CSIRO axes outspoken expert

 20 March 2007

CSIRO axes outspoken expert
Rosslyn Beeby  

One of Australia's top organic farming experts, Dr Maarten Stapper, has been dumped by the CSIRO, amid allegations he was bullied by executive management for criticising genetically modified crops.

The chief of CSIRO's Plant Industry division, Dr Jeremy Burdon, confirmed Dr Stapper had recently filed complaints alleging instances of bullying and harassment but these had been " appropriately dealt with and dismissed". Dr Stapper is researching carbon loss in soils, restoring soil fertility by improving soil microbiology and use of biological farming methods to improve wheat yields in south-western NSW. He has been retrenched from CSIRO Plant Industry in Canberra and will leave at the end of the month. CSIRO sources say Dr Stapper, a farming systems agronomist and popular public speaker on soil biology and health, was "carpeted" by management after he was overheard explaining criticisms of some aspects of GM crops while mingling with audience members after a public forum. They claim he received an official warning after the incident, but had argued he was entitled to express his views as a private citizen as long as he made the clear distinction they were his opinions and not those of the organisation. Dr Burdon said he was unaware of any ill-treatment or antagonism towards Dr Stapper, and "as far as I'm aware he was not censured for commenting on GM during the 3 1/2 years I have been chief of plant industry". In emails obtained by The Canberra Times, Dr Stapper wrote to a colleague that he had been "isolated" by CSIRO management and there was no support for his area of research. "The doctrine goes that genes will solve all the problems and CSIRO gets patents and payments from corporations etc through so-called sound science," he wrote. "It's difficult for me to work in the Commercial Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. However, I persist as I am working for the taxpayer and I have a lot of support outside." Dr Stapper worked as an agronomist in Canada, the US and Iraq before joining CSIRO as a principal research scientist. He developed new irrigation scheduling programs and methods of calculating nitrogen in the soil before switching his focus to soil biology and health. In a brief biographical statement on a conference website, Dr Stapper says working in irrigated wheat paddocks made him aware " most problems start with the soil, and thus solutions should commence there". He argued that the use of "fertilisers, pesticides and other synthetic chemicals to address problems in agricultural production has been leading to poor soil health and resistance in insects, diseases and weeds". Dr Burdon said CSIRO had a large national team working on sustainable agriculture issues such as integrated farm management systems but Dr Stapper's research had been " more at the organic end". He confirmed that Dr Stapper was the only CSIRO scientist working on organic and biological farming systems and the research program would end when he left. Asked about further research on increasing carbon uptake of soils, Dr Burdon replied, "We won't be doing any more of that." He said CSIRO did not consider biological and organic farming to be "a long-term viable strategy" and Dr Stapper's research was "not an area the division feels it can support any more". Opposition primary industries spokesman Senator Kerry O'Brien said Australia's farmers could not afford to lose such valuable scientific expertise and dumping Dr Stapper's research showed "particularly poor planning" by CSIRO. Australian Democrats leader Senator Lyn Allison described Dr Stapper's retrenchment as "an extraordinary loss of expertise on a critical greenhouse issue". Senator Allison raised questions about CSIRO's continuing support for Dr Stapper's research at last month's Senate Estimates committee hearing, but was told by CSIRO representatives that they were unaware of any research being conducted on organic or biological farming systems within the organisation.

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