The Greenpeace Australia GMO Wheat Action: A Sad Day For Bread. A Sad Day For Science

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.

The Future of GMO Wheat

There is now a farmer agreement to simulataneously commercialize GMO wheat in Australia, Canada and the US. That would prevent more trade black-mail 10 to 15 years from now when the renewed GMO research might yield commercial products.  The wheat that Greenpeace destroyed was a largely academic trial of a nutritional modification, but much work continues with drought tolerant and disease resistant wheats.  It is those lines that are potentially important for keeping up with ever-rising wheat demand in the developing world.  At a time when an unprecedented new food price regime is punishing the world’s poor, Greenpeace may be feeling pressure from the questions, “What is the statute-of-limitations on saying that the sky is falling?” or “is it ethical to slow advances in food production which leads to suffering for poor people?”

Why Does This Matter?

Wheat matters because of its nutritional, historical, cultural, and philosophical importance to humanity.

Wheat Has a Significant Role in Human Nutrition

Wheat is not just any crop.  It is a major source of energy and protein for populations, both where it is grown, and in highly-dependent, importing countries (e.g. Subsaharan Africa, Northern Africa, increasingly in Asia).  Wheat is one of the most heavily traded of all crops, and has been since Roman times. High wheat prices effect a huge proportion of the world’s population.  In its various ethnic forms, bread is truly “the staff of life.”  It is also strategically important.  Nobel prize winner and Green Revolution leader, Norm Borlaug, put it well: “If you desire peace, cultivate justice, but at the same time cultivate the fields to produce more bread; otherwise there will be no peace.”

Wheat Has Tremendous Historical Significance

In his ground-breaking book, “Guns Germs and Steel,” Jared Diamond chronicles how some of the earliest human societies moved from a hunter-gatherer existence to a farm-based society in the Fertile Crescent or present day, Middle East.  Local, large-seeded, grain crops, and animals that could be domesticated for draft work were key to that transition.  Through simple selection for large seeds that stayed on the head for harvest, these ancient farmers (~10,000 years ago) created the first hybrid crop between wild spelt, emmer, and possibly other grains, to produce a new species – wheat.  As Diamond documents, the wheat and animals were able to help feed this version of Western Civilization as it spread East and West, eventually jumping oceans to North America, and later to the temperate zone of the Southern Hemisphere.  Wheat and cows could not deal with the heat, diseases and insects of the tropics, and so people groups in those regions were not soon touched by the advances of Western civilization (good and bad).

Wheat Embodies Important Cultural Symbolism

In this regard, wheat shares a co-joined symbolic significance with grapes – which have also been the target of anti-GMO vandalism.  One of the earlier parings of wheat and wine (the natural storage form of grapes) is found in the story of Abraham – a figure claimed as the Father of both the Jews and the Moslems (~4,000 BCE).  After Abraham conquers five kings of Sodom to rescue his relatives, he is met by the mysterious figure, Melchizedek, who is described in the text as the priest and king of Salem (trans. Shalom, trans. Peace).  Melchizedek brings bread and wine for the victory ceremony.   Bread (unleavened) and wine are also important elements of the Passover meal with which the Jews commemorate their liberation from slavery in Egypt.  Bread and wine symbolism is also central to Christian Communion (or Eucharist) as Jesus self-identified the bread and wine of the Last Supper as representative of his body and blood.   When it comes to religious symbolism, it does not get more intense than these two targets of GMO modification and anti-GMO attacks

The Battle Over Wheat Is Representative of A Broader Philosophical Struggle In Post-Modern Society

In the early 15th century, the printing press enhanced the communication-potential of society, and accelerated the already developing, rational and pre-scientific, trends of preceeding centuries (Islamic Renaissance, European Renaissance, The Enlightenment).  One might have thought that the mega-communication potential of the internet age would have further enhanced the “Age of Reason.”  Not so.  The term, “Renaissance Man,” referred to the real possibility that one smart and educated individual could grasp most of human knowledge and esthetics several hundred years ago.  Today, one is lucky to be able to keep pace with whatever sub-field one chooses to pursue.

