Trial sites decontaminated
Norwich Crop Squat
Crop pullers acquitted
Hunger strike for a GM free diet
The Intercontinental Caravan
Deliveries to DEFRA
Tractors and trolleys pilgrimage
Sainsbury's milk blockades
Since the mid nineties Britain has seen effective and sustained campaigns of non-violent direct action against genetically modified crops. This has ranged from crop pulling to office occupations to supermarket blockades, and involved a remarkably wide range of people. Backed by widespread public support the campaigners have succeeded in massively holding up the introduction of GM crops and GM foods into Britain. Below are a few of the highlights from 1997 to 2004.
Back in 1996 a handful of multinational corporations planned to flood the UK with GM crops. They didn't expect any opposition and for a time it looked like they might succeed: unlabelled GM soya and maize products were all over the supermarket shelves, GM crop trials were increasing exponentially and commercial growing of GM crops looked to be a foregone conclusion.
However by 1998 it became clear that things weren't going at all well for the GM industry. There was general public outrage, and concerns about ethical, food safety and environmental issues all of which led to a widespread rejection of GM crops. Protests, letter-writing, supermarket actions, lobbying, information events erupted all over the country. Organisations such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace took up the issue. But this was not enough. The stuff was coming into the country via the ports and growing in the fields in the open. The risks of uncontrollable cross-contamination were immediate and real.
People decided to take non-violent direct action to remove the GM crops from the fields by physically pulling them up. The first crop-pullings took place in 1998, and in the year from 1999-2000 there were 37 different GM trials that were damaged or destroyed. The GM industry realised it was skating on thin ice, and were anxious to avoid any bad PR. As a consequence, while people were sometimes initially charged with criminal damage worth thousands of pounds, the majority of cases never came to court
The massive public opposition to GM crops forced a panicky government and industry to cook up something to make it look like they were listening to what people were saying. These were the farm scale trials (FSTs) and a four year voluntary agreement between the government and the industry to hold off commercial growing of GM crops until the trials were finished. The FSTs were very large test sites - some up to 50 acres - that were supposedly designed to conclusively evaluate the impact of GM crops on farmland ecosystems. In reality they were a half-hearted and scientifically flawed attempt to make it look like public concern was being taken seriously, and the widespread trashing of these trials shows that people weren't fooled.
Over the last decade the industry has been on the backfoot. Products made from GM ingredients have to a large extent been eliminated from British food, although animals fed on GM find their way into people's diets, largely without their knowledge. There have been no commercial GM crops grown in Britain, and between 2004 and 2007 there weren't even any GM trials. In 2007 BASF started a trial of GM potatoes near Cambridge - this was abandoned in 2009. Further trials into GM potatoes have happened near Tadcaster and Norwich since 2008. The question remains as to whether the current trials are to be the last in Britain, or the start of the biotech industry's next big push ...
Trial sites decontaminated
It would be impossible to list all the times when GM trials were damaged or destroyed by the public: Genetix Update lists at least 91 instances between 1999 and 2003. As well as the number, what is extraordinary is the wide range of people who took part, going far beyond the usual suspects: "We are just a group of friends who have never got involved in a GM protest before. I hope that our action will inspire others to do the same," commented one decontaminator from Darlington.
In what was Britain's first NVDA on a GM-Test site, the Super Heroes Against Genetix First XI donned their outfits in their ongoing tour against the combined Pro-Genetix team. The game was played out on a potato test field site just outside Cambridge. Due to the nature of a somewhat muddy and sticky-wicket - potatoes replaced the traditional red ball. Fielders had a difficult time of it - most of the batting resulted in the 'balls' being smashed to pieces or else being lost amongst upturned soil. The entire crop of the test site was destroyed.
Later that year oil seed rape was destroyed near Coventry, a sugar beet field was trashed in Ireland, and another rapeseed field near Chichester was partly destroyed by local people rolling all over the crop.
At Christmas GM apple trees were ring-barked so that they would die, and traditional varieties were sown in their place. In Scotland members of the GeneGnome Project painted a huge red X across a rapeseed farm and in Lincolnshire people pulled up a demonstration crop of spring wheat.
In June 1998 North Essex experienced an alien visitation. It was found that the aliens had destroyed a GM crop overnight, leaving a mysterious x made from the mown plants, in the middle of which was found a message that read "People of Earth, let it be known that we have decontaminated the genetically polluted site ... in your Earth country called Essex... Your food evolved the way it did for a reason, meddle with it at your peril!"
