Former CSIRO researcher accuses science agency of pro-alcohol research

Melissa Davey

A former research fellow with Australia’s national science agency, the CSIRO, has accused the organisation of pro-alcohol research and of ignoring “the contradiction of health and viticulture departments sharing the public purse”.

In a comment piece published in the medical journal The Lancet, Dr Saul Newman wrote 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. But given the cost of alcohol-related harms, there was little benefit to this research, he argued.

“The global community remains unaware that through these alcohol research programmes funded by the government, taxpayer money is used to directly subsidise an industry with devastating effects on global health,” he wrote.

Newman, who is now a researcher with the Australian National University’s College of Science, went further in comments provided to Guardian Australia. He said he spent four years working as a postdoctoral fellow at the CSIRO in plant genomics and research to improve grain varieties.

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“In 2016, the top CSIRO award was granted to a project that made a gluten-free beer,” he said. “This apparent scientific triumph had, ironically, been spun out of a genuine and effective public health program to make gluten-free cereal: an otherwise admirable goal that had been entirely derailed by management, who sold out gluten-free barley to a German beer company.

“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.”

He added that government scientists routinely attended conferences funded by brewing companies under the guise of barley research, with free alcohol and other perks supplied by those companies.

“This is actively encouraged, with travel paid by Australian taxes,” he said. “Senior members of staff personally developed mechanical grape harvesters: devices that catapulted cheap Australian wine into global markets, and single-handedly made $2-a-bottle wine and ‘goon sacks’ a reality. In the face of internal opposition, these scientists spent public funds on projects that allowed the invention of box wine, an invention that has killed innumerable people, with shocking repercussions for vulnerable communities.”

CSIRO works with Australian agricultural industries. ‘Our plant breeding expertise is highly valued ... and is used to develop superior performing and locally adapted varieties of commodities ... including wheat, canola, citrus, table and wine grapes, and barley.’

CSIRO works with Australian agricultural industries. ‘Our plant breeding expertise is highly valued ... and is used to develop superior performing and locally adapted varieties of commodities ... including wheat, canola, citrus, table and wine grapes, and barley.’ Photograph: valentinrussanov/Getty Images

On Wednesday, data was released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare that one-in-166 people in Australia aged 10 and over received specialist treatment for alcohol and other drug use in 2017–18. Alcohol causes nearly 6,000 Australian deaths a year, with alcohol-related cancer responsible for one-in-three of those deaths.

CSIRO corporate affairs manager Huw Morgan said the Lancet piece did not reflect the full picture.

“He [Dr Newman] draws a long bow to say ‘Because of government support, Australia skyrocketed from being responsible for less than 1% of global production to becoming the fifth largest global wine producer’. It was more than just government support which led to the growth,” Morgan said.

“As for [his comments that] ‘the economic benefit of government pro-alcohol research, or the alcohol industry in general, is almost non-existent,’ he cites only taxes as a benefit.”

Morgan described Newman’s comments as “a personal campaign by Dr Newman who is using his position at ANU to promote it”. He said CSIRO never won an award for gluten-free beer, but gluten-free barley, and said comments that CSIRO scientists attended alcohol industry events and contributed to the availability of cheap box wine “seem to be a string of claims and assumptions lacking supporting evidence”.

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“CSIRO works with a range of Australian agricultural industries,” he said. “Our plant breeding expertise is highly valued by these industries and is used to develop superior performing and locally adapted varieties of commodities grown by Australian farmers, including wheat, canola, citrus, table and wine grapes, and barley.”

The chief executive of the Brewers Association Brett Heffernan said domestically-brewed beer generated more than $16.5bn a year in economic activity, around 1% of GDP, and provided full-time jobs to more than 100,000 Australians.

“In tax terms, beer reaped the Australian government over $3.6bn in 2017-18 alone,” Heffernan said.

He added that the Brewers Association had no relationship with the CSIRO.

“We do not offer or provide scientists with free gifts or incentives.”

But Newman said CSIRO actively pitched to beer companies and conducted market research to aid the rollout of an alcohol product. Guardian Australia has seen emails from Newman CSIRO’s Consultative Committee, asking “how to justify our research supporting the alcohol industry to the public”.

“I have personally received emails strongly endorsing attendance at such conferences, as have virtually all staff in the CSIRO agriculture and food division,” Newman said. “Again, these encouragements are hardly hidden.”

Newman is not alone in calling for CSIRO to step back from the alcohol industry. Michael Thorn is the chief executive of the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (Fare), and said he was concerned by a 5-year $37m co-investment agreement signed between Wine Australia and CSIRO in 2017. While the funding, spread over four years, will be used to research wine grape quality, climate adaptation and disease resistance, it is also being used to produce wines with unique flavours from grape varieties bred specifically for Australian conditions.

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“Newman’s published criticisms of CSIRO having a pro-alcohol research and development agenda paid for by Australian taxpayers is of genuine concern to Fare, as it should be to all Australians,” Thorn said. “CSIRO’s dismissive attitude does not bode well for the country’s premier scientific institution.”

Julia Stafford, a research fellow with the alcohol programs team at the Public Health Advocacy Institute of WA, said many people would be concerned to learn of the extent of some of the partnerships and relationships between the alcohol industry and governments.

With less than 2% of the health budget being spent on prevention, she said other areas of government spending should not undermine efforts to reduce alcohol problems in the community.

“The major players of the alcohol industry are very well resourced already, without taxpayer or government support,” Stafford said.

“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.”

Wine Australia did not directly respond to questions about whether it gave gifts or incentives to CSIRO scientists.

“CSIRO is a valued research partner and we work together to ensure the sustainability of the Australian grape and wine sector,” a spokeswoman said.