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Maarten Stapper: “Agricultural Science and Technology is Stuck in a Rut” (IPC10 Presentation Video)

I’ve been a fan of Maarten Stapper’s work for a while now. In fact, further below you’ll find an article I wrote, way back in 2007, about his experiences at the hands of his former employer — Australia’s publicly funded CSIRO agricultural research body. I’d recommend you read the article before watching Maarten’s IPC10 Convergence presentation, as it’ll give you a good backgrounder on his valuable work and his commendable ethics. I say ethics because instead of compromising his principles so as to retain favour with those putting bread on his table, he stood his ground… and got sacked instead.

While too many scientists will simply turn a blind eye to retain their paychecks, often with disastrous consequences for society, Maarten persevered in speaking the truth about the root causes of, and the solutions for, Australia’s agricultural and environmental problems, whilst speaking out against the Big Biotech multi-nationals and their ‘science’ that ignored both. The article below is an infuriating read, but I think sometimes it’s good to get infuriated about critical issues….

In Maarten’s video presentation above he lays out the truth about most of our specialised, reductionist, western agricultural research — that follow-the-money tragedy that sees all research compartmentalised and isolated and which incentivises all the wrong activities. With good doses of science and common sense, he leads you through a progression of thought that brings us to the great need of the day — participatory research by and for farmers and gardeners everywhere.

Watch Maarten’s second presentation: Biological Agriculture – a Third Way?

Public Resources for Private Profit

Original version published by Craig Mackintosh, March 30, 2007

The CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) is the national government body for scientific research in Australia. As a publicly funded body it should be working for the public good. Recent press releases indicate a potential industry conflict of interests that has resulted in the sacking of one of Australia’s leading soil scientists, resulting in a setback for Australia’s ability to be carbon neutral and to improve the health of their environment and their citizens.

The title of this post is the title of the following recently released press release that outlines the drama:

CSIRO Plant Industry sacked leading soil and organic researcher Dr Maarten Stapper last week. His research on healthier soil systems and criticisms of crop Gene Manipulation (GM) upset CSIRO management.

"This travesty of justice shows again that priorities for taxpayer-funded research are grossly distorted by CSIRO contracts with companies, that direct public funds to private profits," says Bob Phelps, director of Gene Ethics.

"Stapper was sacked because GM giants like Bayer and Monsanto can’t patent know-how on healthier soils," he says.

"Scientists who publish negative evidence about GM technology and its products are victimised, everywhere in the world," he says.

"Australian governments spent $1.29 billion on GM research from 2003 to 2005 alone (Warren Truss MP, Media Release, June 2005) and how this money is allocated should be the subject of public discussion," he says.

"Gene Ethics calls for a democratic system of funding policy and decisions to set research and development priorities. Our scarce R&D resources are now being misallocated by those who stand to gain most," he says.

"GM has failed to fulfill its promises so Australian taxpayers and producers are ripped off," Mr Phelps says.

"Even where success is claimed, the companies with patented genes benefit most. For instance, GM cotton was developed by CSIRO and Cotton Australia at taxpayer and grower expense, but Monsanto’s technology fee is well over $150 for every hectare grown," he says.

"Billions are spent on GM, but research on the sustainable biological and organic farming systems needed to cope with climate change and the end of oil is under-funded," he says.

"CSIRO chief Jeremy Burdon’s claim that environmentally friendly systems are ‘not a long term viable strategy’ is refuted by their success. Sustainable organics are the fastest growing sector of Australian farming and they will not use GM or synthetic chemicals," he says.

"Repairing Australia’s systemic agronomic and environmental problems on farms is urgent. But the funds go to GM crop research that can’t solve our core problems — salty, acidic, chemical polluted, drought affected, denuded, and waterlogged soils," he says.

"Public-good research is starved of funds as it does not enrich the companies or keep hi-tech lab scientists working on GM plants," he says.

"For instance, disbanding the CRC for Weed Management because it lacked corporate partners was another foolish, short-sighted travesty," he says.

"CSIRO is failing us badly. Gene Ethics calls on state governments to fund Dr Stapper’s soil health research, increase his funding and recruit more staff for sustainable farming projects," Mr Phelps concludes. — News Media Release, GM Free Ireland

At this point in climate change history, people like Maarten Stapper are just the kind we should be financing and supporting. Seeing them get sacked and sidelined instead is of great concern. We’ve written before about the incredible carbon sequestration potential of healthy soils, of which Maarten Stapper is acutely aware. Indeed, it’s chemical farming that is destroying soil carbon and sending it up where it doesn’t belong. Maarten has worked to bring his research findings to the people that need them — farmers in Australia that are grappling with increasingly stubborn soils, despite the promises of industry giants keen to sell their wares. Maarten has urged a focus on healthy soil microbiology, showing that increasing soil health results in a dramatic reduction in the necessity for fossil fuel inputs (fertilisers, herbicides, insecticides), and dramatic increases in plant health (with its corresponding reduction in pest problems), and significant improvement in carbon sequestration — a critical element in our battle with global warming.

Dr Maarten Stapper a Principal Research Scientist at CSIRO-Plant Industries will show farmers how to improve the profitability of their operations by harnessing natural soil processes. According to Dr Stapper a healthy soil leads to better crops and pastures requiring less inputs for similar productivity, resulting in healthy animals and improved food quality for healthy humans. In the process soil organic carbon can be doubled which also helps society by slowing climate change. — The Third OFA National Organic Conference, 22-23 July 2006

But, such forms of agriculture put natural systems back into harmony, and put soil life and beneficial insects back to work — seriously impacting on the role of agribusiness in their sale of chemicals and genetically modified seeds, and threatening them with complete redundancy.

"The Biological Farmers of Australia is deeply concerned that CSIRO has decided to scrap this area of research that is critical not only to the organic sector, but also to the thousands of farmers around Australia right now developing better soil biology – specifically during a time of massive investment in finding sustainable and effective means of sequestering atmospheric carbon," said Scott Kinnear spokesperson for BFA.

… "We have for many years been concerned at the commercialisation of research within CSIRO whereby patentable technologies with income generation potential are favoured. This applies to their research into genetically engineered foods which has cost CSIRO many tens of millions of dollars for no commercial food product to show. Remember the failed CSIRO GE field pea that caused an allergic reaction in mice, shelved last year at a huge cost to the taxpayer.

"We believe that the States should look closely at employing Maarten Stapper, who by all accounts was one of the most sought after presenters at field days and seminars because his research was cutting edge and provided real immediate benefits. We are most concerned that CSIRO is prepared to say they see no future in organic farming, yet are prepared to waste extraordinary amounts of money supporting genetic engineering that the general public overall does not want. Demand for organic food is growing at about 15% per year globally and estimates put the market at more than $50 billion AUD."

"We must remember that European farming has been disastrous for our ancient and fragile soils in Australia and one of the fundamental keys to soil fertility under our unique conditions, which are so different to North America and Europe, is the healthy maintenance of biological activity in the soil. Farmers are aware that healthy soil biology increases carbon which improves structure and capacity to hold water and ultimately leads to an improved soil which will yield more food of higher quality."

"It seems that CSIRO has conveniently ended their one small research program supporting biological and organic farming while at the same time ending the employment of a scientist who was privately critical of genetic engineering. The fact that he was very much admired and supported by the farming community really adds insult to injury with this decision." — Australian Food News

This makes the ol’ saying about the two sure things in life (death and taxes) take a new twist — if our taxes are paying for our own destruction.

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