In Oxfordshire, 600 people held a July picnic, and went on to all trash an oilseed rape field together, while in Dorset 100 people scythed down maize, also in broad daylight. In Dorset again, people near the Littlemoor estate in Weymouth took the 'take a walk, pluck a stalk' approach, whereby they made successive night-time raids on one field and managed to destroy 40% of the crop with no arrests.
In Munlochy in Scotland, protesters arrived at a trial site by car down a single track road, and there were so many of them that the police could not get past their vehicles, and they earned a 45 minute window in which to scythe, pull and trample as much as they could.
Norwich Crop Squat
From 23-24th May onwards an ex-Novartis GM sugar beet plot at Kirby Bedon near Norwich was occupied by 30 protesters for two weeks. The GM sugar beet had been destroyed a few nights earlier. Within a few hours a well resourced info space inside a yurt and a marquee had been erected, organically grown flowers and vegetable plants had transformed the field into an educational garden, with demonstrations of organic pest control methods such intercropping and companion planting.
Then the press arrived and carried on arriving for all the two weeks that the camp was there. There was lots of local support, a successful rally brought in lots of people. After two weeks an eviction order was passed and the campers decided to pack up voluntarily.
In April 2002, 20 people constructed a pink castle and encampment on one of the two maize farm scale trials on either side of the Littlemoor housing estate in Weymouth, Dorset. The 30ft tall, concrete lock on and foundational wood and canvas fortification stood guard over the entrance to the proposed field for three weeks without incident. During that time a garden was established, media courted, a newsletter produced and distributed and a pirate radio station broadcast GMFM to the area most days.
In May the farmer came to plant the field, backed up by 80 police officers, 7 tractors and a helicopter. The officers prevented some people from locking on, but still 4 tractors were taken out of action and only two thirds of the field was planted. Locals were prevented form entering the area to help, but later in the day people from the estate were seen taking the seeds that had been sown straight back out of the ground. During the 7 weeks of occupation the field was hoed over twice, the media were invited to a comprehensive clean-up and further contamination was dealt with in five night time forays, so that by the time the camp packed up, the trial had to be abandoned.
The 4 people who were arrested were initially found not guilty on the grounds that they were acting from necessity to prevent the destruction of property, but this judgement was over-ruled in the High Court on appeal.
In 1998 five women, who had openly declared their intention to decontaminate genetically engineered plants at a test field site were arrested for criminal damage after pulling up almost 200 GE plants at Model Farm, Watlington in Oxfordshire. Thames Valley Police later released the women as the owners of the GE crop, Monsanto, decided not to press charges in line with their public relations policy of minimum unfavourable press coverage. As part of the Genetix Snowball campaign, which had been set up to carry out accountable public decontaminations, the women had announced their plans in letters to the farmer, the company and the police. Representatives from Genetix Snowball had also met with the farmer two weeks previously.
The five Snowball women received injunction papers on 14th July, ordering them not to pull up or conspire with others to pull up any more of Monsanto's Roundup Ready test field plants. Some of the women decided to contest the injunctions and the 'unlimited damages' claim against them. On 18th September a second injunction was granted to Monsanto extending the terms of the attempted gag on the Genetix Snowball campaign. It added another clause stating that the five women plus their press officer would be held responsible for any damage caused at Monsanto sites by "members" of Genetix Snowball.
This did not prevent other 'snowballers' around the country from taking responsibility for genetic engineering and doing their bit to prevent it. In Lincolnshire snowballers pulled up sugar beet, in Scotland a Genetix snowball group inspected GM potatoes in a polytunnel and were charged for house-breaking, while in Somerset five people confiscated £200 worth of GM food from Tesco's. They tried to hand it in at the local police station, who refused to arrest anyone or take the goods. They then attempted to deliver the unwanted food to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who also refused to have anything to do with it. In June, members of the Cereals 99 snowball group uprooted a demonstration sugar beet and bagged up the plants in front of Monsanto staff. Again, there were no arrests.
As well as decontaminating trial sites people also successfully targeted the companies behind the trials. In 1997 more than 50 people occupied Monsanto's offices in London, hanging banners from the roof and occupying the board room. Monsanto's offices in London and High Wycombe were visited again the day before the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) was due to make a decision on whether GM food could be certified organic. Super Heroes Against Genetics delivered a pile of bovine excrement and hung a banner saying "we don't want Monsanto's bullshit". Panicking about the potential public outcry if the decision was passed, Monsanto the USDA to defer the decision.
In Hull in 1999 35 people occupied Cargill's seed oil processing plant: they took on a silo and a tower and blockaded a lorry until the gate was locked by police. There were no arrests.
