An article from Do or Die Issue 10. In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 125-132.
"I don't want to see any GM crops grown in the West Country. If this happens, me, other farmers, and campaigners will destroy the crops... We all have to take action before it's too late. It's vital we pull up and destroy GM trial plots. United we will win, divided we will lose."
- An organic farmer, from Bideford in North Devon.
In the last few years Britain has seen an effective campaign of sabotage against Genetically Modified (GM) crops. Backed by widespread public support, the saboteurs have succeeded in massively holding up the introduction of GM crops and GM food into Britain.
Back in 1996, a handful of multinational companies planned to flood the UK with GM crops. They didn't expect any opposition and for a time it looked like they might succeed: unlabelled GM soya and maize products were all over supermarket shelves, GM crop trials were increasing exponentially and commercial growing of GM crops looked to be a foregone conclusion.
However, by 1998, it became clear that things weren't going well for the biotech industry. Starting in 1997, huge amounts of sabotage targeted the scientific trials that the industry needed to gain legal approval for their crops. Massive public opposition to GM crops forced a panicking government and biotech industry to cook up something to make it look like they were listening to what people were saying. The result was the Farm Scale Trials (FSTs) and a four-year voluntary agreement between the government and industry to hold off commercialisation of GM crops until the trials were finished.
The FSTs are very large test sites - some up to 50 acres - that were supposedly designed to conclusively evaluate the impact of GM crops on farmland ecosystems. In reality they've been a half-arsed and scientifically flawed attempt by the government and GM industry to fool the public that they really take concerns about GM crops seriously. Their bogus nature became clear when saboteurs escalated their tactics to destroy whole entire fields of GM crops rather than the small plots that had previously been the case. Large numbers of the FSTs were trashed, but the scientists kept moving the goalposts to prevent their experiments being invalidated by the sabotage, declaring that they only needed a percentage of the crop for the experiments to still be valid.
In the last four years the industry has been on the back foot. GM products have to a large extent been eliminated from British food, there is still no commercial growing of GM crops in Britain and the Farm Scale Trials got 'Farm Scale' trashings. But now our four years are up and the fight against GM crops could dramatically change.
The destruction of GM crops in Britain has continued unabated over the last year. With scythes, sickles, pallet wood, castles and whatever comes to hand, the saboteurs have got the job done. Protesters who destroyed GM oil seed rape at Hedley Hall, near Tadcaster, owned by Leeds University expressed the desires of many when they said: "This crop of GM oil seed rape is now 100 per cent destroyed - completely destroyed. Probably every single plant has been either uprooted or broken."
The majority of FST trials are now completed; only the remaining handful of the final winter oil seed rape sites (16 in England and 2 in Scotland) were planted in the Autumn of 2002, due for harvesting in 2003. There have also been ongoing National Seed Listing (NSL - the final stage before legal approval) trials for winter oilseed rape. There are also much smaller amounts of GM crops planted as part of Research and Development work by scientists.
In the 2002-2003 season so far (as of June 2003), saboteurs have trashed 17% of the Farm Scale crops and 50% of NSL trials. In 2001-2002 the figures were 17% for the Farm Scales and 66% for the NSLs. So the proportion of the crops that are getting trashed is holding pretty steady, but in the last year this represents a much smaller number of sites because there are simply less test sites as the FST programme winds down.
The much higher percentage of the NSLs that have been getting trashed is probably due to the fact that they are physically easier to hit - being far smaller and less daunting than facing 50 acres of oil seed rape armed only with a broom handle. Also, there has been a growing awareness that the FSTs are primarily a PR stunt, and that trashing them doesn't affect the industry that directly.
Crops planted for research and development work by academics or scientists working for corporations are usually in even smaller plots than the NSLs but are often much harder to access, being indoors or at least in the close vicinity of a research centre. Trashing the research into the next generation of GM crops strikes an important blow against the industry, but understandably, these sites are more heavily protected. For example, Syngenta's Jeallot's Hill research station is protected by barbed wire, infra-red cameras and mobile patrols. However, this still didn't stop 75% of their GM potato crop getting trashed in 2001.
In Norfolk in June 2002 activists managed to attack another of these research centres, causing thousands of pounds worth of damage at the John Innes centre near Norwich. The activists destroyed a small GM barley crop at this notorious pro-GM research centre.
