got a few bags of Round-Up ready grains mixed in with non RR grains and shipped these to Europe. The grains were tested the RR bags were found. As of right now, Europe is refusing Pulses from Canada. It will take about a year to clear this up.

    Protectionism anyone?

  15. Menth Says:

    Yes Leo that’s all well and good but the risks need to be attended to and until then Europe is right to stick with safe, reliable organics. Like locally grown organic beansprouts.


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