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California and the West

Anti-Biotech Raid Destroys Conventional Crops

Vandalism: Researchers say most of the 2,000 plants ripped up at UC San Diego were not genetically modified.

September 19, 2000|ERIC NIILER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LA JOLLA — Bissrat Ghebru came all the way from Eritrea to help feed her people.

A plant biologist with a doctorate from the University of Birmingham in Britain, Ghebru was breeding native varieties of sorghum to make them more resistant to the droughts that plague her hardscrabble nation of 3.3 million in East Africa.

She will return home empty-handed.

Last month, Ghebru's three-foot sorghum plants were destroyed by politically motivated vandals who also ripped up 2,000 experimental corn plants, vegetables, peas and orchids during a nighttime raid at a field station at UC San Diego. Activists calling themselves "Ninos del Maiz," or "Children of the Corn," spray-painted warnings in Spanish on greenhouse walls such as "No Genetic Engineering" and "We're Watching You."

The Aug. 25 raid is the 37th such incident of anti-biotechnology vandalism in the United States in the last 18 months, according to GenetixAlert, an Internet clearinghouse for activists.

California, the nation's largest agricultural state, has been particularly hard hit. Last year, experimental fields at UC Berkeley and UC Davis were partly damaged as well as grapevines in Napa Valley and two private farms near Lodi.

It was the first such attack, however, in San Diego, which is home to large research facilities operated by agricultural biotechnology firms Novartis, DowAgroSciences and Akkadix. University officials did not alert the public about the raid, but word spread among researchers through the Internet.

Though the target of the raid at UC San Diego was genetically modified crops, most of the plants destroyed--including those planted by Ghebru and about 20 other scientists--were the product of conventional research. University officials put the damage at $75,000, mainly in lost time to researchers.

"I couldn't understand it at all," said Ghebru, a soft-spoken woman who came to San Diego 14 months ago with her young daughter on a Rotary International scholarship. She has been using sophisticated equipment at the university's department of plant biology to do genetic analysis of sorghum, a crop that is fed to cattle in the United States, but 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."

The vandals also ruined a project to study how corn forms its male and female flowers and the evolution of corn from its Mexican ancestor. Several native California plants from a project that is aimed at understanding how biodiversity of wild populations is maintained also were destroyed.

Nationally, some ecoterrorist attacks have involved more than just destroyed crops. 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 Co. On Christmas Day, an arson fire caused $1 million in damage 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 incidents. The only information about the shadowy groups comes from GenetixAlert, a Tennessee-based Web site that refers to those who take action against bioengineering as "courageous."

While the issue of genetically modified food has yet to become as controversial in the United State as it is in Europe, agricultural researchers here feel they are fighting a faceless, and perhaps clueless, enemy.

"They don't really understand the kind of research being done," said Sharon Kessler, a UC Davis graduate student who lost a year's worth of work in August 1999 when her corn patch--none of it genetically modified--was destroyed.

Denny Henke, who maintains the GenetixAlert Web site but says he is not connected to the activists, said scientists bear some of the blame for destruction of experiments that do not involve bioengineering.

"Part of the difficulty is that researchers, corporate or university, haven't been forthcoming about what they are testing," Henke said. "There have been crops that have been destroyed that should not have been destroyed."

The anti-biotech activists work in small groups and are not connected to any large organization, according to Henke. 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 that they often hit the wrong fields. "It's happened more than once and I'm sure it will happen again," he said.

In Oregon and Washington, lawmakers have proposed legislation that would make such ecoterrorism punishable under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act, a law now used to prosecute some anti-abortion activists who block access to clinics.

Although arrests are all but unheard of, Gov. Gray Davis last week signed a bill doubling the fines of people caught destroying research crops.

So far, campus police at UC San Diego and UC Davis investigating vandalism there have few leads. The raids have spurred tighter security, although scientists say it's doubtful they can protect cornfields in the same way that medical researchers began locking down animals after attacks by animal rights activists several years ago, said Maarten Chrispeels, director of UC San Diego's Center for Molecular Agriculture.

Security may be an issue for local officials in March when San Diego hosts the biotechnology industry's annual convention. Last year's event drew 2,500 mostly peaceful protesters to Boston. "San Diego is not a hotbed of activists, so we were surprised," Chrispeels said about the recent raid. "But everybody's turn comes."

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