Australia: Whistleblower Alleges CSIRO Pro-Alcohol Research
The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) – Australia’s national science agency – is accused of using public money to subsidize the alcohol industry which has ‘devastating effects on global health’, according to allegations made by Dr. Saul Newman, a former CSIRO research fellow.
Dr. Newman wrote in an opinion piece for The Lancet, that field trials and breeding programs delivered new varieties of hops, vines, cider apples and malting barleys on a national scale in government labs with public money. However, Newman says considering the costs of alcohol-related harm, there was little benefit to this type of research.
While at CSIRO, Dr. Newman has previously worked in research on plant genomics and science to improve grain varieties. He alleged a genuine and effective public health program to make gluten-free cereal had been entirely derailed by management, who sold out gluten-free barley to a German beer company. This resulted in a project that made a gluten-free barley used for beer winning the top CSIRO award in 2016.
I was deeply disturbed to find that research aimed at developing new and better alcohol varieties, and generating more alcohol, received enormous support within CSIRO.
Coming from a medical science institute it was shocking to see how pro-alcohol research received such a grand endorsement, and taxpayer money, from a government body.
I was even more disturbed to find that this was not considered new or even questionable behaviour,” said Dr. Saul Newman per The Guardian.
Profit over health
Dr. Newman adds that government scientists receive funding routinely to attend alcohol industry funded conferences under the guise of barley research. They enjoy free alcohol and other perks given by Big Alcohol and its encouraged by the government who funds their travel from public money.
Accordingly, CSIRO senior staff developed mechanical grape harvesters. These devices catapulted cheap Australian wine into global markets, and single-handedly made $2-a-bottle wine and ‘goon sacks’ a reality. Despite internal opposition these scientists spent public funds on projects that allowed the invention of box wine, which has killed innumerable people, with shocking repercussions for vulnerable communities.
CSIRO is denying these accusations, and the Brewers Association claims they do not have links with or provide incentives to CSIRO researchers. However, Guardian Australia has seen emails from Newman CSIRO’s Consultative Committee, asking “how to justify our research supporting the alcohol industry to the public”.
Big Alcohol links with the government: a threat to public health
This is not the only time CSIRO has been called to step away from pro-alcohol research. Michael Thorn, chief executive of the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (Fare), was concerned by a 5-year $37m co-investment agreement signed between Wine Australia and CSIRO in 2017. Among such things as research on wine grape quality the funding would also be used to produce wines with unique flavours from grape varieties bred specifically for Australian conditions. CSIRO is now spending $18 million of public money to help Wine Australia generate more alcohol.
It is flawed policy execution to have the CSIRO and Wine Australia collaborating to produce more alcohol, while other government departments are spending billions of dollars trying to contain the downstream harm caused by this research,” said Michael Thorn as per the FARE website.
Costs incurred due to alcohol far outweigh any benefit as Dr. Newman said to FARE. Alcohol kills one out of every 22 Australians. Alcohol harm costs each Australian between $500-$2000 a year through ordinary bills, hospital bills, injuries, time off work etc. These costs that far outweigh any benefits from tourism or trade.
Julia Stafford, a research fellow with the alcohol programs team at the Public Health Advocacy Institute of Western Australia, points out with less than 2% of the health budget being spent on prevention, other areas of government spending should not undermine efforts to reduce alcohol problems in the community.
There are countless ways that government funding could make a real difference in preventing alcohol harms, including via public education campaigns about alcohol harms such as cancer, helping sport to phase out alcohol sponsorship, and funding for treatment services.
Surely government research funds would be better spent in areas that support a healthier community, rather than supporting the alcohol industry,” Julia Stafford said per The Guardian.