GM crop breaks fence / What scientists get up to in Australia (6/11/2003)

1.GM crop resists poison, breaks fence
2.What scientists get up to in Australia
3.Australia's pre-eminent public scientific research body - a profile
1.GM crop resists poison, breaks fence
Australian Associated Press, November 6, 2003

TRIALS of the nation's first commercial genetically modified food crop have been found to be in breach of their licence conditions.

The Network of Concerned Farmers today released internal NSW Agriculture documents showing concerns over the trials of GM canola near the city of Wagga Wagga.

The documents show the canola, created by BayerCropscience to be resistant to a new type of herbicide, had spread from its small trial plot into a neighbouring wheat field.

Despite efforts to poison and then slash the plants they survived to the stage that they flowered, putting them in breach of their growing licence conditions.

NSW, along with most other states, has a moratorium on GM food crops but is allowing trials such as that staged at Wagga.

But both Bayer and Monsanto, which is waiting on final federal approval for its own GM canola, have sought to plant up to 5000 hectares of the new plants in NSW as trials next year.

Network national spokeswoman Julie Newman said the failure of the Wagga trial cast doubt over the plans for a 5000 hectare trial.

"If the GM industry can't even control a small strictly managed trial plot under one hectare, how do they expect to control 5000 hectares of GM canola spread over 60 to 100 sites throughout NSW?" she said.

"The obvious difficulty that BayerCropscience have had in managing this trial does not inspire confidence within the farming community."

Mrs Newman said the Wagga trial showed how difficult it would be stop contamination of traditional crops by GM crops.

"The difficulty in managing the trials shows just how hard it is to remove canola from wheat, and shows how much work neighbouring farmers will have to do to try to make sure their crops don't get contaminated," she said.

2.What scientists get up to in Australia

Taken from the science communicators list PSCI-COM

Date:    Wed, 5 Nov 2003 22:30:51 +0000
From:    Bobby Cerini <[email protected]>
Subject: Re: What scientists get up to

Can't help adding my thoughts to this discussion.

Interesting to compare our situation with that in Australia, where 'quasi government' science organisations such as CSIRO (the national research body) and the Bureau of Meteorology routinely employ top-level science communicators in their marketing departments, who effectively add 'spin'. They don't call it this though - they call it communicating with their audience, typically the Australian public and media. It also isn't perceived so much as spin - probably because the concept is not such a dominant social/political force, and the national media is in general far less aggressive than it is here.

What Australia does have though is a high level of dependence on its agricultural export markets - and it is fairly ruthless in introducing new technologies which might improve or preserve output. Introductions of foreign species such as the cane toad, the rabbit calicivirus and myxomatosis virus, and of GM food and cotton crops are reasonably frequent - sometimes with disastrous or potentially disastrous consequences - yet these potential PR nightmares seem to be artfully managed.

Thinking about it, these organisations do a very clever thing. They use passionate people to market themselves, who both understand the science and who are exceptionally good at communicating its opportunities, its relative value and the risks vs the benefits embedded in it. Basically, they don't have to compromise the science - but they do have to explain it clearly and with a force (usually) equivalent to or greater than anything the opposition can drum up.

As we all know, scientifically literate lobby groups can be a powerful political force - as can a population who resent having new technologies introduced without a full and frank discussion of where the benefits and risks actually lie. Let's see charismatic, articulate, media-savvy science and science communication graduates working in marketing and PR departments - and they are out there, check out the sales reps used by medical and pharmaceutical companies, and the journos who write for New Scientist, for example - and we might possibly see a different public face emerging for our quasi gov organisations, too

Hope this input inspires vigorous and prolonged debate...



Bobby Cerini
Consultant in Science Communication

e: [email protected]
t: 01225 840 389
m: 0792742738
3.CSIRO - a profile from GM WATCH

CSIRO stands for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Reseach Organisation. It is promoted as Australia's pre-eminent public scientific research body.

Although ostensibly 'publicly funded' CSIRO has, in reality, been encouraged to get 30% of its funding from buisness with the CSIRO top management encouraging its staff to go to 40%. As a point of comparison, only about 10% of the funding of Europe's leading plant biotech institute, the John Innes Centre, is thought to come directly from industry although the JIC is considered highly industrially aligned.

According to John Stocker, CSIRO's former chief executive, 'Working with the transnationals makes a lot of sense, in the context of market access.  There are very few Australian companies that have developed market access in the United States, in Europe and in Japan, the world's major marketplaces. Yes, we do find that it is often the best strategy to get into bed with these companies .' (Australian Broadcasting Commission, 1992).

Richard Hindmarsh in an article in the Journal of Australian Political Economy (No 44.), 'Consolidating Control: Plant Variety Rights, Genes and Seeds', describes CSIRO as having a long history of involvement with intensive agricultural R&D and collaboration with agribusiness multinationals, and as having become increasingly dependent upon industry funding. The effect of this is 'to generate convergence between private sector and public sector plant breeding operators.'

Hindmarsh notes, 'The CSIRO, in keeping with its position of being at the forefront of scientific research, prioritised genetic engineering research in 1979. CSIRO scientists have since been very active in the promotion of GE to the Australian community, and especially to other scientists (Hindmarsh, 1996). In addition, multinational companies are seen as the key avenue to the international commercialisation of biotechnology products and research of both Australian public sector institutions and biotechnology firms.'

Hindmarsh also notes, '...the indications are that a Byzantine web of formal contractual obligations and informal connections has emerged between the CSIRO and other public-sector agencies..., universities, small or new biotechnology firms (NBFs), and multinational corporations.' The corporations listed by Hindmarsh as having direct financial connections with CSIRO include: Agrigenetics, Monsanto, Rhone Poulenc and AgrEvo (later part of Aventis and then Bayer). A collaboration between the CSIRO and Monsanto generated Australia's first major GM commercial crop.

On the day of the announcement of the commercial approval for Bayer's GM canola (oilseed rape) in Australia, CSIRO  announced that Bayer would be extending its lucrative investment in CSIRO 'to develop modern biotechnology tools applicable to cotton and other crops'. The press release said, ' For Bayer CropScience, the alliance with CSIRO is regarded as a model for global cooperation.'

For some it is a model of everything that's wrong in the relationship between public science and private interests. An article in the journal Australasian Science written by a former CSIRO senior executive accused the head of CSIRO of subverting the CSIRO's traditional role of public research in favour of lucrative consulting work for government and the private sector. Research into GM crops, with its promise of intellectual property and revenue streams, is 'in' at the CSIRO, he reportd; research into organic farming is 'out'. He described morale among staff as at rock bottom.

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