The monster is shackled! / a history of GM activism in the UK (31/3/2004)

The irony behind item 1 is that this is the home territory of several of the key scientists involved in the GM farmscale trials who pushed so hard for GM commercialisation. Several were actively involved in the debates that led to the decision to be GM free.

Excerpt: Council leader Robert Ellis told the meeting, at County Hall: "We have evidence that 90 per cent of people in Hertfordshire oppose GMs.

The Guardian’s environmental journalist Paul Brown said: "The public has taken a vast objection to GM crops and if anything the feeling is getting stronger."

1.The monster is shackled
2.'If they plant them, we'll pull them up' - a history of GM activism in the UK

1.The monster is shackled
Welwyn & Hatfield Times, Hertfordshire - News

CAMPAIGNERS opposed to the growth of so-called ‘Frankenstein foods’ were victorious after the county council decided Hertfordshire should remain GM free.

A public debate attended by 50 concerned residents concluded that genetically modified crops should not be grown in the county wherever possible.

Council leader Robert Ellis told the meeting, at County Hall, Hertford: "We have evidence that 90 per cent of people in Hertfordshire oppose GMs.

"We were elected to represent the people of this county, they have put us where we are."

The informed debate, which took place last Tuesday, highlighted many of the major issues that affect the county specifically, including public opinion.

The Guardian’s environmental journalist Paul Brown said: "The public has taken a vast objection to GM crops and if anything the feeling is getting stronger.

"BSE and other food scares over the years have meant that the public has less and less trust in science."

Rothamsted Research, based in Harpenden, has conducted the largest GM study in the world, in Hertfordshire.

Bob Fiddaman's farm was used in the trials and he wants to see the newly-developed crops planted. He explained: "These crops are already out in the land. I as a farmer would welcome the technology."

Summing up the debate, scrutiny committee member Richard Roberts said: "The science here is irrelevant when there is little demand for this crop.

"The way forward is to say we value organic farming more than we do GM."

The committee made recommendations to strongly advise tenants on council land not to grow GM crops and not to allow school meals or other council services to contain GM ingredients.

Although the council cannot legally declare itself GM free it can apply to the EC to ban their use in Hertfordshire on a crop by crop basis as new crops come forward.

And it will be strongly advising private landowners not to grow GM crops.

The county council will also consider taking its recommendations to the East of England Assembly.

2.'If they plant them, we'll pull them up'
Mark Lynas

The history of GM activism in this country suggests the government may be about to ignite a protest movement comparable in size to that against the Iraq War

It's nearly three o'clock in the morning, somewhere in eastern England - probably Essex, but no one's quite sure. The vans have departed, and the only noise is a gentle swishing as a dozen or so black-clad figures move through the long grass. Even in the low light (and it's not far off complete darkness) there's an ominous glint of metal. It's a cloudy night, with no moon and no wind.

Someone whispers urgently. It seems the party has arrived. Tall rows of maize - taller than the activists themselves - stand like sentinels along the edge of a field. A few bottles of water and a backpack are lain carefully at the side of the field, and then the team gets to work.

`Thwack!' Each machete slash sounds unbearably loud in the stillness of the night. There's a farmhouse not far away, and nervous glances are shot towards the windows. The activists half expect to see a light flick on and a pyjama-clad farmer come rushing out with his shotgun. But nobody stirs.

`Thwack! Thwack!' The destruction is methodical and determined. The rows of maize, each plant sliced through halfway, fold like dominoes towards the ground. No one takes much pleasure in the work, but it's essential to finish it. For this is a genetically-modified crop, and in less than a month each maize plant will be sprouting tassels laden with pollen ready to catch the slightest gust of wind and drift for miles around into the countryside. To the participants, they are `trashing' the GM crop in the service of a higher purpose - preventing the wider contamination of food, nature and the environment as a whole. It's a defence that will later stand up in court. Suddenly there's a flash of light in a far corner of the field. Everyone stops working and silence descends. Was it a car? Or a torch? Hushed questions pass between the dark figures. The quiet lasts for several minutes, then an `all clear' is agreed. The thwacking begins again.

