Greenpeace on the Defensive

After years of playing offense, Greenpeace is now finding itself on the defensive. In addition to pulling much of the anti-Bush administration propaganda from its website, the group has failed to explain its rationale for publicizing sensitive information on biological and chemical toxins stored at thousands of U.S. industrial sites — an exercise in fear-mongering that many of the group's critics saw as an engraved invitation to terrorists. And Greenpeace is suddenly getting the silent treatment from some erstwhile allies, who have been alienated by the organization's unwillingness to recognize the potentially adverse consequences of its actions.

Greenpeace poses as a group interested in promoting better ecology based on scientific analysis. But its real mission, as American University professor Paul Wapner explains in his book Environmental Activism and World Civic Politics, is “to manipulate values, norms, and modes of discourse; it seeks to alter people's conceptions of reality.” In other words, it tries to change culture as well as behavior.

Nowhere is this more evident than in its campaign against biotechnology. The environmentalist group has called for a global ban on the use of biotech crops, while in the same breath acknowledging their potential value. This, combined with the group's frequent vandalism of biotechnology field-testing facilities, betrays a blatant disregard for scientific analysis of the issue.

Greenpeace persists in this stance despite the fact that many leading scientific bodies have endorsed the use of biotechnology to aid third-world countries. Ignoring these findings has cost Greenpeace some of its top scholars. Dr. William Plaxton, who teaches biochemistry at Queens University in Ontario, cited the group's attacks on biotechnology as the primary reason for his departure last year. Similarly, Dr. Barry Palevitz, who teaches botany at the University of Georgia, scalded the group while departing in 1999, saying that “with certain environmental groups not-so-subtly catalyzing the antitechnology movement, much of the public is unaware that evidence that [biotech] foods are unsafe is so far nonexistent….”

However, the organization's greatest loss could be Dr. Bjorn Lomborg, Danish professor of statistics and author of the critically acclaimed book The Skeptical Environmentalist. Lomborg criticizes Greenpeace for skewing the facts about biotechnology. Specifically, he says in his book that biotechnology is one of many subjects in which the negative rhetoric of Greenpeace doesn't comport with the facts.

Lomborg recognizes that there are small, uncertain risks involved in allowing gene-spliced crops to be marketed. He notes that these risks, which are well understood by scientists, stem from the nature of particular products that might be created — not from the process (genetic or conventional) used to create them.

However, he also acknowledges that there are definite risks involved in regulating these crops. Because they have the potential to increase yields, provide vitamin enrichment, and reduce demand for chemical pesticides, stunting the growth of research and development on biotech crops can only impose costs on consumers over time. Dr. Henry I. Miller, a former Food and Drug Administration official, points out that due to lobbying by radical groups like Greenpeace, the EPA uses “an anachronistic approach that targets the techniques used to create these organisms, rather than high-risk organisms or those experiments likely to pose significant risk to public health or the environment.” Called upon by Greenpeace to impose a total ban on these products, it is not surprising that the EPA has fallen into this trap.

Greenpeace may find a way to withstand the hits it has taken since September 11, but its campaign to impose an “ecological sensibility” on society by fighting science can only last so long. Biotechnology offers a way to produce more food and use fewer chemical pesticides in the process. Since Greenpeace endorses these potential results as objectives, it is unclear why the group continues to wage war against scientists who do genetic research. It is only a matter of time before people understand that radical environmentalist groups are more intent on brainwashing people than in educating them about scientific realities.