Greenpeace activists Jessica Latona and Heather McCabe leaving the ACT Supreme Court at an earlier hearing. Photo by Rohan Thomson, Canberra Times.
GREENPEACE has vowed to continue campaigning against genetically modified (GM) crops in Australia, despite backlash from the farming and scientific community for vandalising CSIRO research trials.
The pledge comes as two Greenpeace anti-GM activists - Jessica Latona and Heather McCabe - were handed suspended sentences of nine months this week, for using whipper snippers to destroy GM wheat trials at CSIRO in Canberra in July last year. Justice Hilary Penfold recorded convictions against the two women.
In a statement released after their sentencing, Ms Latona and Ms McCabe said, “We did it because we’re deeply concerned about the future of our food… GM is not proven safe to eat. The only thing we are sure about is that it’s a major threat to our environment.”
The Office of Gene Technology Regulator-approved trials were developing high amylose wheat and examining another GM wheat strain which increases biomass and grain yield.
The crop destruction stifled research progress by about a year, due to lost grain affecting the amount of seed collected for testing and the assessment of agronomic performance. Greenpeace has paid $280,000 in reparations to CSIRO.
CSIRO said it welcomed the fact that “those responsible for the damage to this important trial have been appropriately dealt with by the criminal justice system”.
Greenpeace Australia-Pacific head of programs Ben Pearson said in a radio interview that the conservation group would not rule out undertaking similar acts in future.
He said Greenpeace “will never resile from undertaking acts of civil disobedience… we certainly will if we believe it's necessary”.
In a written statement Greenpeace promised to continue campaigning against the introduction of GM wheat technology into Australia.
“We will do this by working with farmers to ensure they get protection from the threat of contamination this technology poses to them and their crops, and thus their livelihoods,” the statement said.
“We will support the introduction of farmers’ protection legislation to shift the liability of GM contamination from individual farmers back to the company that profits from GM crops. We will work with consumer groups to ensure foods that have been genetically modified, or include ingredients that have been genetically modified, are labelled as such.”
A Greenpeace spokesperson said the group has been engaged with farming groups for years.
“In Western Australia, the growing mobilisation around the Steve Marsh case (of alleged GM contamination in Kojonup) obliged politicians to take a clear position on contamination issues,” the spokesperson said.
“It is now becoming a key topic for the next State election.”
WA Pastoralists and Graziers Association executive committee member and Calingiri grain farmer Gary McGill said the penalty handed down to the two Greenpeace volunteers for destroying CSIRO’s GM wheat trials wasn’t severe enough.
“These groups need to be confronted and treated harshly, not handed penalties that are really only acts of appeasement like the foreign policies handed out by former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to Adolf Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s.”
Grain Producers Australia chairman Peter Mailler agreed the legal penalty for the “deliberate and unacceptable act of vandalism” wasn’t harsh enough.
Mr Mailler said he also had “major concerns” about Greenpeace’s culture where members and staff organised and condoned breaking the law, to deliberately destroy legitimate research trials.
“For an organisation that has an income which is the beneficiary of tax-breaks from public donations, it’s absolutely unacceptable to be funding what’s essentially bio-terrorism,” he said.
“If they wish to pursue a legitimate political agenda to try and achieve change in legislation in this country, then go right ahead - but it’s got to be a legitimate program. Ongoing illegal activities should not be tolerated.”
Mr Mailler said Greenpeace’s anti-GM campaign had backfired.
“People regard CSIRO as a highly credible and legitimate research institution and they didn’t like seeing its research work vandalised,” he said.
However, Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics (ACPFG) CEO Professor Peter Langridge said the verdict would send a clear message that “vandalism” is not the right way to engage in the GM debate.
The ACPFG is based at Adelaide University and is home to GM wheat and GM barley research trials.
“My hope is that Greenpeace has learnt their lesson that this type of behaviour is not acceptable in Australian society,” he said.
“I’d like to see them discuss these issues at a scientific level.
“This is very similar to the climate change debate, which I’m sure they won’t like me saying in comparison, but they only pick and choose the parts of the argument they like and ignore the science, to push a particular, anti-science point of view.
“To go in and unilaterally destroy these trials is a terrible thing to do and they should be ashamed of themselves.”
Croplife Australia CEO Matthew Cossey said attempts to mislead the Australian public by the anti-GM campaign are “clearly starting to wear thin”.
Mr Cossey said the public’s reaction to the destruction of taxpayer-funded research in CSIRO’s GM wheat trials was, “rightly, one of disbelief”.
“The public is smart enough to identify the blatant hypocrisy of a campaign which claims that there are risks posed by GM crops and then destroys the very research that seeks to identify and manage such risks,” he said.
“Because they don’t have science to support their case, anti-GM groups now seek to manipulate data and fabricate reports.
“The manipulation of data in a recent French paper to support claims that GM crops present a health hazard was resoundingly and unanimously rejected by the global scientific community and regulators.
“Unfortunately, these groups are very aware of the power of manufactured fear and will continue to prey on that for as long as it proves effective.
“There has not been a shred of credible evidence of any health issues associated with food derived from approved GM crops.”
Mr Cossey said agricultural biotechnology was an “invaluable innovation” for Australian agriculture and an important tool to help reduce the environmental impact of farming, while helping the fight for global food security.
But he said there was an issue with the misalignment of Greenpeace’s stance on biotech crops and their claims of dedication to sustainable agriculture and protection of the environment.
Meta-studies on the global impacts of GM crops have shown that they have reduced carbon dioxide emissions in agriculture by over 19 billion kg per annum, he said, or the equivalent to removing 69 per cent of all cars registered in Australia from the road each year.
They have also reduced water usage by up to 32pc and decreased the use of pesticides by up to 86pc.
“If crop biotechnology had not been available to the 15.4 million farmers using the technology in 2010, maintaining global production levels would have required additional plantings equivalent to 30pc of the arable area in Australia,” he said.
“Given Greenpeace’s vehement opposition to crop biotechnology, one could be forgiven for assuming that they are champions of greenhouse gas emissions and clearing native vegetation, but against reduction in usage of pesticides and water.
“I strongly encourage these groups to realise the contrast between their stance on crop biotechnology and the values of their core members.
“This is an untenable position for true environmentalists.”