Suddenly, there are torches converging from several sides and people are running in all directions. Police radios crackle as dark figures pelt hither and thither in the darkness. Chaos ensues. With a copper just a few paces behind, a group of four activists find themselves bolting through the crop, tearing frantically through the straight rows of maize before throwing themselves on the ground in a desperate search for cover. Silence descends again.

`We know you're in there,' says an authoritative voice close by. Tinny voices echo through the police radios, and torch beams weave their way through the crop. As a group of four activists lie still, one woman fights the desperate urge to sneeze. A torch beam is coming nearer, accompanied by tramping feet. The police pause right next to the prostrate activists. The torch beam even catches the shoulder of one black, hooded figure. But then the footsteps move off again.

`Right, we'll have to fetch the dogs,' says another frustrated-sounding voice. It's no empty threat. Within minutes rapid panting is heard steadily approaching. This time there's no way the activists can escape, and they exchange terrified looks in the gloom of the maize stalks. But, miraculously, the dogs fail to find them.

Now a new danger has arisen. Daylight. Someone's digital watch shows that it's after five in the morning, and dawn is not far off. A rapid series of whispers leads to a decision to break for it, and stiff limbs are suddenly hurled into action as all four fugitives break cover and dash towards a nearby patch of woodland. They reach it unopposed, and scarper down the deserted country lanes to a nearby railway station. Still stricken with paranoia and adrenalin, they cannot quite believe it. They have escaped.

Elsewhere in the field, several activists are caught and arrested. But many months later, when their case eventually comes to court, the magistrates are unusually sympathetic - verging on supportive, in fact. GM foods are massively unpopular, and even law-abiding justices of the piece can accept the defence of property destruction in the service of a wider environmental cause. All are acquitted.

In the years to follow, the anti-GM movement will develop extraordinary breadth. Though the bedrock of the night-time direct action campaign will continue to be young activists - many of them former roads protesters - the wider movement will encompass everyone from the Women's Institute to local shopkeepers. A subsequent action in Dorset gives an indication of this unique diversity - one 50-person `decontamination' party includes an ex-genetics student, a local organic farmer, a councillor, a solicitor, a schoolgirl and a mum and grandmother team.

That night-time event described above took place back in 1999, two years after the campaign against GM crops kicked off in earnest. Since then, the direct action campaign against GM crops has succeeded - in tandem with a wider campaign ensuring that foods containing genetically-modified material stay off shop shelves - in frustrating the powerful biotech companies like Monsanto by securing a Europe-wide stalemate that still continues today.

For many people, it was an immense shock to discover that Monsanto's GM `Roundup Ready' soya was already in up to 60 per cent of their foodstuffs - without a single label to betray its presence. Rapidly dubbed `Frankenstein foods' by the popular press, GM products were a cause of concern for several reasons. Firstly, genetic engineering was a major departure from existing plant breeding practices. Monsanto's GM soya had genes from both a bacteria and a virus inserted into its DNA, and no one knew for sure what the long-term effects of this might be - either on human health or the environment.  

Biotechnology was also viewed with suspicion for another reason: it enabled giant corporations to make an ownership grab at entire sections of the food chain through exclusive patents issued on the new plant products. Any farmer planting GM soya had to pay royalties to Monsanto and was forbidden from continuing the age-old practice of seed saving. This raised the possibility of growers being reduced to little more than contractees for profiteering mega-corporations.

Moreover, the move towards GM seemed not only pointless (claims about `feeding the world' were as hollow as they were self-serving) but positively destructive environmentally. Monsanto's new soya got its name from the fact that it was engineered to be resistant to the firm's broad-spectrum herbicide Roundup. This means that it will survive while all other plantlife in fields treated by the herbicide will die. Thus, the industrial monoculture of modern planting methods would be reinforced, and the few remaining food sources for countryside wildlife would be killed. This would only accelerate the precipitous decline of birds and biodiversity - first signalled by Rachel Carson in her book Silent Spring, which is a long-term feature of rural life in both Europe and the US.

