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Issue #1546      9 May 2012


Erna Bennett (1925 – 2012)

It is with sadness that we announce the death of Erna Bennett, who died in January this year, aged 86. Erna was active in our party in the 1990s, during her stay in Australia.

Erna Bennett receives the Meyer Medal.

Comrades will remember Erna as passionate, knowledgeable and incisive, someone who made a substantial contribution to our party’s work. Erna’s hatred of capitalism, with its exploitation of people and nature, was pervasive.

Erna was born in Derry, Ireland and grew up in Belfast. Her father was a civil servant. During the Second World War she served in the Middle East and Greece, in the intelligence service and in other roles. This experience added to her conviction that socialism was the system for the future.

Erna Bennett was one of the pioneers of plant genetic resources conservation. In her early postgraduate years she taught in England, and was engaged in cytogenetic research there and in Ireland for a number of years.

Working at the Scottish Plant Breeding Station with JW Gregor in the mid-1960s, she returned to her early interest in micro-evolution and the origins of genetic diversity, and began what was then to become a long series of expeditions collecting genetic diversity of mainly forage and cereal crops. At this time she wrote her 1964 paper warning of the need to conserve and protect genetic resources, Plant Introduction and Genetic Conservation: Genecological aspects of an urgent world problem, which was widely read and translated into a number of languages, as was her other paper Historical Perspectives in Genecology. Both papers are “full of valuable insights which can still guide us today”, remarked one of her colleagues.

Erna joined the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in 1967, where she succeeded in mobilising the FAO to become involved directly in collecting the genetic resources of crop plants in many countries, while there was still time. She was responsible for coordinating national and international exploration and genetic conservation programs in the countries of the Mediterranean Basin and Southwest and Central Asia as a far as Afghanistan, and travelled very widely in the course of her work.

She also initiated the first world survey of crop germplasm collections, which yielded invaluable information that has been drawn on widely over the years. At this time she co-authored and edited the first classic book on genetic resources with another early campaigner, Sir Otto Frankel. Published in 1970, Genetic Resources in Plants helped to convince the 1972 Stockholm Conference on The Human Environment (a predecessor of the 1992 Earth Summit) to call for the first global program on the conservation of crop genetic resources.

Her work on the conservation of plant genetic resources in the 1960s and 1970s always carried with it an enduring commitment to the farmers who maintained and used those resources. The FAO acknowledged her contribution with the award of the Meyer Memorial Medal in 1971.

While at FAO, Erna became increasingly concerned that the immense efforts to collect and conserve the world’s precious and irreplaceable germplasm in which she was involved stood in grave danger of being hijacked by powerful private interests. She observed the initial moves towards first covert, then overt and massive privatisation of genetic resources and the increasingly dominant role of corporations determined to usurp control of immensely valuable agricultural germplasm.

Having battled within the FAO for many years to keep corporations out of the UN system, she was eventually forced to resign from the UN in 1982. To her credit, she stayed active on these and other issues, lecturing, writing and advising, but outside official circles.

Erna Bennett was not alone in the first turbulent years of campaigning for programs on genetic erosion. She always remembered with great warmth and affection many of her early fellow pioneers. As Pat Mooney and Cary Fowler highlight in their book Shattering (University of Arizona Press, 1990), “ was the colourful, outspoken Ulster-born Irish revolutionary who first coined the phrase ‘genetic conservation’ and brought substance and strategy to the term for the world community.”

For most of her life, Erna was a member of a communist party, be it in Ireland, Italy, Greece, Australia, wherever she lived. She spoke and wrote a number of languages, including Irish Gaelic, English, Italian and Greek.

While here, she joined the Socialist Party of Australia (now the Communist Party of Australia) and was elected a Central Committee member. She was also on the Editorial Board of the Australian Marxist Review. She was a prolific writer, contributing regularly to The Guardian and the AMR.

Erna wrote a history of modern-day Ireland especially since the 1916 Easter uprising. It was entitled Class Struggle and National Liberation – Counterrevolution in Ireland and was published in November 1993 as a special issue of the AMR. (Available online at

In October 1994 Erna presented a seminal report to the SPA Central Committee. The environmental crisis: past the point of no return, sketching the historical phases of the environmental crisis, analysing global warming, toxic waste, radiation, ozone depletion and outlining what must be done. This laid the foundation for the Party’s ongoing commitment to environmental issues and subsequent important CPA publications in this field.

She had a towering intellect which she directed towards every political issue that arose, contributing significantly to the Party’s debates and policy making. She was incisive, witty and passionate in discussion and had a ferocious temper at times. She had wide experiences from many countries, using them to illuminate her arguments and also to amuse and entertain guests at her Blue Mountains home.

She was a delightful host, together with life long companion Pru whose commonsense and warmth contributed so much to their hospitality. Evenings and weekends were crammed with political debate, discussions about poetry, food, literature and much more. Their home was always open to comrades and friends.

Erna had a keen interest in and love of poetry, its translation and production. One special delight was sitting on her balcony on cool Blue Mountains evenings, listening to her read aloud some of her favourites. She wrote many poems herself, expressing her love of humanity, her hatred of injustice and her hopes for a better world.

Party members and friends were saddened when Erna and Pru decided to move to Italy and were deeply grieved by the news of her death. The working class movement has lost a singular, significant fighter and a wonderful personality. She is and will be sorely missed but her writing and her memory will live on.

Acknowledgements to Peter M Jackson (in The Guardian, Britain) and Platform for Agrobiodiversity Research for material used in this tribute.  

Next article – Culture & Life – Let them eat pink slime

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