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 (www.tao.ca/~ban/) 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.

American groups have adapted the British euphemisms. Reclaim the Seeds speaks of its "nonviolent direct action," while the BAN Web site refers to "direct actionists." The U.S. groups also make similar claims of heroism. "We are risking jail and injury, as well as sacrificing time, energy and sleep," declare the Reclaimers. It's certainly conceivable that an overenthusiastic Reclaimer brandishing what they call "California Corn Cutters" could slice the Achilles tendon of another Reclaimer. But it hasn't happened yet. As for jail, not a single American crop vandal has been arrested so far.

Biotech crop trials are "backdoor commercialization of GM crops that nobody wants," says Doug Parr, campaigns director for Greenpeace U.K. "Sadly," he says, "when democracy fails, direct action is the only recourse. The authorities are not taking the correct action and unfortunately it has fallen to Greenpeace to protect everyone's interests."

While Greenpeace International's latest annual report, released in August, is titled "In the Name of the People," the eco-warriors insist they are "the people." Melchett calls his group's actions a "direct expression of `people's power.'" One Genetix Snowball representative declared, "The public has made it clear they don't want [genetically modified] crops, and there is no need for these tests." Another insisted, "If the government isn't going to get involved, then it's up to us."

Never mind that the government did get involved when it approved the test plots–you can't grow genetically modified crops without regulatory permission–and stays involved as it continues to grant approvals. Never mind that this government was elected by the people and that the electorate's numbers swamp the combined membership of all the green groups.

This contempt for democracy has crossed the Atlantic. Brock Ohlee of the American crop vandalization group Future Farmers declares, "Direct action against corporate greed is both a political necessity and a moral imperative." Thus "the people have the right and the responsibility to fight back." Yet the Future Farmers give hints that they and the nation are at odds, as when they spell the name of the country as "U$A" or "Amerikkka."

After a corn crushing in Minnesota last September, the Bolt Weevils declared "a WARNING to the entire `life-sciences' industry that opposition to its sinister plan is far more widespread than they think, and growing exponentially." That same month, Reclaim the Seeds ripped up a sugar beet field at the University of California at Davis, proclaiming "these acts as self-defensive measures on behalf of all beings against Monsanto, UC-D and the university system's corporate boot-licking, and the global GE [genetic engineering] takeover!" (Emphasis added). So it's not just "the people" any more. This group claims to speak for every living thing, right down to the lowliest amoeba. After crunching a corn crop at the same university, the group stated, "Modern agri-business and genetic mutilation is a capitalist machine that must be dismantled," adding that vandalism "is a direct action that destroys corporate power and authority."

Sometimes it seems the groups can't decide whether they want to be revolutionaries or professional wrestlers. "Seeing their profits as a slap in the face of the earth and all its occupants, we took the liberty of paying them back," Seeds of Resistance said of its attack on the Eau Claire building. "We, Seeds of Resistance, smashed all the windows on one side of their disgusting building. Wisconsin is now another state that cannot hide from this growing resistance against GE culture."

Not to be outdone rhetorically, the Weevils declared, "We see what the corporations give back to the public." They give back "houses we cannot afford to live in" (notwithstanding that home ownership is at an all-time high) and "jobs our bodies cannot do for long without breaking" (notwithstanding that fewer jobs than ever consist of manual labor and occupational accident rates are at an historic low). "Corporations," warned the Weevils, "give back to the people death."

Bio-engineering of food has become symbolic of every evil any corporation has perpetrated (or, more precisely, everything corporations have done that members of these groups don't like). Attacking biotech is therefore just another way of attacking capitalism and technology. The Luddite analogy is one that critics of environmentalism have overused, but here it fits almost too well.

We can always argue over politics, but whenever the crop busters venture into scientific territory, they trip over their shears. When Reclaim the Seeds "decontaminated approximately 7 acres of a `Frankenfood' corn" in its third attack on the University of California at Davis, they invoked their "profound sense of the sacredness of life." Said the Seeds, "We believe that protecting the result of more than three billion years of evolution is a duty to ourselves, all living beings, and the generations to come."

They might be shocked to hear that probably every ear of corn that's been sold in the United States was created by man, using the forerunner of bio-engineering called "cross-breeding." Instead of isolating a single gene or a few genes from one strain of corn and injecting it into the DNA of another, people crossed whole strains, hoping that the desired traits would be expressed. (It reportedly took Orville Redenbacher 30,000 attempts to make the ideal popcorn.)

