PLANT VANDALS TAKE AIM - AND MISS
September 26, 2000
In San Diego, they erroneously assaulted sorghum plants intended to help
feed people in poverty-stricken Eritrea. In Milo, Maine, 3,000 poplar
trees got the ax in July in the mistaken belief that they had been
genetically altered. In Davis, Calif., the victims were innocent corn
Shadowy "ecoterrorists" have declared war on genetically altered plants in
the United States, carrying out 37 attacks on biotechnology facilities
over the last 18 months. While the US public remains largely confused or
passive on the issue, some activists despise genetic engineering enough to
burn down research labs.
But the vandals' repeated attacks on plant research that has nothing to do
with their sworn enemy has many agricultural researchers scratching their
heads. Some scientists feel they are fighting an enemy that is not only
faceless, but perhaps clueless as well.
"They don't really understand the kind of research being done," said
Sharon Kessler, a University of California-Davis graduate student who lost
a year's worth of work in August 1999 when her corn patch was destroyed.
Her corn contained no artificially induced genetic mutations, but she was
a victim of an attack by eco-vandals that destroyed 1.5 acres of
conventional corn and about a half-acre of sugar beets, a fraction of
which were transgenic.
The rise of genetically modified foods has alarmed environmentalists who
fear that technology has outstripped understanding. By implanting genes
from one species into another - fish genes into tomatoes, for example -
researchers can improve plant's pest resistance and other qualities, but
the long term environmental impact is unclear.
California, the nation's largest agricultural state, has been hardest hit
by the eco-terrorists. But Aug. 25 marked the first attack at the
University of California at San Diego, which is home to research
facilities operated by agricultural biotechnology firms Novartis, DowAgro
Sciences and Akkadix.
"When I saw it, I couldn't understand it at all," said Eritrean plant
biologist Bissat Ghebru, describing the day when she found her 3-foot-tall
sorghum plants at the University of California at San Diego had been
Ghebru was breeding native varieties of sorghum to make them more
resistant to the droughts that plague her hardscrabble nation of 3.3
million people on the Horn of Africa. Although sorghum is mainly fed to
cattle in the United States, it is Eritrea's main food.
"These [plants] are farmers' varieties," Ghebru said. "They have nothing
to do with genetic engineering. I won't get anything out of my work here."
A group calling themselves Ninos del Maiz, or Children of the Corn,
spray-painted messages on greenhouse walls saying "No genetic engineering"
and "We're watching you in Spanish."
But only a small fraction of the corn, peas, other vegetables and orchids
destroyed in the night time raid contained genetically modified material.
University officials put the damage at $75,000, mainly in lost time to
Similarly, the ecoterrorists were mistaken when they cut down 3,000 poplar
trees in Milo, Maine, on July 22, destroyed a vehicle, and spray-painted
the property owner's truck and barn. The field was being leased by Mead
Corp., but had no genetically engineered trees on it.
"They picked the wrong field," said Mead spokeswoman Amber Garwood.
One problem in trying to make sense of the attacks is the lack of
information about the groups behind them. The main source of information
about anti-biotechnology vandals groups come from a Tennessee-based Web
But the operator of GenetixAlert said the real problem is that it's very
difficult to tell which crops are genetically altered and which are not.
They look the same, and researchers haven't been eager to highlight the
"Part of the difficulty is that researchers, corporate or university,
haven't been forthcoming about what they are testing," said Denny Henke,
who maintains the Web site, but said he is not connected to the activists.
"There have been crops that have been destroyed that should not have been
The anti-biotech activists work in small groups and are not connected to
any large organization or networked group, according to Henke. He said he
believes they may be the same people who were involved in animal rights
protests at research labs in the mid- 1990s. Henke said activists try to
do their homework before attacking, but acknowledged they often hit the
wrong fields. "It's happened more than once and I'm sure it will happen
Whoever is behind the attacks, some have inflicted serious damage. A New
Year's Eve fire at Michigan State University caused $400,000 in damages to
a genetic research facility funded in part by Monsanto. On Christmas Day,
an arson fire caused $1 million in damages to a Boise Cascade Corp. office
in Monmouth, Ore. A group known as the Earth Liberation Front, whose
members call themselves "elves," claimed responsibility for those attacks.
