Skip to comments.New Breed of Environmental Activists has Research Officials Bracing for Vandalism
Posted on 11/04/2001 7:21:57 AM PST by Sir Francis Dashwood
Experts are bracing for widespread attacks this summer on genetically engineered crops and research facilities as anti-biotech activists promise a record year of violence. At least 30 incidents of anti-biotech sabotage have occurred in the last year. And that number is likely to jump as activists race to destroy more crops before the summer growing season draws to a close.
Just Wednesday, vandals struck a research farm operated by the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, N.Y. Cold Spring Harbor is a leading genetics research laboratory, headed by James D. Watson, one of co-discoverers of the structure of DNA. The vandals mowed down corn, damaged trucks, and spray-pained graffiti on greenhouses. Laboratory officials declined to comment.While most of the activity has taken place on the West Coast, attacks now have occurred in 10 states. Missouri and Illinois have been quietat least so far.
The saboteurs call themselves "direct-action activists." The FBI classifies them as special-interest terrorists. Connected by the Internet, the saboteurs claim to be part of groups with names such as Reclaim the Seeds and Washington Tree Improvement Association. But these groups are probably little more than one or two individuals with extreme environmentalist viewpoints who engage in vandalism and violence, law enforcement officials say. Its their small size and lack of organization that make the activists so hard to catch. We are practically invisible. We have no command structure, no spokespersons, no office, just many small groups working separately, seeking vulnerable targets and practicing our craft," said a 1997 statement from the Earth Liberation Front. Within recent months, that group has claimed responsibility for a New Years Eve arson at a Michigan State University office and a February attack on greenhouses at the University of Minnesota in which more than 800 experimental oat plants were destroyed.
The direct-action activists tend to have "a more radical critique of genetic engineering" than most environmental groups, said Denny Henke of the Genetix Alert office. Genetix Alert, part of the Bioengineering Action Network, distributes news and activist communications on the World Wide Web about the destruction of genetically engineered crops. The Web site also has tips for activists on finding and destroying their targets while avoiding arrest. Direct-action activists are usually part of "the Seattle crowd," Henke said referring to the protesters who gathered in Seattle last year to disrupt a meeting of the World Trade Organization.
The anti-biotech extremists contend that corporations are the real eco-terrorists. They accuse agricultural and biotechnology companies of poisoning the environment by genetically engineering plants and animals. "All life on earth comes second, third, or never behind corporate profit," said Nancy Oden, a member of the Northeast Resistance against Genetic Engineeringknown as RAGE.
Beefing up Security
The real reason activists trample crops is to draw attention to themselves, said Nick Kaplinsky, a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley who lost much of his research in two separate attacks on cornfields at university facilities. "It generates press, and its probably fun to go trash a cornfield and feel like youre saving the Earth," Kaplinsky said.
Big research losses have forced universities to beef up their security measures. Protecting large open areas is a daunting task for security officers. "Weve never had to protect open fields before," said Sgt. John Powell of the UC-Berekely police. The university is investing in some high-tech sensors used by the military and drug enforcement agencies to protect some of its fields, he said. Some researchers have taken measures like duplicating their research to ensure that they dont lose valuable data to vandals. "If we lose our stuff, we can lose more than a years worth of work. We cant afford to do that," said Peggy Lemaux, a cooperative extension agent at UC-Berekely. Tightened security limits some of the freedom scientists used to feel in their labs. Kaplinsky says it makes his work less enjoyable as well. He says he hasnt become paranoid yet, but "you do wonder when people are walking by the field and looking at it whether theyre the one."
Monsanto is a Favorite Target
Creve Coeur-based Monsanto Company is one of the companies that draws much of the activists ire. The biotech company, now part of Pharmacia Corporation, is "one of the biggest monsters," Oden said, "the one we all love to hate." Oden and others accuse Monsanto of being arrogant about its power to create genetically engineered organisms.
Increased consumer attention on and public opposition to genetically engineered plants has caught Monsanto and the biotech industry by surprise. Monsanto scientists had been operating on the mistaken assumption that the public wasnt interested in agriculture, said company spokesman Bryan W. Hurley. Monsanto is now taking the lead promoting biotechnology to consumers. Its an evolution in the way were thinking about the way the public thinks," Hurley said. Oden, a candidate for the Maine State Senate, said she hears growing support for the anti-biotech movement. "Citizen resistance is growing. They may think that it has quieted down because they dont see demonstrations in the street every week, but it has not," she said.
Minneapolis Gets Ready
Later this week activists plan to take to the streets in Minneapolis to protest at a conference of the International Society for Animal Genetics. Anti-biotech activists from RAGE and other groups are joining forces with the more violent Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front.