Saboteurs took another step up in blatantness in July 2002. Daylight rallies at test sites which end in crop-trashing have continued over the last year. But in July 2002, activists upped the stakes in being obvious as over 200 people from all over the country descended on DEFRA (the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) bearing gifts of unwanted, uprooted GM crops and seeds. Bags of GM oil seed rape, maize and sugar beet were left at DEFRA from Farm Scale trials in Cheshire, Shropshire, Dorset, Warwickshire, Oxfordshire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, North Yorkshire, Fife and Hertfordshire. The crowd, some in fancy dress and costume, pushed wheelbarrows containing crops illegally removed from almost every field trial in the country. Five activists said they spent five hours uprooting the crop at Preston Wynne and another five hours driving to London. An organic farmer from Munlochy, Scotland who had a test site just five miles from his home, which threatened the integrity of his crops, expressed his feelings: "Sod off. We don't want it in Scotland".
This has been one of the great advantages of the level of public opposition to GM crops in Britain - a corresponding level of public support for sabotage. And this has meant that the state has not been able to impose very severe sentences for GM crop pulling, making the risks of taking such action relatively low. This is turn has meant that a much wider spectrum of people than you might expect have been willing to engage in sabotage.
One of the last Midlands GM Farm Scale trials was finally finished off on May 3, 2003 in an action claimed by the Earth Liberation Front (ELF). A total of six audacious raids were made to the same site over a period of months. The ELF stated: "We decided that we needed plenty of time to remove as much of the crop as possible. We first entered the field on a frosty December night and have since returned five times, decontaminating a different part of the field on each visit. As the crop grew, we changed our technique, using hoes when the plants were small and scythes when they became waist high. We even perfected our own tool using pallet wood." On their last visit, the saboteurs even stayed until daybreak so that they could photograph the results of their work (see above).
Meanwhile, the Welsh and the Scots have been leading the way in keeping entire countries GM-free. In July 2002 around 150-200 people gathered in a public rally to keep Wales GM-free. They attempted to decontaminate an Aventis fodder maize trial crop in Flintshire - the only GM crop in Wales. Despite lots of cops, around 40 people jumped barriers to get into the field and began pulling up the crop. Six people were arrested and a man filming for Undercurrents needed medical treatment after security guards threw him over a fence.
Scotland became successfully GM-free in May 2003, as activists removed GM oilseed rape plants at Wester Friarton Farm, Newport-on-Tay, near Dundee. This action followed the removal of GM crops at Daviot, Aberdeenshire the previous weekend and the abandoning of the Farm Scale Trial at Munlochy, on the Black Isle, following a sustained campaign of direct action in 2002.
The Munlochy protest began when three women from Highlands and Islands GM Concern went to visit the site set for a Farm Scale Trial of winter oilseed rape, only to discover a tractor with drilling equipment planting GM oilseed rape right in front of their eyes. A small number of local people stopped the crop from being sown by blockading the tractor. Eventually about fifty protesters had gathered, their numbers matched by police who set up a control centre at the field. The protesters responded with an information caravan. For several days a presence was maintained at the field, but despite repeated waves of obstruction the GM oilseed was eventually sown. After this a permanent camp was set up outside the farmer's field. The camp remained throughout the field trial causing trouble and rallying the local community who were very much behind them. Later in 2002 the farmer pulled out of GM trials completely!
In September 2002 Aberdeenshire farmer Shirley Harrison was awarded the 'Genetically Modified Personality of the Month Award', being presented with a cake made of GM ingredients and a bottle of whiskey containing 2.7% methanol - an acceptable level of food contamination according to Aventis and Shirley Harrison. As this failed to have any impact on her, more direct action was required. So on October 6th, protesters entirely destroyed a field of GM oilseed rape at her farm. They left a sign reading 'GM-free Grampian' in the field, and a note left at the site read: "Silently we came, silently we left, to strike a blow for a GM-free Scotland." See: http://www.munlochygmvigil.org.uk/ and http://www.gmfreescotland.net/
The campaign against GM crops and food has been amazing. It has provided a real example of how people can stand up to huge corporations and halt the 'inevitable advance of capitalism' in its tracks. We have had a major impact on the industry, which has been left reeling, but not yet defeated.
Monsanto, the chief cheerleader of the biotech revolution and responsible for over 80% of the world's GM crops, has been taken over and broken up, with head man Bob Shapiro pushed into semi-retirement. Fellow biotech giants AstraZeneca and Novartis are to get rid of their agricultural divisions. There has been a mass exodus of Europe's biotech companies from GM research. They have cancelled millions of pounds worth of investment into genetically modified crops, sending the industry into a steep slump. The European Commission has admitted that nearly two thirds of the EU's biotech companies have cancelled GM research projects over the past four years. "The increasingly sceptical climate is scaring European biotech companies and research centres away," according to Philippe Busquin, the European Research Commissioner.
