Eco-vandals put a match to 'progress'
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ELF formed in the early 1990s in Britain, when another radical environmental group, Earth First!, renounced violence. Its North American debut, in 1996, initially looked more like college pranks. Members glued shut door locks of Oregon gas stations and McDonalds restaurants and spray-painted property with slogans. The group then quickly turned to arson, setting fire to a US Forest Service pickup truck, a meat-packing plant, and later a ski development in Vail, Colo.Skip to next paragraph
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On New Year's Eve, 1999, the group launched its first action against biotechnology. It set fire to offices of a global biotech project at Michigan State University in Lansing. That attack, which caused $400,000 in damage, served as a wake-up call to researchers. Opposition to biotech had taken a serious turn.
"People on campus were outraged," recalls Catherine Ives, director of the biotech project targeted by the ELF. "When it initially happens, you tend to get a little paranoid." The project has since instituted some low-level security practices and an entrance that beeps when the door opens. But "if the goal of this act was to basically prevent us from doing our work, it wasn't successful," she adds. Eight months after the fire, which destroyed administrative records but not research, her team had moved back into its offices.
The Michigan State fire also caught the attention of Martina McGloughlin, director of the biotechnology program at the University of California at Davis. Dr. McGloughlin has had her own run-ins with eco-terrorists. They've trampled test plots and vandalized offices at the university half a dozen times. An angry activist hit her with a chocolate pie at a public meeting in San Francisco last year. But the Michigan fire represented a new level of attack.
"This is not random. It is very well organized," she says of the eco-terrorism movement. "You do find yourself being a little suspicious." The university has stepped up security.
Even Kansas State University - where no such attacks have occurred - has taken precautionary steps. "We're certainly far more vigilant and have means in place to increase the probability of apprehension," says Dr. Zeigler of the plant biotechnology center.
These actions haven't deterred many researchers, who say biotechnology offers too much potential: better-yielding, more nutritious food that causes less environmental damage than today's cropping practices.
"This is so worthwhile, we'll do it despite these attacks," McGloughlin says.
Still, the intimidation has discouraged some from getting involved in bio-engineering, according to Gleyn Bledsoe, dean for research and extension at Northwest Indian College in Bellingham, Wash. "No one's losing sleep over it, but a darn good number of researchers won't even enter the field," he says. "They're reluctant because they're afraid of having their work destroyed." Other researchers go abroad to conduct their experiments or don't publicize their works, he adds.
Hitting the wrong target
Sometimes, eco-terrorists hit the wrong target. In 1999, a graduate student at the University of California at Davis had her test plants trampled on and pulled up, even though her research involved natural mutations in corn, not genetic engineering. She lost a year's worth of breeding work.