COLD SPRING HARBOR, N.Y. -- On a police blotter, it might not look like
much: a small cornfield vandalized, a few acres of ears trampled and
But this was not just any cornfield. The patch that was damaged here in
early July was part of a research project at the Cold Spring Harbor
Laboratory, a field with a distinguished scientific heritage.
It was where Barbara McClintock studied Indian corn in the 1940s to learn
about genes -- work that won her a Nobel Prize in 1983.
Officials say they believe that the field was attacked for that very
reason. The destruction, they said, appears to be the latest of several
recent incidents across the country in which experimental crops have been
destroyed and research centers vandalized by militant environmentalists
who oppose the genetic modification of plants.
Graffiti denouncing genetic engineering was found near the trampled rows
More than 30 acts of sabotage against genetic research have been reported
in the last year, according to both law enforcement officials trying to
combat the practice and radical environmental groups that encourage it.
Vandals have trampled experimental grass fields in Oregon, pruned pinot
noir vines and uprooted strawberry fields in California and hacked down
cornfields in Maine.
Sometimes the destruction goes well beyond crop damage. On New Year's Eve,
arson destroyed a suite of offices in Michigan State University's
Agriculture Hall. No one was hurt, but the fire caused hundreds of
thousands of dollars' worth of damage. A radical environmental group, the
Earth Liberation Front, later claimed responsibility, saying it had
focused on the program because of the program's ties to biotechnology .
Officials at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory said the vandalism was not only
misguided, but misdirected. The corn that was trampled was not genetically
modified, they said, but rather was the result of natural plant breeding.
"It is unfortunate that these individuals chose illegal means and
intimidation to promote their point of view," said Bruce Stillman, the
director of the laboratory.
Scientists and businesses have been working on genetically modified crops
for years. In recent years, though, opposition to the practice has grown
among a broad range of environmentalists and others who fear the unknown
effects of manipulating nature.
This opposition soon led to organized protests and vandalism, first in
Europe, where fear of so-called Frankenfoods is more common, and now in
the United States, where groups with names like the Cropatistas, the
Strawberry Liberation Front, the Anarchist Golfing Association and Reclaim
the Seeds have claimed responsibility for acts of sabotage.
"It seems to be on the rise, and we are quite concerned about it," said
Michael J. Phillips, the executive director for food and agriculture at
the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a trade organization in
It has attracted the attention of law enforcement officials as well, from
campus police departments to the FBI. "We are very aware of these
incidents of eco-terrorism, and when they do occur, the FBI considers them
to be serious violations of federal law and investigates the matters
thoroughly and vigorously," said Steven Berry, a supervisory special agent
for the FBI in Washington.
Those who claim responsibility for the attacks dislike the term vandalism,
preferring to call what they do direct action.
"As far as the activists are concerned, it is the genetic engineering
itself that is the vandalism," said Denny Henke, a spokesman for Genetix
Alert, a group that uses the Internet to publicize actions against genetic
modification. "The activists that are doing this aren't doing it for fun.
They feel passionately that this is a very real danger, and they are
willing to risk arrest."
California has seen such a spate of vandalism at its universities and
private businesses that one lawmaker, Assemblywoman Helen M. Thomson,
introduced a bill this year to stiffen the civil penalties for destroying
crops used in research.
Thomson, whose district includes Davis, where the state university has
been the target of frequent attacks, said her bill had been nicknamed the
Hate Crimes Against Vegetable Crops law. She said she decided to increase
the civil penalties because of the lack of success officials in her area
had building criminal cases against the vandals.
"Last year a number of graduate students had their research projects
upended, pulled up, cut," she said. "It's all because of the overall issue
of biotech . Now, that's a good debate, biotech , but without the
research, the data and real understanding, there isn't very much to go on
other than what your biases are."
Phillips said the Biotechnology Industry Organization would like to see a
similar federal law intended to protect crops.
Many scientists have been taken aback by the attacks, saying they have
been working on projects that will benefit the environment by reducing the
need to clear-cut forests or use deadly pesticides, or by helping
developing countries grow crops more efficiently.
Catherine Ives, the director of the Agricultural Biotechnology Support
Project, a federally financed group at Michigan State that helps
developing countries learn to use biotechnology , was shocked when her
offices were gutted. A few weeks later, the Earth Liberation Front --
which has also claimed responsibility for the 1998 arson at a ski resort
in Vail, Colo., that caused $12 million in damage -- said it had set the
"To me, its unconscionable," Ives said. "We're so fortunate to live in a
country where you have the right to protest. It is unconscionable that you
have to resort to violence and skulking around in the middle of the night
and setting fires. Picket me, debate me, I'd salute you. But you don't
have the right to destroy property."
The attack on the cornfields at Uplands Farm stunned scientists.
To some researchers, it was like vandalizing Mendel's pea patch. This is,
after all, where McClintock did her groundbreaking studies of Indian corn,
analyzing the patterns of kernels to learn about the breaking and joining
of genes and chromosomes inside the cells.
But lab officials were reluctant to discuss the vandalism in detail,
fearing that publicity would encourage copycat attacks.
Senior Account Executive