The Light of Knowledge drove out the darkness of Fear and Superstition that so characterized the “Dark Ages.”  Today, Fear and Superstition are back with a vengeance.  Knowledge is often impotent because it has become too vast to access and stave off Fear, or to help most people separate real information from disinformation.  We no longer have a clear way of knowing what is true (epistemology).  Until the internet age we had a workable balance between logic (rational epistemology), experience and experiment (empirical epistemology), and accepting truth from recognized experts (authoritarian epistemology).  Now we seem to be moving towards simply choosing an authoritarian source of truth that is comfortable for our world view.  It is a sort of “don’t tell me what I don’t want to know” epistemology.  We pick the “news” channels, blogs, gurus or even comedians who tell us self-reinforcing information.  To open up our minds to all the different voices is just too overwhelming.

In the particular case of GMO crops, there are many people who only listen to the complete anti-GMO voices (e.g. greenpeace, agro-ecology advocates…). I wrote a blog post titled, “Way Too Much Angst About GMO Crops,” which was intended to calm some people by explaining why very few crops will ever be GMO for a variety of reasons.  The post didn’t have that effect at all,  as one can see in the 500+ comment stream on the Biofortified re-post of the blog.

This is Just One Front of A Much More Important Battle

But 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.  For me, as an agricultural scientist, I’m only going to try to reach open-minded people on agricultural issues.  This latest Greenpeace stunt was only a disaster for the scientists who lost a year of work.  The real stakes are about the broader struggle between science and precaution.

Wheat Field Image from Dag Endresen.  My Website is Applied Mythology.  Please comment here and/or write me at

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  1. I am not in favor of GMOs, but I do not support acts of destruction or violence such as the ones by these activists. However passionate about something, and convinced we are right, we may be, non-violence and dialogue are crucial to lasting well-being.

    • Justin and Jeff,

      I’m glad you guys feel that way, and I suspect that most folks in the environmental movement would agree. We are not saying there would never be a cause big enough for civil disobedience, its just not an acre of experimental bread wheat carefully confined and with virtually no chance of being anything but an academic experiment.

      • Exactly… and I think Greenpeace has engaged in many, many acts of civil disobedience that were warranted, and that worked in terms of raising public awareness. Tod and I discussed this a bit on Google+, also, and I told him that, at this point, I had a very hard time not equating this kind of tactic with book burning. I’ll also add that I read through Greenpeace’s FAQ on this action, and they argued that the “field trial” did represent a threat of cross-contamination: (and I’d love to hear your perspective on that, Steve). But I’m always going to be really uncomfortable with almost any destructive act aimed at activity designed to produce knowledge…

        • Jeff, “cross contamination” is a red herring, emotive term to be avoided. All plants make pollen and they “cross pollinate” others of their own species or extremely close relatives. GMO changes nothing about that. In some species the pollen travels quite a ways, in others not very far (e.g. corn).

          Plant breeders, seed producers and farmers have dealt with this for centuries. If you want to keep a wheat seed crop pure, you know how far it has to be away from other wheat. Again, GMO changed nothing about that. Trust me, CSIRO would have been well aware of the appropriate distance for isolation (they are wheat breeders!).

          Greenpeace activists could potentially spread the pollen further than normal, perhaps that was the plan, but I doubt it. I still think it was a publicity stunt. Don’t be so quick to defend people who may not have your moral compass

          • I appreciate your insight on this, Steve (as was thinking about suggesting this as a topic for a post). I brought in the argument from their Q&A because it seemed to be the foundation of their rationale for the action, and so I thought it needed discussing.

  2. What’s not mentioned here is that these crops are annuals, not perennials. As such, they make a ton o’ money for big ag, but annuals do not produce well, in terms of calorie in/calorie out AND they deplete soil at an awful rate.

    Take a look at the vital, vital work being done by Wes Jackson and his Land Institute. To support a planet full of billions, we must reverse the woeful decision to go with annuals, made some 10,000 years ago.

