Distinguishing Fact from Fiction
April 20, 2005
The Minister for Agriculture, Warren Truss, at a recent meeting of the Rural Press Club in Victoria, made a strong plea for agricultural industries to take a more proactive role in presenting the facts of agricultural production to the urban communities of Australia. His speech ranged across a host of issues, including water, animal welfare, land clearing, land care and genetically modified crops. In particular he urged the media to present a more balanced view.
We live in a modern age where the Internet is rapidly becoming the source of all knowledge, particularly for the young. Why not! It is so convenient. But a recent episode has demonstrated just how careful one needs to be when searching for information using this technology.
Greenpeace Australia distributes a regular Newsletter intended to provide relevant news and information from around the world relating to Genetic Engineering in agriculture and food. Greenpeace's position on GMO's is very public and clearly quite negative. The following article was reproduced in the August 2004 edition of this newsletter. It may have been a joke, but then again maybe not. There was certainly no indication that this was the case.
On the one hand, this project raises ethical questions comparable to those in any experiment involving genetically modified animals. Gene Thompson, a spokesman for the group "Friends of the Earth," which has long campaigned against genetically modified food, said "Genetically modifying animals so they become factories raises serious ethical questions. Where will this stop? Will the sheep be growing entire light bulbs next? What kind of a life would that be, to walk around growing glass bulbs on your back?" On the other hand, widespread production of the Edison sheep could radically transform the tungsten production business, reducing pollutants by millions of tons annually and preventing mining-related health problems for thousands of people, not to mention saving an estimated $150 million in costs. "Man, this is a real head-scratcher," said Greenpeace activist Robert Pendrake. "I must admit that the elimination of an entire mining industry is a very attractive prospect. And - not that I'm for genetically modified animals - but if they could create sheep that grow wool containing coal, or other products, they could really make a difference. Why couldn't they have made it simpler for us by making the sheep grow guns or something? I could take a position on that."
Further complicating the matter, however, is the fact that incandescent light bulbs are not as energy-efficient as fluorescent equivalents. "Compact fluorescent bulbs use a quarter the energy of regular bulbs," said Sylvia Gerstan of the group Energy Responsibility Now. "We've been working for years to convince consumers to spend a little more up front on fluorescents. I think making regular bulbs cheaper like this is utterly irresponsible. Why can't they make the sheep grow fluorescent tubes instead?" And still more complicated is the potential impact on workers currently employed in the tungsten production business. "I can tell you this," said John Barker of the United Mine Workers of America. "Those sheep put even one miner out of a job, we'll make mutton pie out of 'em."
The first research of its type in Australia has concluded that genetically modified sheep are capable of growing specialised wool, which can serve as light bulb filaments. However, the findings have provoked a furious muddle among activists who can't decide on what grounds, if any, to condemn the project.
The Commonwealth Scientific & Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) conducted a five-year experiment in which they determined that Merino sheep with a particular genetic modification could, when fed the right diet, produce wool with a high enough tungsten content to function as the filament in an incandescent light bulb. In a typical 60-watt bulb, the tungsten filament is about 6.5 feet (2 meters) long but only one- hundredth of an inch thick.
Tungsten is a metal not normally found in wool. "The potential benefits and limitations of this technology need to be properly evaluated, taking into account scientific data and community concerns," said project leader Norm Adams at a press conference. "However, it is our hope that these animals, which we have dubbed "Edison Sheep", may do mankind a service by providing an environmentally safe and cheap alternative to traditional tungsten production methods."
With such a maelstrom of conflicting public opinion making it difficult to gauge public reaction to the news, the White House declined to comment on the Edison sheep. "Are you kidding?" said White House Spokesman Scott McClellan. "Ask me an easier one, like something about war crimes or the economy or something."
Note: Norm Adams (CSIRO), Gene Thompson (Friends of the Earth) and Scott McClellan (Whitehouse Press Secretary) are real people. We cannot vouch for Robert Pendrake (Greenpeace) or Sylvia Gerstan (Energy Responsibility Now).
A prominent member of the media sent your editor this article. He was astounded by the content and asked if it had any foundation in fact. The newsletter did not cite a source for the article and presumably was widely distributed to the media.
A carefully structured Google Search about the article will bring up some interesting information.
The story was identical word for word to one posted on a site maintained by the Federation of Animal Science Societies (FASS), based in the USA (http://www.animalbiotechnology.org), on 29th July, 2004. The American Dairy Science Association (ADSA), the American Society of Animal Science (ASAS), and the Poultry Science Association (PSA) formed FASS to "support the common interest and collective good of each society in ways that will advance animal science and animal agriculture and preserve each society's identity and autonomy." Its homepage (http://www.fass.org) provides information on FASS, it's history, aims and activities as well as links to the homepages of the three component societies and their respective newsletters and journals.
However, the original source of this article is clearly the Watley Review (http://watleyreview.com) which posted it on its website on the 27th July. FASS obviously picked up the article from there or from another source and posted it on its website, without any acknowledgement of the source.
There is a disclaimer on the Watley Review site, which says it all (see box).
"The Watley Review is dedicated to the production of articles completely without journalistic merit or factual basis, as this would entail leaving our chairs or actually working. Names, places and events are generally fictitious, except for public figures about which we may have heard something down at the pub. All contents are intended as parody and should be construed as such. We have no agenda other than the depletion of Uncle Zeke's whaling trust fund and the dutiful appreciation of smooth, smooth liquor. The Review is updated every Tuesday, when the hangovers wear off."
The Food Safety Network (www.foodsafetynetwork.ca) may in fact have originally distributed this material to Greenpeace. The Food Safety Network at the University of Guelph in Canada provides research, commentary, policy evaluation and public information on food safety issues from farm-to-fork. It does this via a series of email "newsletters" focusing on key areas. In the archives of one of these, Animal Net, the Watley article is also posted, dated 28th July 2004, its source correctly attributed and the article clearly marked as satire:
In a world where the Internet is routinely used as a source of information this example illustrates that a touch of scepticism, some intelligent analysis and validation, is always required. Enjoy (this is not an April Fools Day article)!
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