Crop Busters

Self-righteous vandals lead a desperate, ill-informed campaign against genetically modified foods.

One night last August, a group calling itself Seeds of Resistance used machetes to hack down a half-acre plot of corn at a farm operated by the University of Maine. The crop's offense: It had been genetically engineered to resist herbicides.

This characteristic would reduce the number of herbicide applications needed, saving farmers money and reducing chemical runoff into water supplies. It could also reduce or eliminate tilling and hence control topsoil erosion. To gain these advantages, a specially chosen gene from another plant had been inserted into the corn.

For that, the corn had to die. Seeds of Resistance said it was sending "a message to those who seek to benefit from the risky endeavor of genetically engineering the food supply."

So far this year, anti-biotechnology vandals have struck 13 crop sites in the United States, from Maine to California. The attacks tell us much about biotech opponents, many of whom have increasingly abandoned rational persuasion in favor of "direct action" that shows contempt for the choices of the people they claim to represent.

The U.S. vandals acknowledge a debt to overseas activists, especially in the U.K., where wrecking crops that offend one's sensibilities is commonplace. "Many thanks to our comrades in other countries for the inspiration to join them," declared a September communiqué from Reclaim the Seeds, one of the more active American crop-busting groups. The British attacks are not random and are not exclusively the work of tiny fringe groups. Some have been carried out by the world's most prominent environmentalist group, Greenpeace. Most environmentalist groups that don't participate nonetheless refuse to criticize the sabotage.

According to an August report in the London Guardian, between the U.K. and the Continent, more than 70 sites where biotech plants were being tested, out of an estimated 150 to 200, "have been wholly or partly destroyed, with almost 50 in the past 12 weeks." The British biotech-bashing Genetic Engineering Network, which gleefully claims that "over 80 [European biotech crop] trial sites have been decontaminated over the last two years," sent me a detailed list of 46 sites destroyed between January and mid-August.

On this side of the Atlantic, crop busters started late but are making up for lost time. "There was only one [attack] that I know of in the U.S. in 1998," says Jeffrey Tufenkian, spokesman for the San Diego-based anti-biotech group Genetix Alert, which tracks and applauds crop wrecking. This year there were two attacks in July, three in August, seven in September. Only an end to the growing seasons seems to have kept the numbers from continuing their upward spiral. There was one attack in late October, but it consisted only of vandalizing a building where the corn had already been harvested. "These actions are just starting to expand over here," says Tufenkian. "But I think this is just the start of the trend of resistance to this new technology."

The British terra-terrorists are aided by their government, which insists on giving out the exact locations of the test plots. (Notwithstanding this assistance, non-modified crops are often mistakenly destroyed.) The government is considering changing the disclosure policy, even as it gives out the locations of new test tracts. Though the U.S. government doesn't hand out maps to the homes of the biotech crops, the Bioengineering Action Network of North America (BAN),an anti-biotech group, has a Web site ( that claims to offer helpful hints.

Numerous groups with names that sound like high school sports teams, such as the Lincolnshire Loppers and Cropatistas in Britain and the Bolt Weevils and California Croppers in the U.S., are now joining in the fun. Britain's Genetix Snowball published a book describing the best tactics for stealing into a field at night and destroying it. BAN says a "Night-Time Gardener's Guide," which it describes as "a 'how-to' for would-be crop saboteurs," will soon be available on its site.

More than fields are coming under attack. On the last day of September, two groups wrecked sites growing melons, corn, and sunflowers in Woodland, California. They also disabled an irrigation system and vandalized three greenhouses. Earlier in the month, the Bolt Weevils whacked a biotech corn crop at Pioneer Hi-Bred's Minnesota facility, trampling 50 rows of research corn, damaging company vehicles, and spray-painting slogans ("Free the Seed" and "Stop Agribusiness") on sheds. The last confirmed attack as of this writing was by Seeds of Resistance against Pioneer Hi-Bred in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, on October 27. Genetix Alert's press release called the action "nonviolent," though the vandals themselves used the term smash, which has a rather violent sound to it.

The vandals say they won't stop with fields and surrounding facilities. "Crops, research facilities and corporate offices are all sources of this technological threat and should be targeted," say the Weevils. An anonymous e-mail message recently sent to growers of biotech crops declared: "All of a sudden `venture capitalist' scum realize that biotechnology is not such a great investment and they flee with their bags of cash with them....Our view is that if corporations, governments and universities have any relationship to biotechnology, they are targets."

Even those who merely sell the products are being threatened. One British group calling itself Smash Genetic Engineering is warning of violence against clothing stores that use biotech crops such as pesticide-resistant cotton. Genetix Snowball threatens vandalism this autumn, "once we are certain who [the retailers] are." The famous British chain Marks & Spencer has already buckled under the threats by removing biotech foods from its shelves.

While their crimes are serious, the rationalizations and euphemisms served up by the crop busters are laughable. Consider a recent Greenpeace U.K. press release: "At 5:15 a.m. today in a peaceful direct action, a Greenpeace decontamination unit removed genetically modified pollution from the third farm-scale experiment to be disrupted in the U.K. over the last eight weeks." So trespassing on private land and ripping up crops is "peaceful," while destroying something you don't like is "direct action" or "decontamination." And it was "pollution," not the science of transgenics, that was under attack.

Greenpeace U.K. Executive Director Lord Peter Melchett, who was arrested in July for personally "decontaminating" crops, claims vandalism "is not lawlessness," because "we act within strong moral boundaries." Thus the criminality of an act can be negated by the actor's opinion. If you feel morally justified in "peacefully decontaminating" your spouse via "direct action" with a shotgun, your actions are "not lawlessness."

Though these claims come from a nation that prides itself on civility, this is not civil disobedience. The peaceful American civil rights activists who risked, and sometimes lost, life and limb by seating themselves in "white only" establishments or drinking from segregated water fountains never pretended that they weren't lawbreakers. They acknowledged it and accepted incarceration, often accompanied by beatings. They questioned the morality of the law by making the authorities enforce it. That's civil disobedience. "We accept responsibility for the consequences of our action," Melchett claims. Yet after he was jailed for his "decontamination" outing, he sprung himself by complaining to the press that he would miss his already-paid-for vacation in Tanzania.

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