This process apparently began over 5,000 years ago, when American Indians essentially created corn by combining two types of wild grasses. Modern hybrids were first commercialized in the 1930s. Humans have been doing such "tampering" with livestock for thousands of years as well. Ever see a wild cow or chicken? There are related creatures, but strictly speaking there's no such animal. Indeed, almost nothing we eat, aside from nonfarm fish and things whose names include the word wild (such as Ewell Gibbons' "wild hickory nuts"), is a product merely of undirected evolution.

The groups that attacked the Woodland, California, sites claimed to be part of "the growing movement to protect the fabric of life." If anything could be labeled "the fabric of life," it's simple DNA. There is no inherent difference between the DNA of "natural" plants and those created through selective gene transfer.

Reclaim the Seeds has also said its actions are necessary to "stop the massive destruction of biodiversity." But crop biodiversity began declining long ago, simply because farmers want the best strains, not the most strains. If anything, biotech may improve diversity by developing strains especially suited to a given area's temperature, rainfall, soil type, and pest threats.

Likewise, Reclaim the Seeds is exactly wrong when it says, "If you care about social justice and don't want to poison farm workers with pesticides and herbicides, you should resist genetic engineering." Actually, if you're worried about farm workers' exposure to pesticides, you should resist such propaganda. Probably the main p.r. problem biotech crops have right now is that almost all those currently grown do nothing but allow less use of pesticides (of which herbicides are a subcategory). There's nothing, therefore, to please consumers. Though the situation will soon change, as biotech foods that stay fresh longer and have more nutrients come to market, currently only farm workers and owners, along with the seed developers, benefit from transgenic crops.

The anti-biotech groups pay lip service to environmentalism, as with the Future Farmers' claim to "stand for environmental sustainability" and "community stewardship of resources." But it is the environmentalists who have been demanding reduced use of pesticides, and are now getting it thanks to biotech crops. They are the ones who (rightly) pushed the nation's farmers toward no-till agriculture to prevent topsoil erosion, a goal that is hardly served by destroying corn designed to reduce erosion, as Seeds of Resistance did in Maine. Likewise, it is hard to see the environmental rationale for destroying a plot of poplar trees developed to reduce the use of chlorine and energy during the pulping process, an act of sabotage carried out by an anonymous British group in July.

Despite the ways in which attacks on biotech crops work against the environment, I was able to identify only three environmentalist groups, two British and one American (the Environmental Defense Fund), that have decried such vandalism, and all the criticism has been mild. Many other groups have kept mum.

As for the mainstream British press, it has "uncritically embraced this phenomenon," says Frank Furedi, a sociology professor at the University of Kent at Canterbury. "The activists [say sympathizers in the media] are the good guys," who, "unlike sleazy politicians," are "untainted by corruption or self-interest" and are "portrayed as altruistic and idealistic souls whose motives are beyond reproach." Indeed, many British columnists have lauded the destruction of modified crops, while reporters routinely refer to the crop killers as "protesters," a mild term, or even an accolade.

In the U.S., by contrast, the news media have shown no support for crop busting. News stories routinely refer to the attacks as "vandalism," and opinion pieces on the topic have been critical. "There's nothing wrong with peaceful protest or with insisting that troubling eco-questions be answered," declared a Boston Globe editorial. "But slashing an experiment and attempting to stop science is the height of ignorance." The Sacramento Bee editorialized, "A technological revolution like this can't be kept on course by masked fools with scythes." The problem is that, aside from a few sentences in The Washington Post and Newsweek and a 150-word item in The New York Times, the national press has acted as if the problem doesn't exist.

Still, there are at least a couple of reasons to believe that the crop busters will be defeated.

First, it may not take much for crop growers to resist cowardly groups like Seeds of Resistance. When a call went out over the Internet for a "Day of Action" on October 27, the would-be Transgenic Tet Offensive resulted in but a single act of vandalism. Apparently a little heightened security was enough to keep the self-styled "guerrilla gardeners" at bay. The American vandals know that, unlike their European counterparts, if they're arrested they'll go to jail, not Tanzania.

Second, to use the groups' own analogy, history shows that terrorism is a desperation tactic of guerrillas who've abandoned hope of winning the "hearts and minds" of the people. As a Portland Press Herald put it, "Seeds of Resistance has unilaterally decided that there is `absolutely no benefit to humanity' from the corn its members destroyed. How do they know? By turning to vandalism, they destroyed the chance to learn."

That's the whole point. The eco-terrorists know that just around the corner is the second wave of biotech foods, from which consumers as well as farmers and the environment will benefit. They know that pressure will build in the Third World for crops to relieve malnutrition problems that lead to crippling, blindness, and early death. They know that when that happens, they will not be able to win the ensuing war of ideas.