But perhaps most emotive of all was the knowledge that genetic pollution, once released into the environment and incorporated into the DNA of other living things, could never be reversed. Living organisms, uniquely, can self-replicate and pass on altered genes to their offspring or even - via viral transmission - other species. `Superweeds' or some undreamt of mutations might develop, sparking terrifying and unanticipated side effects, which might prove impossible to eradicate. Once the crops were planted on a wide scale, there would be no going back.

One of the most enduring centres of British opposition to GM has been the small Devon town of Totnes. Not far outside Totnes is Riverford Farm, one of the country's largest and most successful organic farms. In April 1998 local people were appalled to discover that the Cambridge-based research centre the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) was running a test site of genetically-engineered maize a mere 200 yards from the edge of Riverford. There was a clear danger, reluctantly outlined to the organic certification body the Soil Association by Riverford's owner Guy Watson, that the farm would lose organic status for its sweetcorn because of the threat of cross-pollination.

Experience from Canada shows that this concern was not an idle one. Organic canola (oilseed rape) growers in the south-central Canadian province Saskatchewan have found it virtually impossible to grow uncontaminated crops due to massive pollen transfer from widely-planted GM canola. Faced with the loss of entire markets, they launched a class action lawsuit against the biotech companies Monsanto and Aventis (now Bayer CropScience) in 2001, which has still not been settled.

But in Totnes, resorting to the courts proved pointless. Farmers, it seemed, had no rights when it came to contamination. Six hundred people marched to the field in protest, and 20 of them - convinced that the only way they could protect the organic crop was direct action - began to uproot the GM crop. Two women were arrested, but charges were later dropped amid scenes of jubilation outside Plymouth Crown Court. In the meantime, 3,000 local people signed a statement saying that they felt the action to remove the maize was in the public interest.

If the genie of GM pollution was now out of the bottle, so was the campaign to stop it.

One of the campaigners' favourite tactics was to go to the supermarket, fill a shopping trolley with food products, take it to the till and then refuse to pay for any of it until the store manager gave a guarantee that all the items were GM-free. Other activists stuck `biohazard' labels on everything from biscuits to vegetarian sausages, all of which could contain GM soya or its derivatives. (Doing this earned me a lifetime ban from Marks and Spencer, which I still observe religiously.)

The supermarkets caved in one by one, and by 1999 most big retailers had agreed to drop GM products from their own brands. Campaigners quickly moved on, pointing out that most GM imports went into animal feeds, and demanding that milk, eggs and meat also be guaranteed GM-free. Again, retailers - led by the Co-op - reluctantly began to accede.

Night-time actions, particularly ones targeted at NIAB National Seed Listing trials of GM crops, also intensified; the aim was to head off the threat of full commercialisation by preventing biotech companies meeting their regulatory obligations. Night after night small groups of activists armed with cutting tools, maps and grid references (helpfully supplied by government websites) would descend on fields throughout the UK to remove crops.

Genetically-modified oilseed rape, maize and sugar beet trials were all targeted. In 2000 19 test sites were completely `decontaminated', while 13 farm-scale evaluations (much bigger government-run tests, set up to examine the environmental effects of GM crops) were substantially damaged.

Not all farm-scale trials went ahead. From 2000 to 2001 seven farmers pulled out of the scheme after rowdy public meetings and parish referenda showed overwhelming public opposition. Even Aventis was deterred by the threat of major protests from planting GM maize a mere three kilometres from the Henry Doubleday Research Association's organic gardens at Ryton in Warwickshire. Meanwhile, the Welsh Assembly declared the whole of Wales a GM-free zone, and many English councils (responding to a Friends of the Earth-led campaign) have since acted similarly.

Not all actions took place covertly or at night. The Manchester-based campaign Genetix Snowball made a point of taking action openly and accountably, even informing police of their intentions beforehand.

