MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA—Just after midnight on 14 July, three female activists clad in white HAZMAT suits and wielding motorized grass trimmers broke into an agricultural test plot near the capital, Canberra, operated by CSIRO, Australia's preeminent research organization. They damaged hundreds of genetically modified (GM) wheat plants, brazenly photographing themselves in the act.
Greenpeace later claimed responsibility. In a news release titled "A mum takes action against GM wheat," the organization states that the vandalism "follows the revelation" that CSIRO "is conducting the world's first human feeding trials of GM wheat, without adequate safety testing."
The vandalism caught CSIRO off-guard. "We never expected this type of activity," says CSIRO plant industry chief Jeremy Burdon. "This may have cost us a year of research and several hundred thousand dollars." The activists damaged GM wheat plants that CSIRO has been developing over the past 13 years with the Australian Grains Research and Development Corp. and the French company Limagrain. One variety boosts yields; another more efficiently metabolizes nitrogen; a third triples levels of amylose, a starch that doesn't spike blood sugar levels. "These are all to do with food security, sustainability, and health—all the high-level issues that consumers are concerned about," says Bruce Lee, director of CSIRO Food Futures.
The high amylose wheat has been tested in rats; results from a pig trial in 2010 are being prepared for publication. Two years ago, the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator granted CSIRO permission to test the variety in a short-term trial in a small number of volunteers. An ethics committee approved the trial in 2010. If the experiment goes ahead, it would indeed be the world's first human trial of GM wheat, Lee says. However, he notes, "We still have various regulatory hurdles to cross before this wheat would reach the human market."
The vandalism follows an open letter on 27 June to CSIRO Chief Executive Megan Clark, in which eight scientists and doctors criticize the proposed human trial. One signatory, neurobiologist David Schubert of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California, is distancing himself from the Greenpeace attack. "The attack is totally unjustified; this is not the way you deal these issues," he told ScienceInsider.
*An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to high amylase wheat; it should have been high amylose wheat.