So far, law-enforcement officials have made no arrests in any of the
In Oregon and Washington, lawmakers have proposed legislation that would
make such eco-terrorism punishable under the federal Racketeer Influenced
and Corrupt Organization Act, a law now used to prosecute some
Last week, California Gov. Gray Davis signed a bill doubling the fines of
people caught destroying research crops. So far, campus police at UCSD and
UC-Davis have few leads.
The raids have spurred tighter security, although scientists say it's
doubtful they can protect corn fields in the same way that medical
researchers began locking down after attacks by animal- rights activists
several years ago, said Maarten Chrispeels, director of UCSD's Center for
"San Diego is not a hotbed of activists," Chrispeels said, "so we were
surprised" about the recent raid.
GMO RESEARCH STIRS HOT DEBATE
September 25, 2000
Some call it a demon that conflicts with the principle of natural
selection and will bring hazards to human health. Others hail it as
biological magic that can stop the fear of food shortage. Either way,
genetically modified foods will no longer be something out of the reach of
ordinary Chinese customers, as the research and commercialization of
genetically modified crops speeds up in China. Although China started the
research on genetically modified organisms (GMO) at roughly the same time
as its international counterparts did, it has long remained in labs and
out of the daily lives of average people. But this has changed
dramatically recently as the ever-fierce debate over the safety and
necessity of GMO, especially genetically modified foods, has sent
shockwaves through more and more Chinese people via the media.
Questions have been raised about whether Chinese people are eating these
foods and if so, whether any particular measures have been taken to ensure
their safety. Scientists and government officials' answers are roughly the
same: presently there are no genetically modified foods officially allowed
for sale on the Chinese market, but they are likely in the near future,
with China's imminent entry into the WTO and China's research and
introduction of the GMO advancing at its present rate. If genetically
modified tomatoes have not yet been seen on the market, some other crops
have already been imported as livestock feed, such as soy from the United
States. Apart from genetically modified food, which faces the brunt of
criticism and concern over the safety of GMO, Chinese biologists have made
solid progress in developing other GMOs, and tried to sell them. So far,
six genetically modified plants, including tomatoes and cotton, have been
given licences for commercial promotion by the Ministry of Agriculture,
but only two types of cotton seeds have been adopted by farmers and spread
to a significant part of the country.
"The other four are still in the laboratories, although they were given a
licence three years ago," said Li Ning, an official with the Committee of
Genetics Engineering Safety under the ministry. The committee is composed
of China's top biologists and some officials of the ministry, and is in
charge of the annual assessment of applications for commercial promotion
of genetically modified crops. According to Li, the ministry holds two
rounds of such assessment annually and about 200 applications have been
reviewed, with only six licensed. "The assessment process is very strict
as safety has been our top concern," said Li. "But it is fair to both
Chinese and foreign applicants. "There is only one set of rules for
approving the applications," she added. "So far, we have not issued
licences to any genetically modified grain or rape seeds."
The two types of cotton licensed were developed by the Chinese Academy of
Agricultural Sciences and the biological pharmaceuticals giant Monsanto ,
but both were genetically modified to prevent the boll worm, a major
threat to cotton growth in China. They are now fiercely competing to
allure China's cotton farmers.
Wang Qinfang, director of the Institute of Biological Technology under the
academy, has been involved in the research and promotion of their
anti-boll worm cotton seeds in the past years. She said their seeds had
been spread to about 366,670 hectares of cotton fields across China and
had significantly reduced the use of pesticide in preventing boll worms.
"Boll worm is one of the most serious pests for China's cotton, which
makes this genetically modified cotton seed crucial for a stable output of
quality cotton," she said.