Crop pullers acquitted
In July 1999 the executive director of Greenpeace, Lord Melchett of the Soil Association and 27 other environmental activists entered a field of GM maize at a farm in Lyng, Norfolk. Dressed in white overalls the group set about removing the entire six and a half acre crop with the help of a tractor and a tipper truck. Although the farmers quickly intercepted them and gave chase with tractors of their own it was estimated that they succeeded in destroying a quarter of the crop. All 28 were arrested and charged with criminal damage. Over a year later a jury at Norwich Crown Court found them not guilty on the basis that safely removing the GM plants prevented further contamination, and that constituted a lawful excuse.
In another high profile case in 2001 Jim Ridout, a 26 year old landscape gardener, and Barbara Charvet, a 59 year old retired English teacher, were found not guilty of criminal damage in a jury trial at Worcester Crown Court. They had openly cut down GM maize using sickles in August 2000 at a crop research centre at in Herefordshire. Experts provided the court with written testimonies of the threats the crop posed to nearby crops, the environment and public health, and the jury agreed that again in this case, their actions were legal.
1997-8 saw many supermarket actions, aiming initially at getting GM items labelled, but increasingly at getting them to exclude GM items from their shelves. In a typical scenario groups of people would stack baskets and trolleys high with any products potentially containing GM ingredients and join different check out queues at a pre-arranged time. When asked to pay for the goods, people would ask the cashier whether any of them contained GM ingredients, a question the cashiers were of course unable to answer. At this point protesters handed out leaflets, discussed the issue of GM ingredients in food with staff and customers, played music and held speeches. Many shoppers and staff were very interested and sympathetic.
By 1998, Tesco, Safeway, the Co-op supermarket and M&S all felt the pressure as outraged shoppers held up check out queues, argued with the managers, distributed leaflets, stickered products and roamed around dressed as mutant vegetables. In
Belfast, an activist in a scientist costume thanked customers for paying to take part in a global experiment, while in Taunton people in slick business suits ushered customers inside, handed them experiment numbers and referred them to the store management for more disinformation.
The Soil Association and Prince Charles joined in with the campaign urging shops (particularly the big eight supermarkets) to withdraw GM products from their shelves. A major step forward was made when the Chief Executive of the Iceland supermarket chain, Malcolm Walker announced the banning of all GM ingredients in his supermarkets' own brand products by the end of April 1998. British Sugar also stated in the January edition of Crops magazine that they wouldn't be processing GM sugar beet, on the grounds that consumers don't want it. In May, Sainsbury's, who were one of the first supermarkets to sell GM, became the first of the big four to virtually eliminate GM soya from their own range brands. In September, Tesco committed to labelling all products containing GM soya ingredients. November saw Asda commit to only sourcing non GM ingredients for their own brand products.
By 2000 supermarket actions were targeting less well known GM products. Super Heroes Against Genetics attended the opening of a new flagship M & S store in Manchester, and despite heavy security managed to get into the 'intimate apparel' department where they shocked customers by explaining what their knickers were really made of. Meanwhile, the world's largest pair of frilly briefs were being unveiled outside with the slogan 'Pants to GM cotton!' In Exeter, Sherbourne, Taunton, Coventry, Bracknell, Plymouth and London pantomime cows ran amok through the supermarkets and stuck labels on all meat and dairy items where the animals had been fed on GM feed.
Hunger strike for a GM free diet
In 1997, Sharyn Lock went on hunger strike in prison to demand a GM free diet, and after 3 days the authorities agreed. In 1998 Ben Thompson tried the same tactics. This time he was initially successful, but the governor went back on his word, and Ben promised he would repeat his strike, but that this time he would also refuse liquids, which would give him a very limited time to live. Outside people planned vigils and did press interviews, they arranged GM free food and talked to the catering staff, they wrote letters and signed petitions and bombarded the prison with phone-calls and faxes until eventually the governor relented.
The Intercontinental Caravan
In May 1999 40 Indian farmers toured the UK to voice their objections to the WTO, free trade and GM. They were part of a group of 500 Southern farmers travelling Europe to make their voices heard. While they were visiting the Nuffield Council on Bio-ethics reported that there was a moral imperative for making GM crops available to developing countries. The Foundation was marched on by the farmers and around 200 other campaigners. Mr Manjit Singh, General Secretary of the Punjabi Farmers Association said "Hunger is not a question of supply, it is a question of politics. ...far from being a solution to our problems, genetic engineering is already bringing ruin to many Indian farmers."
The Southern farmers went on to France where they scythed down and burned a test site of GM rape, cleaned up some greenhouses full of GM rice under the gaze of national TV and finally blockaded Rhone Poulenc's headquarters.