But the major companies still see the GMO controversy as a 'blip' that will pass in 4-7 years, a view echoed by financial analysts. Governments continue to subscribe to a GM future, and give Monsanto & Co. their whole-hearted support. Despite a slight decrease in GM plantings, farmers in the USA have still managed to sell all of their GM harvests. Many more countries are now shifting their farms over to GM crops.
So whilst we may have helped to stall GM crops in Britain we should be under no illusion that we have stopped them. What we have done is bought ourselves some breathing space. But the biotech industry and government have also used this hiatus to wait for public opposition to GM0s to die down and to prepare the ground for the ultimate commercialisation of GM crops.
So now we need to keep up the pressure because industry and the government are preparing for the final push to force through GM food and GM crops in the UK. Now the FSTs are finishing, with the results supposed to be published in July 2003. The period of the FSTs has given the government and corporations time to perfect their spin before they go ahead with commercialisation anyway.
As part of the same process, the government's phoney 'public debate' on GM crops is taking place to 'identify and address any gaps and uncertainties in public knowledge.' Just like the FSTs, the 'debate' is another crude one-size-fits-all attempt to allay public concerns (and soak up opposition). It involves several official public meetings around the country, regional public meetings, some grass-roots events and a website. The government gave the project a tiny budget and said that the whole process had to be finished by June 2003, conveniently just before the FSTs' results were due to be published. As it became embarrassingly obvious that the whole thing was about to fall apart, the government reluctantly increased the budget and extended its deadline. It seemed that the new extended public debate would have to take account of the results of the FSTs. This is something that the government always wanted to avoid just in case it threw up anything awkward. It now seems they may have got their way after all, as it has been revealed that the FST results are unlikely to be published before September and may be even later. The 'debate' itself is due to wind up in September 2003 and its results will be published in late 2003/early 2004.
In the ever-fluid, name-changing, shape-shifting world of agricultural biotechnology it can be hard to keep track of who owns whom and who is doing what. The last couple of years have seen a bewildering array of sales, mergers and spin-offs among the companies trying to force GM crops into the fields and down our throats. The company formerly known as AgrEvo (Hoescht/Schering), PGS and Aventis CropScience has been a particularly slippery character. However, rather than being a deliberate ploy by evil transnationals to confuse the public as to their real identity, this constant name changing reflects a real atmosphere of uncertainty within the crop science industry.
In 2002 Bayer became the latest multinational GM target in Europe following their recently acquired status as Europe's biggest GM research company. Bayer were targeted for their take-over of Aventis CropScience, the company behind the majority of the UK's GM field trials. Eighty-five percent of GM field trials planted in the UK in 2002 were owned by Bayer.
Bayer now owns over half of the GM crop varieties currently seeking approval for commercial growing in the EU. Should the de-facto EU moratorium on the commercial growing of GM crops be lifted, Bayer will be best placed to flood European fields with GM crops.
On January 24th 2002, as Bayer launched on the New York Stock Exchange, activists blockaded their UK Headquarters in Newbury by using a scaffold tripod, a human chain of people padlocked together and by locking themselves together in the revolving doors at both the main entrance and the rear doors.
Then on April 26th 2002, seven GM activists from the UK and the Netherlands managed to sneak into Bayer's shareholder meeting in Germany. A wheelchair-bound activist miraculously leapt up and stormed the stage as others scaled the sides of the stage, occupied the speaking podium and ranted at the board in German.
Following on from these actions, on April 25, 2003, about 15 protesters blockaded the main entrance of Bayer CropScience in Hauxton, near Cambridge, where genetically modified plants are developed and tested.
To keep track of which corporation is doing what, get a copy of the GM Family Tree, an A2 poster available on paper from Corporate Watch or on-line at their website (see contacts at end).
However, the government may even start granting applications for commercial growing before the end of their bogus 'public debate'. It has been revealed that the UK government intends to proceed with its assessment of 18 GM crop applications awaiting a decision on commercialisation. They have admitted that some of these may get the go ahead for use in food, feed or for growing before the GM public debate is scheduled to end.
The FSTs and the public debate are simply government window dressing, designed to distract public attention and campaigners' energy away from the government's real intentions. The FSTs and the debate have no legal basis and the government has no statutory obligation to pay any attention to them at all. Whatever the results, it seems likely that they will go ahead with GM crops if they think they can get away with it.