    • Todd,
      You can’t really make broad brush generalizations like that. That particular “annual” has sustained multiple societies over 10,000 years. That seems rather sustainable to me. We need annuals and perennials and biennials. Wheat, by the way does not make “a ton o’ money for big ag” – it is a tiny seed market because it is mostly “saved seed.” Do you have any involvement in farming?

  3. As for non violence being crucial to victory, that is a nice belief, but wholly false. Neither Gandhi nor MLK Jr believed this to be so, but a false revisionist history and selected quoting has castrated our movement by populating it with impotent activists who won’t raise a fist to save the planet.

    No non-violent social movement has EVER succeeded. Bar none. Period. Can you name one? Indian independence? Civil rights? Gender equality? None were non violent… and none of these have yet to completely succeed. Sorry, Justin… it’s just time to hit the books and learn about “non-violence” and its efficacy. I’m not promoting violence, but we mustn’t remove ANY tools from our toolkit. Not if you really and truly give a damn.

    • I’ve got a lot of respect for you, Tod, but know you’re wrong on MLK: “Letter from Birmingham Jail” not only promotes non-violence, but spells out the specific steps that activists took to protest in a non-violent manner… even as they themselves were being attacked (I’ve taught this one many times). He does make one threat, but it’s ironic in this context: his audience could deal with King and his non-violent followers, or with anti-racism/segregation movements that were advocating violence at the time.

    • Todd,
      What about Jesus? He was non-violent and ended up starting a huge religion. Too bad that his followers didn’t often take the same strategy – as Ghandi said

  4. The trouble is “GMO” is a HUGE umbrella. I have no problem with using it to improve nutrition, drought tolerance, or yield. I have problems with using it to make plants toxic to insects (what about the species that depend on those insects? What about us eating those plants supposedly toxic only to bugs?) or resistant to herbicides (very profitable to the herbicide makers, but to we really want more herbicides in the environment?) Not to mention the problem when farmer A plants a patented GMO seed, the pollen blows onto farmer B’s land, and the company sues farmer B for growing its crops without paying them. For that matter, a terrorist could probably engineer a food plant to produce cyanide or other human toxins.

    • Sue Ann,
      It sounds like you read almost exclusively anti-GMO sites without hearing the other side. These issues have been addressed many years ago or were never real problems. Try looking at the Biofortified site. It has no ties to the commercial companies and is run by volunteer graduate students. In the comment streams you will see both sides of the debate well-represented. I know no better forum than that

      • Your callous dismissal of the small-farmers of the US Midwest whose life work have been ruined by Monsanto’s practice of suing their victims for impossible sums after Roundup-ready soy (IIRC) blows into their fields is shocking. You might claim that the problem isn’t relevant to CSIRO or the wheat experiment, but from Sue Ann’s comment, I can see that the distinction might be a bit fine for Greenpeace’s tastes. I’m not positive that I agree with them, but I can see where they’re coming from.

        As for nonviolence above; referring only to “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, a 1963 piece from before the U.S. govt escalated its involvement in the Vietnam War. His later work is less cuddly than that which is selectively quoted from him, so I think Jeff is proving Tod’s point a bit. Steve’s point is essentially moot when you consider how much authoritarian social power, including extremely evil unitary Catholic Church regimes long after Jesus’s life which he would have possibly rejected if he were aware of them, was necessary to make Christianity the dominant social force of today. And considering how violent today’s Christians are–from our slaughter-mad presidents to the anti-civil-rights campaigns in our megachurches–I would argue that Jesus’ tactics were not actually very successful in communicating his message.

        Finally, it was violent subjugation by the Church, and the Church’s alliance with kings, feudal lords and slave masters–whose dominance was rationalized by Christian rhetoric, I might add–which made it such an irresistible social force in the time between Jesus’s life and the 20th century. Considering that Jesus implored slaves to serve their masters with a smile and recognize their masters’ authority as God’s, it’s a bit of a non sequitur to portray King and Christ as brothers in nonviolent revolution.

