Thursday, February 10, 2000
By Bryan Denson of The Oregonian staff
Environmental saboteurs are vandalizing experimental crops across North
America in a mounting revolt against high-tech agriculture.
The saboteurs have struck at least 20 times since July, mostly against
genetically engineered fruit and vegetable plots on the West Coast. No one
has been arrested. They have set back research by universities and high-tech
agriculture companies from coastal California to mid-state Maine.
Mysteriously, the vandals have skipped Oregon, where hundreds of genetic
researchers are at work, and serious eco-terrorist strikes have escalated in
Researchers worry that crop sabotage -- and the growing international
campaign against genetically modified organisms -- could derail their
experimentation, setting back world food production and increasing the cost
of groceries. But critics say modifying the genes of plants and trees
threatens the planet, potentially creating pesticide-resistant bugs and
contaminating crops. They argue that world hunger can be solved with better
Until recently, the sabotage against experimental agriculture in North
America looked more like college pranks than serious crimes. Using such noms
de plume as the Seeds of Resistance, vandals had slipped onto research plots
to smash watermelons, flatten cornstalks, hack down walnut trees and uproot
potatoes, sugar beets and strawberry plants.
But on New Year's Eve, an FBI-recognized eco-terrorist group entered the
The underground Earth Liberation Front, with strong ties to Oregon, set fire
to offices in the Agriculture Hall at Michigan State University, a landmark
on the East Lansing campus. In an anonymous note to its spokesman, Portland's
Craig Rosebraugh, the ELF called genetic engineering "one of the many threats
to the natural world as we know it."
The MSU fire was the first violent crime attributed to genetic engineering
foes in North America.
"When I found out that the Earth Liberation Front burned down that office, I
was tremendously excited," said Dylan King, a 25-year-old San Francisco
activist who publicizes the anti-genetic engineering strikes. "You know that
when there's one action, it tends to domino."
The $400,000 Michigan blaze followed seven others set by ELF since late 1996
in Oregon, Washington and Colorado. Those earlier arsons, according to ELF's
anonymous communiqus, were to denounce logging, destruction of wilderness
habitat and slaughter of wild animals.
The ELF strike at MSU put agricultural scientists on guard across the
continent and spotlighted their technology. On Jan. 29, delegates from 130
nations signed an agreement in Montreal that requires nations to label export
food or seeds that might include genetically modified organisms.
With foes of genetically modified foods gaining ground, some West Coast
researchers are readying for this year's growing season by purchasing motion
sensors and other security devices.
Much would be lost if saboteurs hit the work of Oregon genetic researchers at
the same pace of their counterparts in California, Washington and British
Columbia. Oregon State University researchers are studying genetically
modified tomatoes, potatoes, barley, oats, tobacco and other crops.
"I think it's just a matter of time before Oregon is hit," said David
Barbarash, a spokesman for the Animal Liberation Front, an underground group
with ties to ELF.
WTO protests spotlight issue
Many Americans hadn't heard about genetically engineered crops until late
last year in Seattle, where biotech foes joined riotous protests of World
Trade Organization meetings. Aside from TV images of tear gas and broken
windows, they saw people wearing cardboard butterfly wings -- a protest
against transgenic corn that kills some insects.
The debate about genetically modified foods has grown so rancorous among
farmers, environmentalists, scientists and agri-tech companies that it has
influenced international trade. Some viewed the recent Montreal accord as a
victory for nature. The pact lets nations refuse to import genetically
modified organisms they deem harmful, whether or not science supports their
The backlash against genetically engineered foods went global several years
ago in England, Korea, India, New Zealand and other nations. In England
alone, activists have pulled up at least 110 crops since 1998, many in
daylight acts of civil disobedience, said Brian Tokar, a Vermont author and
Some observers have concluded that recent strikes against experimental plots
in the United States and Canada are merely copycat actions. But vandalism
against genetically modified crops actually began in the United States at
least 12 years ago.
On April 24, 1987, a biotech company prepared to spray a strawberry patch in
Brentwood, Calif., with genetically engineered bacteria. The microorganisms,
trade-named Frostban, were expected to reduce frost formation to extend the
The spraying was billed as the world's first federally approved outdoor test
of a genetically engineered microorganism. Environmentalists worried the
microorganisms might escape the test site and harm nature.
On the morning of the field trial, the spray crew found most of the
strawberry plants uprooted, the work of a group calling itself the Strawberry
Liberation Front. The following month, vandals uprooted about 3,000 potato
plants that were part of a Frostban field trial in Tulelake, Calif.
Radical environmentalists turned to other issues in the late 1980s,
preoccupied with campaigns to save wild lands from logging, mining and
Then in October 1996, Greenpeace drew national attention to genetically
modified crops. The activist group sprayed an enormous pink, nontoxic "X" on
an Iowa field planted with genetically engineered soybeans.
On Nov. 23, 1998, the University of California at Berkeley announced it had
signed a five-year, $25 million research partnership with Novartis
Agricultural Discovery Institute Inc. The Swiss pharmaceutical company would
support research by the school's department of plant and microbial biology in
exchange for first rights to negotiate for a fraction of the school's
Three days later, a group calling itself the California Croppers played
football in the school's genetically engineered corn, knocking down stalks as
a tongue-in-cheek welcome to Novartis.
"The security of the world's food supply is at stake," the Croppers wrote in
a claim of responsibility. "Giant corporations have set mad scientists loose
upon the world, and as responsible citizens and farmers, we have no choice
but to stop them."
The vandalism began anew last July. The Croppers and Reclaim the Seeds struck
cornfields studied by University of California researchers. Then a group
called Seeds of Resistance damaged a half-acre plot of experimental corn in
Maine, and vandals cut down a small patch of insect-resistant corn in
Vermont, leaving a calling card: three colorful cutouts of butterflies. In
early September, the Bolt Weevils struck two seed companies in Minnesota.
Activists cheered the strikes but were dismayed when news accounts ignored or
criticized them. On Sept. 12, some California environmentalists launched
GenetiX Alert to promote the crimes. The project, partly financed by a
Canadian anarchist group, encouraged vandals to write in so their accounts
could be posted on the Internet.
Within weeks, Reclaim the Seeds struck five times at University of California
Some attacks off-target
As WTO delegates from more than 135 nations prepared to meet in Seattle on
Nov. 30 to set the agenda for future talks, biotech vandals struck twice in
British Columbia, damaging 4,500 experimental evergreens they said would
The strikes wiped out six to 15 years of scientific research, a $600,000
loss, and the trees weren't even genetically engineered, officials said.
"The research was to reduce the need for clear-cuts and improve
reforestation," said David Goold, affiliated with Silvagen Inc., one of the
Three days before the WTO opening, the Washington Tree Improvement
Association struck experimental tree research sites at the University of
Washington in Seattle and Washington State University's facility in Puyallup.
The vandals smashed 180 plant pots at the WSU site -- ordinary raspberry
plants -- and hacked up 200 poplars and alders at UW in a failed attempt to
The miscues weren't unusual. One in three of the 23 strikes against genetic
engineering enterprises since 1987 missed the mark, The Oregonian found.
But the actual target hardly matters, said J. Scott Cameron, assistant dean
of WSU's agricultural school. Although some praise the saboteurs as modern
Robin Hoods, destroying corporate crops to save the planet, Cameron sees a
more sinister motive: abandonment of technology and its conveniences.
"They are speaking out against an entire lifestyle that we've adopted
allowing other people to grow and sell us food," said Cameron. "If people are
going to choose between subsistence agriculture and iceberg lettuce and
chardonnay, I think they're going to go for the iceberg lettuce and
chardonnay most of the time."