On the night of June 8 this year, vandals broke into a field of genetically engineered sugar beets in Oregon owned by Syngenta, a Swiss company, and destroyed about 1,000 plants. Then three days later, a second such incident occurred, this time destroying about 5,500 plants. Federal investigators are seeking information about these incidents, and Oregonians for Food & Shelter have offered a reward of $10,000 for any information that leads to the arrest of the individuals responsible for these acts of vandalism.
Both incidents occurred in rural Jackson County, on the Southern border of Oregon. The beets were genetically engineered to resist the herbicide Glyphosate, the main ingredient in Roundup, which is a common trait for many genetically engineered crops currently on the market. This trait is desired by sugar beet farmers because it can improve their weed control, which currently requires multiple different herbicides to accomplish. The destruction of these beet plants is reported as a significant loss, which the federal government has classified as “economic sabotage.”
Few details have been released about how exactly these incidents occurred from Syngenta, for the reason that the company does not want to encourage copycats. Oregon live reports that the vandalism appears to have been conducted on foot, as no vehicle tracks were found.
Anyone with information is asked to call the FBI at (541) 773-2942 during normal business hours or the FBI in Portland at (503) 224-4181 twenty-four hours a day. Tips may also be emailed into Portland@ic.fbi.gov.
GMO crop vandalism in the United States
Several groups who are critical of genetically engineered crops have organized the illegal destruction of field trials and farms growing genetically engineered crops. Historically, organizations such as Greenpeace and the Earth Liberation Front were among some of the primary organizers of such events, but many ad-hoc organizations have cropped up over time to claim responsibility for some acts of destruction.
Two years ago, Greenpeace members broke into CSIRO, an Australian scientific agency, and mowed a plot of wheat, which was genetically engineered to have a lower glycemic index and may benefit people who are diabetic or otherwise conscious of carbohydrate consumption. About $400,000 in damage was caused, and the loss of one year’s worth of work.
Last year, a group that called itself Take the Flour Back threatened to destroy a field trial at the Rothamsted Research Station in England. The wheat variety being tested there was modified to produce an aphid pheromone that would deter the insect pests, and except for one small incident, the destruction of the trial never took place and a protest was conducted instead.
In the United States, vandalism of GE crop trials was common in the 1990s, but quickly became scarce after the year 2000. A press release by Beth Anne Steele at the FBI details many, but not all, of these incidents:
- 10/96 Atlantic, Iowa. Greenpeace destroyed 3 acres of Asgrow/Monsanto RR soybeans.
- 11/98 University of California, Albany, California. The “California Croppers & Captain Swing” destroyed the “Gill Tract” section of Novartis GM Corn and non GM Corn.
- 7/99 University of California, Oxford, California. “Reclaim the Seeds” destroyed 2 acres of Monsanto GM corn.
- 7/99 University of California, Albany, California. “California Croppers & Captain Swing” destroyed 14 rows of Novartis GM Corn and non GM corn, again at the Gill Tract.
- 7/99 Lodi, California. The Lodi Loppers and Cropatistas destroyed 1-2 acres of Dekalb (Monsanto) and Seed Tech GM Corn.
- 8/99 Wells River, Vermont. An unidentified group destroyed 50 rows of corn owned by the Knoxland Dairy. Knoxland grows both Bt and non-GMO corn and was not sure if the crops destroyed were GM or not.
- 8/99 University of Maine, Old Town, ME. “Seeds of Resistance” destroyed 1/2 acre of Dekalb (Monsanto) GM Corn at the University of Maine.
- 9/99 Goodhue, MN. “Minnesota Bolt Weevils” destroyed an undetermined amount of Novartis GM corn.
- 9/99 Mankato, MN. “Minnesota Bolt Weevils” destroyed 50 rows (and several vehicles) of Dupont/Pioneer GM corn.
- 9/99 University of California, Oxford, California. “Reclaim the Seeds” destroyed 7 acres of Monsanto GM corn.
- 9/99 University of California, Davis, California. “Reclaim the Seeds” destroyed 1000 corn plants, non of which were GM products.
- 09/99 University of California, Davis. “Reclaim the Seeds” destroyed Non-GM plants and research equipment at the Department of Plant Pathology
- 10/99 Eau Claire, Wisconsin US Genetix Alert (Jeffrey Tufenkian) announced that a group smashed windows and equipment at a Pioneer Hybrid Facility
- 11/99 Saanich, B.C Genetix Alert (Jeffrey Tufenkian) announced that a group destroyed about 1000 NON-GM trees at the Western Forest Saanich Forestry Center
- 11/99 Summerland, BC Genetix Alert (Jeffrey Tufenkian) announced that a group destroyed several hundred Fruit Trees at Okanagan Biotechnology, Inc.