Predictably enough, several participants quickly ended up in court, where they were handed down injunctions instructing them to keep away from test sites. But the actions went on, often with the GM crop being bagged up and delivered to those responsible - be they corporate executives or government ministers. A July 2002 protest resulted in a huge pile of bags containing `decontaminated' GM crops from 17 test sites being dumped on the front steps of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Crucially, not a single activist has so far spent a day in prison as a result of being found guilty of pulling up GM crops (although some time, inevitably, has been done in police cells or on remand). In most cases charges have been dropped either before or during trials. The few cases that have been seen through to the end have all resulted in acquittals, including those of 27 Greenpeace activists who cut down a crop in Norfolk in 2000.

In terms of removing the threat of test sites, direct action of all forms has been strikingly successful. At the time of writing there are no test sites at all left in any part of the UK. Last year eight out of the 10 National Seed Listing trial sites were destroyed or failed, thus further frustrating the certification process for GM seeds. After failing to persuade the government to keep the locations of test sites secret, Bayer CropScience - the only company still conducting trials in the UK - pulled out altogether in October 2003. The firm was explicit about the reason for its decision. A Bayer spokesperson told The Observer: `It is disappointing the criminal activities of a small minority of people have prevented information on GM crop varieties being generated.'

The biotech corporations also found themselves targeted directly. One of the earliest to suffer was Monsanto, which had its UK head offices in High Wycombe invaded by cape-sporting protesters from the Superheroes Against Genetics in 1997. It was not alone. AgrEvo and its successor companies Aventis and Bayer CropScience and the animal feeds producer BOCM Pauls were also hit.

This direct action campaign, together with massive public opposition throughout Europe, brought the biotech juggernaut to a shuddering halt. The EU maintained its own blockade throughout, observing a five-year de facto moratorium on new genetically-modified crop approvals. This raised the ire of the US, which launched a World Trade Organisation complaint last year, raising the prospect of European consumers being forced to swallow GM products.

Although the EU has promised to scrap the moratorium and restart the approvals process for GM crops, it seems to be in no particular hurry to do so. Proponents of GM received another major setback when Bayer's oilseed rape was refused approval by Belgian ministers on environmental grounds. Ironically, given the opposition campaigners showed to them when they were made public, the results from Britain's farm-scale evaluations proved crucial to the Belgian decision. The British evaluations supported the argument that herbicide-tolerant GM oilseed rape and sugar beet did significant damage to farmland wildlife and should not be approved commercially.

Perhaps most crucially of all in an environment where free-market economics rule, GMOs are still without a market in Europe - the world's second-largest economy. Although Bayer is pushing ahead with the approvals process regardless, getting the nod from the regulators may turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory. New EU regulations due to come into force this month will enforce strict traceability of GM foods, and make the labelling of processed food and animal feed containing GMOs or their derivatives mandatory. While the European Commission did give permission in February for a new type of GM maize to be imported into Europe for direct human consumption, the prospect of GM-labelled sweetcorn flying off the shelves seems remote.

But while stalemate has been reached in Europe, the wider battle goes on. The global acreage given over to genetically-modified crops is still increasing - particularly in the US, where a third of the corn crop and three quarters of the soya crop is currently GM. Opposition to GM soya in Brazil seems to be crumbling, and China is now a major biotech producer, as are Argentina and Canada.

It's no exaggeration to say, however, that the movement against genetic engineering has been one of the most successful - if not the most successful - environmental campaigns of all time. So will its success endure, or will it be just a temporary setback for the biotech industry? As Mao Zedong famously replied when asked about the impact of the French Revolution: `It's too early to tell.'

In the UK, meanwhile, the struggle continues. With a government announcement on the commercialisation of GM crops expected imminently, 2,500 people have now signed the `Green Gloves' pledge to either peacefully pull up any such crops or to support those doing so. The campaigners hope that the pledge will deter the government and farmers from pushing ahead with GM. It's easy to sign up to the campaign on the web, and if enough people make the pledge the UK might stay GM-free for the foreseeable future.

Mark Lynas's new book High Tide: news from a warming world is published by Flamingo  

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