    • “I have problems with using it to make plants toxic to insects (what about the species that depend on those insects? What about us eating those plants supposedly toxic only to bugs?)

      Sue Ann, this has been going on since long before humans domesticated plants. Heck, it’s been going on for as long as plants and insects have been around:

      “We calculate that 99.99% (by weight) of the pesticides in the American diet are chemicals that plants produce to defend themselves.”

  5. Stever, I enjoyed your thoughtful discussion. Your story of the Greenpeace action reminds me of when I went to a PETA rally in the late 1980s. This was a rally to start up a new group at the university where I happened to be taking some biochemistry classes. Since I had never been to something like that, I just wanted to find out what all of the hoopla was about. So, I went, sat in the back, and kept my mouth shut. It was quite interesting as there was a lot of angst over using animals in medical research. The main speaker claimed that one could research any part of the body (e.g., heart, liver, muscle) by using non-sterile skin scrapings (e.g., a differentiated tissue, not a biopsy), and that it was not necessary to use heart tissue to study the heart, or bone cells to study bone, and so on. Having already worked in medical research for several years, I was surprised at the level of ignorance of the speaker. But, apparently the whole point of the meeting was to get the attendees so upset and riled up that they would join the group, give money, and take (possibly) political action. I’m not sure that they ever did anything useful except give me a little bit of education.

    • Eleanor,
      Thanks for sharing that experience. I just feel bad that many well meaning people get sucked into giving money and time and doing illegal things for the benefit of the organizers, not the animals.

  6. Well Steve,
    Before I read this piece I was really worried about GMO organisms especially the heavily patent protected stuff being brought to market by pesticide manufacturers like Monsanto and other massive chemical concerns like BASF. I didn’t realise that there were real benefits to these expensive GMO products (I thought that their only trait was resistance to roundup allowing Monsanto to sell a massive amount of its Roundup product resulting in massively increased use of pesticides), so thanks for reasuring me on that front. Oh, by the way, you didn’t mention all of the many benefits to the poor and hungry of currently available GMO crops, could you just post a list, (you probably just forgot). I am sure that there are loads and loads of other GMOs from Monsanto just about to be released that have drought resistance and all those other fantastic things – I am sure that they must be almost ready for the market now becasue Monsanto and the GMO indutry has been promising them for 15 years.
    Hey, and thanks for setting the record straight on cross polination, I realy thought that cross polination of GMOs with nearby growing non GM modified crops was an actual problem, woe how wrong can you be hey? I guess that BASF aren’t really paying US farmers billions in fines for allowing an ilegal GMO into the food chain, because they must be clever and experienced people and such a thing just couldn’t happen. BASF are probably just feeling really generous and giving the farmers some money for being good farmers.

    It is great that you are here to tell us all how safe and usfeul GMO’s are, otherwise we might all be worried,
    Thanks Steve,
    what would we do without you,

    • Steve (other steve)
      I always appreciate some good sarcasm (read my Erasmus post). But you have digested quite a bit of disinformation. Roundup Ready crops did not really increase pesticide use. There were herbicides used before and most were not as soft as glyphosate for the environment or the crop. The drought resistance traits are starting to move into the market now (non-gmo approaches) and actually soon for the GMO approach. Sorry to have made you wait, but this is not exactly easy. I’m not exactly what BASF trait you are talking about on the cross-pollination issue. Do you mean Bayer (who bought AgrEvo that had Star-Link?.

      I wish your last paragraph were true, but if you prefer a state of angst, who am I to deny it to you?

