search the site
> home - action - news - genetics
Trashing the crops
Analysis By John Vidal Guardian (London) Friday July 31, 1998
Patrick Whitefield is a lecturer with no history of civil disobedience. After hearing that five women had earlier this month gone into a test field and pulled up some genetically modified plants being tested for the US chemical firm Monsanto, he phoned a Manchester-based group called GenetiX Snowball and offered to do the same. Should Whitefield do so, he risks being sued, fined and given a criminal record. Within weeks of his offer, a Manchester community worker, a Welsh lawyer and at least 250 others including TV chef Antony Worrall-Thomson had phoned to support or to join others taking "non-violent direct action" against the controversial crops. Hardly eco-warriors in the road-protest style, their concern ranged across health, environment, consumer choice and the concentration of the food chain into very few hands.
The peace movement used similar "accountable" tactics in the 1980s when more than 2,000 women were fined for publicly snipping the wire at Greenham Common in protest at the introduction of cruise missiles. More recently, activists left their calling cards when they smashed the nose of a warplane bound for Indonesia. The organisers of GenetiX Snowball, trying to be "responsible" and "principled" by telling the farmers and the police their plans in advance, hope to gather hundreds of people prepared to offer themselves to the courts.
They face competition in the fields. Widespread grassroots action against GM crops is intensifying. All 325 test fields in Britain have been identified from (often inaccurate) official lists and at least 25 have been destroyed by ad hoc and uncoordinated groups. Some firms have not reported attacks for fear that it will increase the chances of copycat crimes. Monsanto are seeking to win damages in the High Court against the five women from GenetiX Snowball and prevent them from "encouraging others". Monsantos case was adjourned yesterday. But the corporate lawyers can expect a lot of new business: every week two or more fields are being hit by Earth First! and other activists. Some have a background in the road protest, anti-car or anti-nuclear movements, but many are new-comers. Some give themselves names, like the "Lincolnshire Loppers", "Captain Chromosome", and the "Genetic Superheroes". The "Kenilworth Croppers" recently scythed down a heavily guarded display of GM wheat at the Royal Agricultural Show. Several fields growing non GM crops have been attacked by mistake.
But the coming together of peace and environmental activists is just the tip of the opposition against companies promoting GM food technologies. A stunning array of middle England is now roughly united in disapproval or fear of the implications and is not impressed by corporate claims that GM is totally safe, healthy and will benefit the developing world.
The Women's Institute, the Townswomen's Guild, the Consumers Association and the Country Landowners, all with particular concerns, want a moratorium of between two and five years on commercial growings of the crops. So do the 1 million-member RSPB, the Government's own wildlife advisers English Nature, and more than 200 wholefood companies.
Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the Green Party and the Soil Association want to halt the introduction of the crops altogether. Meanwhile, overseas development groups like Oxfam and Christian Aid express deep reservations about corporate claims that the technology will cure world hunger. The National Trust, Britain's biggest landowner, which is increasingly involved in organic farming, is studying the issues. The National Farmer's Union is uneasy. The gardening press is worried.
Meanwhile a House of Lords select committee on agriculture is conducting a wide inquiry into GM crops to report later this year. Opposition MPs claimed last night in a Commons Adjournment debate that the Government's approach to trials was illegal, that the test crops were poorly regulated and monitored, and that organic farmers received no protection.
Add the supermarket chains, which are watching the situation closely, and the general public, which in poll after poll expresses unease, and no one can remember such a broad consensus of concern about any one issue, let alone agriculture. There is anger that no one was consulted, parliament barely debated the issues and it was imposed by international or European law. The concern is now spilling over into town halls and schools as local lobbyists call for the safeguarding of food meals. A "citizen's jury" which spent weeks recently listening to evidence from all sides rejected the technology.
The government has set up a working group drawing on four departments - the Ministry of Agriculture, the environment department, the Ministry of Health and the Department of Trade and Industry - to head off what may become a crisis. Damage to trial crops is said to be putting back the programme of commercial growings and costing the companies thousands of pounds. Although the DTI and Maff are enthusiastic backers of the technology, DeTR and the Ministry of Health are less gung-ho.
Last week, Julie Hill, the only non-scientist member of the committee of experts that advises the government on genetic releases into the environment called for much broader concerns to be taken into account before approval is given. So far they have not refused one application out of more than 400.
Britain is not alone. The leaders of France's second biggest farm union have become folk heroes after being given suspended prison sentences for destroying GM grain. There have been seven arrests in Ireland and a high profile court case.
Greenpeace claims to have mobilised 250,000 consumers in Germany, and there is widespread disapproval in Holland and Denmark. Switzerland recently had a referendum on the future of biotechnology. It was approved but only after massive lobbying by the Swiss-based drug and chemical companies who threatened to leave.
Last week European activists flew to the Missouri home town base of Monsanto, the industry leaders, to join the first meeting of global activists against the crops. In India, there are expected to be riots if and when the new technology is introduced. Several years ago more than 750,000 small farmers rallied against the World Trade Organisation and American companies patenting seeds. The massive Grameen Bank based in Pakistan which pioneered the philosophy of credits for the poor, pulled out of a joint venture with Monsanto this week.
Monsanto, moreover, has upset its own industry by going "too far, too fast". With more than 100 million acres of GM crops now under cultivation on four continents after just four years' planting, the company admits it underestimated the European culture.
It has now opened an office in London, engaged Tim Bell for its PR, and is running a £1 million press advertising campaign. But the Advertising Standards Authority has already received more than 50 complaints ranging from the Green party to the Countryside Restoration Trust.
Monsanto corporate communication chiefs have meanwhile visited newspaper editors, journalists, and critics. The company has set up web-pages, and runs a telephone information line.
The seed and chemical companies, research institutes and universities growing the patented crops feel increasingly threatened, and regret that their message of scientific responsibility is not being heard. They insist that people's fears are groundless.
They make no distinctions between those who act openly and those who act secretly, calling the crop-wrecking "vandalism" and destruction of the very evidence they say is needed to monitor safety. The groups reply that they are deliberately not touching the crops that are testing ecological data. The clamour for a moratorium is growing.
For further details on this action and others contact:
Genetic Engineering Network PO BOX 9656
London N4 4JY
tel: 0181 374 9516 or
Manchester Against Genetic Engineering on: 0161 224 4846
For genetics action info on the web check out:
urban75 - community - action - mag - photos - tech - music - drugs - punch - football - offline club - brixton - london - new york - useless - boards - help/FAQs -
© - design - contact - sitemap - search|