See Resistance to GM: Asia for more details on Indian farmers' campaigns.
Deliveries to DEFRA
In 2002 over 200 people from all over the country descended on the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) with bags full of GM crops and seeds that they had ripped up from trial sites. The crowd pushed wheelbarrows containing crops illegally removed from almost every field trial in the country.
Tractors and Trolleys Pilgrimage
In 2002 over 20 people made their way by foot, bike or tractor from their homes to the London. Staying with friends and anti-GM supporters on route, they built up local media coverage for the event and their voices gave a context to the unfolding scientific reports and biotech breakdowns being widely reported. They were joined in London by a crowd of over a thousand others who marched with shopping trolleys, petitions and organic deliveries to all the usual stop off points. The final speeches celebrated the diversity of tactics of five years of campaigning, and saw the ex-environment minister (after half a seconds hesitation) clap grassroots GM crop trashing.
Tracy, 40, mum, customer account advisor for a bank, riding her bike from Clacton to London
I have sat in my beautiful garden and cried at the thought of a future where I cannot choose what my children and I have to eat. I have sat in dreaded fear contemplating taking direct action and in the end coming to the only conclusion I could. That my fear of a GM future was far greater than the other fear I felt. I have been in a field in the middle of the night crushing GM maize, wet and wheezy with my knees cut to bits. If GM crops are grown in this country I will lose my right to choose to eat GM free food. I am not prepared to give up that right without fighting.
Gerald Organic Farmer, driving his Tractor from Pembrokeshire to London
"As a farmer I am concerned that no one knows the impact of GM on our health or the environment. I believe planting crops on a commercial scale is not a risk we should be taking,, especially as consumer demand for non-GM food is overwhelming. GM crops, whether planted commercially or as trials, will inevitably contaminate both non-GM and organic crops. If the government does go ahead with the commercialisation of GM, it will put our seed purchases and chemicals under corporate control and it will be another nail in the farming coffin."
Charlotte, 22, support worker in the care sector. Walking from Cambridge to London
I have not taken part in anything like this before, there are several companies in Cambridge involved in GM- Monsanto, Bayer and Syngenta. I feel, as I live in Cambridge, I have a duty to take part in this walk. I want to be more public about my views and to educate and encourage others to take more interest in what is happening so close to home.
Rowan 45 GEN worker riding from Hereford to London
"This is a journey to bear witness to the land which has already been contaminated... A journey to celebrate the communities of resistance that have sprung up in response wherever GM crops have been planted."
Martin 41, researcher and writer. Walking from Scarborough to London
Genetic Engineering is an entirely unnecessary technology... yet it threatens unprecedented, serious and largely irreversible harm. My walk is a personal act of witness in defence of human freedom and the environment.
In 2002-3 a major target for campaigners was Bayer, a German based multinational chemical corporation, who took over Aventis Crop Science and become Europe's biggest GM research company. Aventis was the company behind most of the UK's crop trials. 85% of GM field trials in the UK in 2002 were owned by Bayer. In 2003 Bayer owned over half of the GM crop varieties seeking approval for commercial growing in the EU.
In 2002, Bayer's offices in North Yorkshire had their locks jammed with liquid metal, their headquarters in Newbury was invaded, their stall at the British Potato Festival was trashed, work was disrupted in their office in Humberside by 15 people who offered biscuits to staff, and a Bayer sponsored conference at York University was stopped. In late summer the campaign was further nationalised, with a national day of action and the launching of a website, and in September Bayer announced they would suspend all UK field trials until the government could provide better security. Activity continued with a noise blockade at the headquarters in Newbury, fences damaged, test sites spray painted and locks jammed. In Spring 2003 they withdrew the crops that were proposed for commercialisation, and in the words of the then Environment minister, the prospect of GM cultivation was presumed to be over in Britain, for "the foreseeable future".
Sainsbury's milk blockade
In 2004 Sainsbury's five biggest UK distribution centres in London, Liverpool, Birmingham, Bristol and Sheffield were shut down in a co-ordinated action by farmers, consumers and environmentalists. Protesters had blockaded the gates of the depots using arm tubes and tripods. Sainsbury's was refusing to provide non-GM fed milk as standard, in spite of the fact that other supermarkets were doing so. A farmer commented: "We are paid less for our milk than it costs to produce. GM is only adding to the crisis in our industry. We want an end to the exploitation of foreign farmers through GM, and an end to the exploitation of us by the supermarkets." Shortly afterwards Sainsbury's launched a GM-free non-organic milk.