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Eco-vandals put a match to 'progress'

By Laurent Belsie Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 5, 2001


In the dark corners of recent American history, terrorists have hijacked planes, killed abortion doctors, and planted bombs. Now, they're after crops.

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Shadowy, loosely organized bands of eco-terrorists are rooting up plants and setting fire to labs to stop agricultural biotechnology research. In the past two months, radicals have burned a research lab at the University of Washington, torched a tree nursery in Oregon, and spray-painted a biotech building at the University of Idaho.

Their self-styled economic war has pushed the issue into the public spotlight and generated loads of publicity. It has rattled scientists and forced some of them to go underground with their research. But by attacking the work of university scientists, these eco-terrorists may be doing their cause more harm than good.

From Galileo onward, history has rarely turned scientists into villains. Even when it does - Nazi anthropologists trying to prove Aryan superiority, for example - bad science gets debunked by more science, not by ideology. By opposing continued biotech research, its radical opponents are trying to halt humanity's groping movement along a particular branch of knowledge. It's a tall order.

Already, the violence is allowing biotech supporters to seize the high ground. "I think we're all concerned about the effect on research, even freedom of thought," says Bob Zeigler, director of the plant biotechnology center at Kansas State University in Manhattan.

Mainstream environmental groups, who also oppose the commercialization of biotechnology, have condemned the violence.

"No groups I work with would condone these actions," says Richard Caplan, environmental advocate for US Public Interest Research Group in Washington, D.C.

Despite this opposition - and mounting efforts by state and federal authorities to put a stop to their campaign - eco-terrorists appear undeterred.

"What [authorities] are attempting to do is to scare potential saboteurs out of taking action," says Leslie Pickering, spokesman for the North American Earth Liberation Front Press Office based in Portland, Ore. But "I think these people who are involved realize that the outlook for genetic engineering is much worse than the potential of going to jail for a while."

The Earth Liberation Front (ELF) represents the most visible of the eco-terrorist fringe. It operates as separate cells of individuals around the country who, apparently, don't know each others' identities. After staging an attack, the particular cell issues a communique to the ELF press office, but the press office claims never to initiate contact with ELF or know who its members are.

The Nighttime Gardeners

Other groups, such as the Nighttime Gardeners, have uprooted crops and hosted websites with instructions on how to destroy bioengineered plants in the dark without getting caught. (The site even shows how to throw crime labs off one's trail.) The ELF has gained the most notoriety because of its arson attacks.

"We characterize them as an underground criminal organization that uses economic sabotage," says Steven Berry, a spokesman with the FBI's national press office. So far, the group has claimed responsibility for more than 20 violent acts - mostly arson - causing an estimated $37 million in damages, he adds. "They've become more active in recent months."