      • Sorry Steve, I seem to have missed that list of all of the benefits to the poor and hungry of GMO’s? you must have just forgotton it again.
        Yes, sorry Bayer’s amflora, it was late and I was typing too quickly.
        Indeed, the only drought resistant strains are NON GMO’s, quite correct, there are no GMO drought resistant plants, and you know that very well.
        So, lets have that list eh Steve?
        Thanks mate

        • Steve,
          The indirect effects of higher yields from GMOs and other technologies benefit the poor by keeping supply closer to demand. The direct benefits for the poor have largely been blocked by anti-GMO influence, mainly from Europe. Virus resistant Cassava and Bananas, insect resistant land-race potatoes, higher yielding corn, cowpeas and sorghum etc have all been blocked or greatly slowed by this influence. These were things that were going to be offered free to poor farmers by the Danforth Center, Gates Foundation, IRRI, Monsanto, Syngenta etc. I have not forgotten these things or who has denied them to the poor

          Time will tell which drought tolerance technologies work best in which settings. Not all drought is equal. Some is more associated with heat. Some is for early season issues and some for grain-fill late in the season. Some is best for decent yields under moderate stress, while others will provide some yield when regular varieties are complete failures. It will take a decade to sort this all out. I don’t care what technology was used – just that we get the drought tolerance

          • ok, last comment.
            There is enough food on the earth to feed all of the people, the problem in the poor are …poor and can’t buy it. How exactly GMO’s are going to make the poor rich I do not know.

            Your statements at this point are bare faced lies:
            “Time will tell which drought tolerance technologies work best in which settings”

            There are no GMO drought technologies, what on earth are you talking about?

            “The indirect effects of higher yields from GMOs…”

            What???? GMOs do not have higher yields – please provide factual evidence for this statement —if you can!!!

            “The direct benefits for the poor have largely been blocked by anti-GMO influence, mainly from Europe”

            Utter uinmittigated bullshit – no evidence whatsoever just nonsense statements.

            You are a con artist bought and paid for by the Industry. Simple.

          • steve–

            I know this is a topic that stirs passions… and it’s OK to present your position passionately. But please keep the name-calling and obscenity directed at others out… it makes your argument appear weak if you’ve got to resort to these tactics.

          • Steve

            GMO crops are “scale neutral” particularly the ones that would be offered for free to smallholder farmers. It does not have to make them rich, just feed them rather than pests
            I don’t see what is a “lie” about saying that it will take time to evaluate emerging drought tolerance technologies” and when I said there are not GMO technologies, I meant there are none on the commercial market yet. 2013 or 2014. The current offerings come from non-GMO breeding technologies.
            As for higher yields with GMOs, there are tons of USDA data showing this, particularly for corn. See my post “1996: the year that everything changed…”. The analysis is complex, but is explained there
            as for the ad hominem attack and accusation that I am “bought and paid for by industry:” I’m used to hearing this. Perhaps if I were more clever I would figure out a way to get paid to defend farmers and the companies that serve them. As it is, every minute I spend responding to comments or writing posts reduces my income because I’m a consultant that gets paid by the hour to help with the development of technology that helps feed people.

            I take the time to do the writing because there are lots of people out there with an open mind that take the time to weigh the arguments they hear and to check the facts. I hope you will do the same

      • Sorry again, not amflora I meant of course liberty rice…..

        St. Louis, MO (PRWEB) July 07, 2011
        A three-quarters of a billion dollar legal settlement (case no. 4:06 MDL # 1811 CDP U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Missouri) has been reached between Germany based Bayer AG and its affiliates, and U.S. rice farmers. This settlement relates to legal actions filed beginning in 2006 in response to contamination of the U.S. rice supply by Bayer’s experimental and unapproved genetically modified Liberty Link rice.



        • Steve,
          Well, Liberty Rice is actually not GMO. It is based on mutagenesis and selection – the same way that we got ruby red grapefruit and short statured wheat and a host of other crop improvements of the 1960s and 1970s. The issue is that it can move that herbicide tolerance to wild rice (not the good kind, but the weed).

          As for the Amyflora potato, that is BASF and I wasn’t actually a fan of the concept. If that industrial starch got into the food starch supply all it would do would frustrate bakers and make funny textured baked goods. My concern is that potatoes keep coming up as volunteers long after the original crop. That is going to make it a pain to make sure that the fields where it is grown don’t ever get planted to regular potatoes. Doable, but a pain.

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