They have developed four subtypes of these cotton seeds to meet the
different weather and soil conditions in different regions. Given the
pesticides and labour expenses saved, she said the cost of farming could
be cut by 3,750 yuan (US$451) per hectare. "The farmers call it the
'cotton of assurance' because they do not have to spend lots of time and
money on pest prevention like before," Wang said.
The Monsanto China has also invested a lot in promoting its BollGard
anti-pest cotton seeds in northern China, since it obtained its licence
for commercial promotion. By co-operating with local seed companies, its
brand took away a lion's market share in Hebei Province. Both brands are
more expensive than ordinary cotton seeds.
The BollGard is about 100 yuan (US$12) per kilogramme, while the academy's
is roughly half that. Ordinary cotton seed is about 10 yuan per
But the high prices seem not to have scared the farmers off. "Many farmers
found a bit more investment could save them even more, so they would not
hesitate to pay for it," said Wang. "We have tried to set the price as low
as possible, but the government has invested a lot in the research of this
seed and costs have to be recovered, at least in part."
Wang's words reflect the general situation of GMO research and development
in China. Unlike their foreign counterparts, they have been under more
financial pressure than religious and ethnic pressure in conducting their
research in the past decades. According to Wang, China started researching
GMO in the late 1970s when genetics engineering made a great breakthrough
internationally. China's research centred around a fixed goal from the
very start of the research: to develop a high-yielding, pest-resistant
plant in a country long plagued by food and cotton shortages. Since the
early 1990s, China's research in this area saw a boom, with big and small
laboratories across the country engaged in GMO research.
The Institute of Microbe Research, under the Chinese Academy of Sciences
(CAS), introduced an anti-virus, genetically modified tobacco seed and
carried out field experiments in 1992. The Institute of Genetics under CAS
developed eight types of anti-pest hybrid rice roughly around the same
time. In the arena of genetically modified animals, China has advanced on
two frontiers. One is the cultivation of high-yielding, low fat livestock
for food, and the other is for medicine production. Genetically -modified
high-yielding fish and low fat pigs have been created, while genetically
modified rabbits and sheep have also been cultivated as "biological
reactors" to produce certain antigens and proteins for medicine. Most of
this research has been done and reported as good news for China's
agriculture until recently, while safety has been rarely touched on as a
serious issue, at least by the media. In fact, funding has been the top
concern of most researchers.
The research on the anti-pest cotton was started in the early 1980s and
went through the whole of the 1980s. More than 50 million yuan (US$6
million) has been invested in developing this type of cotton seed, Wang
revealed, all by the government. "Even so, funding has always been a major
concern throughout our research," she said, "The public influence of fears
about safety has never been as important as the wish for more
high-yielding, quality seeds in our research." There must be a way to see
that being realized, she said.
That's why almost all the major research centres in China have engaged in
GMO research and set up affiliated companies to commercialize their
achievements. The Research Centre for Biological Technology of Beijing
University has obtained three commercial licences for genetically
-modified tomatoes, pepper and a type of flower seed. Although they have
at the same time set up a company to promote their research results, the
three types of seeds remain at an experimental stage. "We are now in the
process of seed cultivation," said Gu Hongya, deputy director of the
centre. "And large-scale application of these seeds will take some more
time." The situation in the laboratory was far different from that in the
real environment, which meant repeated testing of the safety of
genetically modified seeds was essential, she said. Gu said their
technology was mature and they expected large-scale introductions of their
three types of genetically modified seeds soon. But Li, of the committee
under the Ministry of Agriculture, was less optimistic, saying Gu's
research was still far from reaching the stage the licensed anti-pest
cotton seeds had reached.
"The licence for their seeds is to authorize them to commercially promote
their achievements," she said. "But there are still a lot of tests that
need to be done before we give them the final approval to manufacture
their seed products." Will they be required to be labelled as "
Not yet, Li said. "For the cotton seeds, farmers have shown little
resistance when told about the nature of these seeds. As for food, we will
work out the regulations before the day comes that genetically modified
tomatoes appear on the market in China."