If activists at the animal genetics conference have plans other than peaceful demonstrations, the police will be ready for them, said Captain Steven Johnson of the University of Minnesota police department. Demonstrators have a right to express their opinions, but threats of violence against conference participants, companies, and organizations associated with the meeting have "created a lot of anxiety" in the research community, said conference organizer Lawrence B. Schook, director of the Food Animal Biotechnology Center at the University of Minnesota.
The Bioengineering Action Networks Web site has been calling for "direct action" as the conference starts Saturday. It points activists to seven sponsors of the Minneapolis event. Among those listed as a possible target: St. Louis-based Ralston Purina Company. The company makes pet products. Ralston and conference officials say the company is not a sponsor of the conference, though it previously had been listed as one on the conferences official Web site. "We were incorrectly listed as a sponsor," Ralston spokesman Keith Schopp said. "The fact remains that Ralston was not, and is not, a sponsor" of the conference. Ralston had planned to co-sponsor a seminar in Minneapolis before the conference, but it was canceled because not enough people had registered. The seminar was on the canine genome-mapping project, a research effort by scientists at Ralston and elsewhere to identify genes in dogs.
Activists accuse companies and universities of hiding their research from the concerned eyes of the public. But the tactic of destroying property is unlikely to make scientists more open, Schook said. "In my opinion you create just the opposite of what you want because people are afraid to say what theyre doing for fear of retaliation," he said. The vandalism is illegal and a direct contradiction to what these groups purport to want to accomplish, said Lisa Dry, a spokeswoman for the Biotechnology Industry Organization in Washington. She predicts a backlash against the activists. "I cant imagine anyone knowingly and willingly supporting acts of violence against peoples properties," she said.
A Years Research Destroyed
When St. Louis native Karen Osmont first heard that the corn she studies had been ripped out of the ground, she thought someone was playing a bad joke on her. "I just couldnt believe that someone would actually rip our corn out of the field," said Osmont, a graduate student at UC-Berekely. It was no joke. Anti-biotechnology activists had trampled a wide circle of corn in the field where Osmont conducts some of her experiments. She and Kaplinsky and another graduate student each lost at least a years worth of research in the attack.
None of the corn was genetically engineered, Osmont said. The scientists dont use any herbicides or pesticides on the research field. "Were about as green as a field of corn can get," she said. In fact, many of the crops vandals have destroyed are not genetically engineered, researchers say. In addition to the corn in California, activists have targeted non-genetically modified trees and raspberry bushes in Washington, grass in Oregon, and papaya in Hawaii.
Activists say the crops were viable targets. Even traditional plant breeding could be genetic research that ultimately lays the groundwork for genetic engineering, Genetix Alerts Henke said. "If its research thats done for genetics, I think activists are going to consider it fair game," he said.
Midwest Has Been Quiet
Missouri and Illinois so far have escaped attacksa fact noted by area environmental groups and universities. "We dont have a lot of eco-terrorists running around in the Midwest," said Tammy Shea, a member of the Gateway Green Alliance in St. Louis. The group has staged many public protests against genetic engineering, but pulling up crops would be a direct attack on farmers, and environmentalist dont want that, Shea said.
At the University of Missouri at Columbia, Vice Provost for Research Jack Burns said officials dont anticipate any anti-biotech vandalism. "I dont think it is on the scale of things that we worry about," he said.
Monsanto is cautiously optimistic that the vandalism at its research facilities wont resume, Hurley said. "I dont think weve been given any reason to expect any more," he said. "But I guess that could change tomorrow."
There is a lot of work to be done in this country before things can be set right again.
Luddites we can live with but don't underestimate the terrorist intentions of some of these groups.
STEPHANIE KAZA is Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Vermont where she teaches environmental ethics, ecofeminism, religion and ecology, international environmental studies, radical environmentalism and nature writing. Stephanie is a long-time student of Zen Buddhism. She is the author of The Attentive Heart, and numerous articles on Buddhism and ecology. Her book in progress is Green Buddha Walking, an environmental interpretation of Buddhist philosophy and practice.
ELIAS AMIDON is a teacher, writer and advocate of spiritually-based environmental activism. He is currently engaged in a three-year training of environmental activists in Southeast Asia. Co-founder of IDE, he now serves on its board. Elias teaches ecopsychology and environmental leadership at the Naropa Institute. Co-editor of the books Earth Prayers and Life Prayers, he also teaches in the Sufi tradition and leads wilderness rites-of-passage.
ELAN SHAPIRO is the founder of Sustainable Living Associates. He designs collaborative learning programs to ground people in their inner processes and their bodies, while bonding with their places and communities. He integrates the perspectives of ecopsychology, bioregionalism and multiculturalism with hands-on projects, such as nature study, community gardening and habitat restoration. Elan and his family live in Ecovillage Ithaca, a model sustainable community.
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