It's up to us to make sure that they don't get away with it.
The corporations are now really pushing hard to crack the EU moratorium on GMOs. Since the beginning of 2003, the EU has started receiving a flood of marketing applications for GM0s, which hasn't been the case since the moratorium started. It looks like the GM companies, by submitting so many applications, are increasing the pressure on the EU to lift the moratorium. The US recently said that they do not want a trade war with Europe over GM at present (especially in the aftermath of the recent split with Europe over the war in Iraq), but by forcing the EU to actively enforce the moratorium, the GM industry is setting up the conditions for a trade war to happen in the future.
The applications for cultivation include all those GM oil seed rape and sugar beet varieties that have successfully completed NSL trials in the UK. Should any of these varieties gain EU marketing consent, one of the final barriers to their commercialisation would be removed.
One possible reason behind this sudden increase in applications to the EU for approval of GM crops is that the only reason that the companies are obliged to reveal the location of the GM trials in this country is because they don't have EU approval. So if the EU do grant approval to any GM varieties, trashing the crops is going to be a lot more difficult.
Over the next year we may well be facing the imminent sowing of the first commercial GM maize in the UK. This will open the door to many other GM varieties and activists will have no idea where they're being grown.
Over the last year, the ability of GM saboteurs to get away scot-free even when caught red-handed has continued. At worst, saboteurs are normally only facing small fines. One representative example is the case of the protesters with the Colchester GM Campaign who had the case against them dropped in January 2003. They claimed this was because the authorities feared a jury would be sympathetic. Andy Abbott, 33, from Colchester, said the dropped case showed that authorities had given up trying to prosecute GM protesters. "The government is giving a green light to people to trash GM crops," he said.
The situation has been slightly different in Scotland. The Scottish legal system is different to that in England and Wales and protesters have come to expect convictions and heavy fines. There has been a string of cases over the last year where activists have been landed with fines of up to £1,000. However, this hasn't stopped Scotland from being probably the most active area in Britain.
A ruling in March 2003 saw the first instance of GM protesters being convicted of aggravated trespass as five protesters were found guilty of disrupting planting by sitting in front of the tractor at Munlochy in Scotland on August 23, 2002. 'Crop Protesters are Convicted of Trespass', Aberdeen Press & Journal, March 7th 2003.
The most bizarre tactic adopted to stop the spread of GM crops has to be the use of a pink castle to blockade a field of GM maize near Littlemoor in Dorset. Sometime in the early hours of April 25th 2002, the pink castle arrived in the field where the mutant remains of 2001's GM maize crop could still be found. Those resident in the castle hoped that by occupying the gateway to the field they could prevent further GM contamination.
On May 16th, three weeks into the occupation, farmer Charles Foot arrived with seven tractors and a massive police presence and entered the field. Those in the castle ran out to do a spot of tractor-diving, climbing on the cab of one tractor and D-locking themselves to another. Four people were arrested and the farmer eventually succeeded in planting the Aventis (now Bayer) GM maize.
However, within hours of the seeds being sown, at least twenty locals were seen digging them from the ground. In the following days, people went out every night and removed all the GM seedlings. The two Littlemoor GM sites were completely stripped bare. Several bags of this GM maize made their way to London to be ceremoniously dumped on the government's doorstep as part of the DEFRA action in July 2002.
A top tip to bear in mind for the future is to get your crop trashing inspected. The pink castle crew asked the local vicar to be a witness to the total destruction of the crop in case the government should try and claim any 'scientific' results from the trial. He wrote a letter to the newspaper saying he would be willing to testify to this and for the first time ever, the scientists followed their own rules and the remainder of the crop was 'sprayed off' with herbicide before pollination because the level of damage had invalidated the trial.
The pink castle was finally taken down on June 15th and may now be occasionally spotted popping up in unexpected locations around the country!
On March 6th 2003, the castle defenders came up for trial. They based their defence on the ancient common law of 'necessity', claiming it was lawful to stop the crop. The judge immediately agreed and all were found not guilty. This could set an interesting legal precendent!
Fourteen protesters who destroyed a GM oil seed rape crop in a daylight action in Hilton in Dorset in August 2002 were confident that their actions were lawful. So when they were arrested, they handed over statements admitting their actions to the police. Four months later, they have been told that no charges are to be pressed. They were decontaminating oil seed rape which had accidentally been contaminated with an unlawful variety of rape seed which contained genes for antibiotic research. The government admitted a clearup would be necessary, and so the saboteurs, in a public-spirited way, came forward to do their bit. It seems the government didn't want to press the issue. To date no legal action has been taken against Bayer, the company responsible.