GREEN REVOLUTION HAS BYPASSED AFRICA
The Record (Bergen County, NJ)
September 25, 2000
BY DENNIS T. AVERY
KOFI ANNAN, secretary-general of the United Nations, says, "I
challenge the foremost experts in the world to think through the barrier
of low agricultural productivity in Africa. I implore the great
philanthropic foundations, which have stimulated so much good and
practical research on agriculture to rise to this vital challenge."
That's from his new book on the role of the United Nations in the
21st century. Nice words. But there's no evidence that either the United
Nations or the First World are ready to put aside politics-as-usual and do
anything remarkable to feed Africa.
In fact, the United Nations played no role in the original Green
Revolution, which gave the world outside of Africa its current food
Instead of supporting high-yield seeds and chemical fertilizer, the
United Nations tried to organize commodity cartels that would have
increased food prices. Fortunately, the cartels failed, technology
tripled the world's crop yields, and today food costs for the poor are the
lowest in history.
However, today's United Nations has hundreds of officially
recognized non-governmental organizations actively campaigning for
Many of them have signed a "Leipzig agreement" demanding Africa and
the Third World be reserved as a subsidized "gene museum" for antique
crop varieties. They may falsely hope low yields will suppress
America's agricultural experiment stations, which provided the
original science and scientists for the Green Revolution, are being
pressured by the urban public's fear of global overpopulation.
Few Americans realize the one-time population surge is nearly over,
and that it was caused by modern medicine's lower death rates, not by
increased food production.
Many corporations, which once established hybrid seed farms and
developed new ways to protect crops from pests, have been frightened out
of farming by public disapproval and increasingly punitive government
The latest victims are the biotech companies, like Monsanto, which
invested billions in agricultural research, only to have experimental
plots destroyed by activists and their stock values battered by urban
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Norman Borlaug and former President Jimmy
Carter have recently proven African crop yields can be doubled or
tripled with the best seeds currently available, when supported by
modest use of fertilizer and pesticides.
But the very European countries that make heaviest use of farm
chemicals are demanding Africa not use them. Borlaug says that without
chemical fertilizer, African soils are in a downward spiral to
destruction, and that enhanced yields cannot be protected without some
Africa's own governments are also a major part of the problem. In
the 1970s, an American-sponsored experimental farm in Ethiopia bred
seeds capable of doubling yields.
Then a Stalinist dictator, Col. Mengistu Miriam, took power and gave
the new seeds to his army, instead of to farmers, and the army had no
idea what to do with them. Ethiopia stayed hungry.
Today's African governments aren't much better. Zimbabwe's President
Robert Mugabe is encouraging his political supporters to invade the
country's high-yield farms. These farms have provided much of the
country's food, nearly all of its foreign exchange, and a high
proportion of its jobs.
Soon Zimbabwe will be hungry again and poorer than ever. But Mugabe,
already in power for more than 20 years, will stay in the president's
palace a bit longer.
Nigeria, with 120 million people and a land area nearly as big as
France and Spain combined, has been misruled for decades. Despite new
high-yielding corn varieties and the introduction of the soybean,
Nigeria has barely been able to feed itself due to lack of such basics as
fertilizer and good roads.
South Africa ended apartheid, but it still has few jobs for blacks.
Ten million Zulus are supposed to live in acid-soil homelands where they
can do little more than hoe a few scrawny corn plants and herd a few
cattle on the threadbare pastures.
Ironically, there is lime in the area to combat the acidity. Brazil
has developed some crop varieties that do better in the acid soils, and
Mexican researchers have genetically engineered acid-tolerant crops. But
there is no investment to make the Zulu homelands more productive.
When will the world be ready for an African Green Revolution?
Certainly not yet.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, Va., and is director of global
food issues for the Hudson Institute of Indianapolis. This piece was
distributed by BridgeNews on New York.