- 11/99 Seattle, WA US Public Citizen & Jose Bove Rally at downtown McDonalds protesting biotechnology at WTO smashed windows, slashed tires on buses, spray painted police cars and set fires in the street
- 12/99 Michigan State Univ, Lansing US Earth Liberation Front set fires and cause $400,000 damage to USAID funded research project
- 01/2000 USDA, Albany, California Reclaim the Seeds (BAN/TAO)destroyed Non-GMO US Wheat hybrids at WRRC
- 01/2000 Watsonville, CA Fragaria Freedom Farmers GMO strawberries destroyed at Plant Sciences Inc
In 2011, and again in 2012, vandals cut down papaya trees engineered to resist a devastating viral disease, which were growing on private farms. Except for these incidents, sabotage of genetically engineered crops has not been seen in the United States for the past 10 years, while it continues internationally. Whether this is an isolated incident or the beginning of a new wave of crop vandalism amidst unrest over genetically engineered crops remains to be seen.
The acts of sugar beet vandalism in Oregon also coincide with the recent discovery of a variety of genetically engineered wheat in the same state that was not approved for commercial release by the USDA. Monsanto representatives have suggested that the few number of genetically engineered wheat plants found on an Oregon farm may have been the result of deliberate sabotage. The evidence for this, however, is only circumstantial, and others such as James Moyer, head of Washington State University’s Agricultural Research Center and an associate dean at the school, say that the rogue wheat incident could also be the result of an accident. Others find intention far less likely. The investigation of the wheat case is ongoing.
Sabotage as a Political Act
The use of sabotage, sometimes called “direct action” or euphemistically described as “non-violent” has been traditionally used to protest against genetically engineered crops, but its political effectivness is slipping around the world. Some past cases of research sabotage have led to arrests and convictions. A high-profile case of vandalism at Michigan State University in 1999 involved activists setting fire to a University building, leading to the eventual arrest and conviction of Marie Mason, who admitted to 13 counts of arson and property damage.
The Agriculture Hall she helped set fire to also housed a rare plant collection.*
The case of Marie Mason attracted support from prominent anti-GE activist, Vandana Shiva, who said in a video interview “I pay tribute to Marie Mason to what she did.” With regard to the illegality of the acts of arson, Shiva added, “I think it is criminal that she is treated like a criminal.”
During the trial of Mason, the prosecution stated “A good cause does not justify the worst means. That’s not how society works.”
The Greenpeace members who broke into the CSIRO facility in 2011 were convicted and fined for the damage they caused, which was paid for by Greenpeace. An act of sabotage attempted in connection to the threats made against the Rothamsted wheat trial also led to a conviction and a fine for the person responsible. Media reports and public commentary focused on the “anti-science” nature of such acts in both cases.
In the wake of the Rothamsted event, Mark Lynas, who himself used to destroy GE crops before changing his perspective on the technology, wrote in the Journal of Agriculture & Food Security that shifts in the debate have occurred as a result of time, outreach by scientists, and media framing.
Although these matters are necessarily subjective, many of those interested in the GM debate in the UK will agree that the failure of ‘Take the Flour Back’, and Rothamsted’s success in communicating the value of its biotechnology work, felt like a turning point. This has yet to be tested in terms of the public acceptability of actually eating GM wheat should it be commercialized, and it is also the case that the regulatory environment in the EU as a whole now makes it extremely difficult and expensive to deploy GM technologies outside the laboratory. To this extent, the successes of the early anti-GM movement and the plethora of regulatory responses it provoked still weigh heavy on the work of scientists to use this technology in a wider way for the benefit of the environment and food security more generally.
While destroying field trials of genetically engineered crops have continued around the world, there is evidence that these acts are increasingly being viewed as antithetical to garnering support for campaigns against the technology. The Mail Tribune said in a brief editorial, “GMO crops may be a threat to health and well-being, or not. But the people who resort to such acts succeed only in damaging their own cause.”
Chris Hardy, a founding member of GMO-Free Jackson County, agreed. “GMO-Free Jackson County does not support the destruction of another farmer’s crop.”
For the State of Oregon, this crime represents new territory for them in the debate over genetic engineering. Oregon Department of Agriculture Director Katy Coba stated, “To my knowledge, this is the first time someone has deliberately taken the cowardly step of uprooting high value plants growing in our state. Regardless of how one feels about biotechnology, there is no justification for committing these crimes and it is not the kind of behavior we expect to see in Oregon agriculture.”
*As readers have thankfully pointed out, the incident that destroyed a rare plant collection was a 1998 arson attack at the University of Washington.