Finally, after nearly 6 years of mass GM sabotage in the UK, in April 2003, a court outside Scotland actually found someone guilty of trashing GM crops. Two women were fined a total of £1,150 for trashing GM maize as part of a mass rally in July 2001 against the last remaining GM site in Wales. One of the pair is refusing to pay the fine and will probably receive a one month prison sentence.
While the government tries to baffle us all with their public 'debate' and bogus Farm Scale Trials, we need to be able to hit targets that are actually important to the industry rather than get caught up in all the PR flannel intended to distract campaigners. These are the main areas that might be worth targetting in the coming months:
National Seed Listing Trials: In order for any new plant variety to be sold commercially it has be placed on the National Seed List (NSL). In order to achieve this, the plant variety has to satisfactorily complete two years of trials to demonstrate its value for cultivation and use, and its distinctiveness, uniformity and stability. These trials are an essential part of the commercialisation process and have been ongoing during the period of the FSTs. NSL trials for three different varieties of Bayer's herbicide tolerant oil seed rape are currently underway at 10 sites in the UK.
Corporations and Commercialisation: Commercial growing of GM crops is being pushed forward by three companies: Bayer CropScience, Monsanto and Syngenta. Bayer have most to gain. Two of their GM maize varieties - Chardon LL and Sheriden - are first in line for commercialisation. They also have a large number of GM oilseed rape varieties that are close to commercialisation. Monsanto and Syngenta share two varieties of GM sugar beet that are close to commercialisation. It is worth noting that none of these companies are performing well and they are all desperate to make GM crops a success in the UK and Europe.
Chardon LL, Milk and Seeds: Bayer's Chardon LL GM maize is intended to be grown for animal fodder. In order for it to be a commercial success, farmers have to be able to sell their GM-fed meat and dairy produce. Leaning on dairy companies to not accept milk from cows fed on GM fodder maize could help destroy the market for Chardon LL before it starts. Working on the other end of the supply chain - putting pressure on seed suppliers and distributors to stay GM free - might also be effective.
Research and Development Trials: Beyond trials of GM crops that are soon to be commercialised, a small number of R&D trials are also underway. These represent the next generation of GM crops. They are all small scale, at an early stage of development, and VERY important to the companies conducting them. These trials are being conducted by: John Innes Centre in Norwich, looking at GM barley, Advanced Technologies (Cambridge), a subsidiary of British American Tobacco, looking at GM potatoes, and Syngenta, which is continuing with trials of fungal resistant wheat.
Farms and Farm Machinery: Like with the vivisection industry, there's only a limited number of people that can actually grow GM crops and it shouldn't be too difficult to persuade a farmer growing GMOs to stop. This has already happened to an extent. There are a number of test crops that never get planted. This is often due to the farmer on whose land the crop is due to be planted withdrawing under pressure from activists. This is a kind of silent victory. In 2002-2003 one FST was withdrawn and in 2001-2002 11 FSTs were withdrawn. The farmers whose land is used for test sites are not getting paid much for the use of their land. It shouldn't be too difficult to make it worth their while to pull out of a trial. There have already been a couple of examples of pressure being put on farmers. In East Hoathley in Sussex in 2001 a visit by anti-GM activists resulted in a farmer pulling out of a GM trial because of the threat of direct action and more specifically the threat of visiting campaigners accidentally spreading foot and mouth disease. As reported in Do or Die previously, there were also two actions in 2000 in which activists sabotaged the machinery of farmers hosting GM test sites. Farms are full of bits of machinery lying around at night in the middle of nowhere. Use your imagination...
Scientists and Laboratories: Like farmers, there are also only a small number of scientists centrally involved in biotech. They may not have farms but they do have homes and places of work. Demonstrations outside scientists' homes have been a very succesful tactic used by the animal liberation movement against vivisectors..
Corporate Watch are due to produce an in-depth report into who is winning the genetics war. Apocalypse Later? Who's Winning the Biotech Battle? is due out on July 8th. Get yourself a copy by contacting Corporate Watch or check their website.
1) Yorkshire Evening Press, 07/04/03
2) 'GM Crops: Industry 0 - Protesters 1', The Independent, March 23, 2003
3) GeneWatch UK Press Release, 3 March, 2003
4) See: http://www.pressandjournal.co.uk/
Genetic Engineering Network (GEN)
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