Eco-vandals put a match to 'progress'

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

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.

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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."

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.

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.

"What's scary is you don't have to be guilty," says Barbara Rasco, an attorney and food science professor at Washington State University in Pullman. Activists have accused her of raising genetically modified fish, for example, even though her work involves no genetic engineering. "How do you protect your life's work against this sort of thing?"

If underground terrorists succeed in driving public research underground, there's more than irony involved. Universities are supposed to represent places of open inquiry even into subjects some consider unpopular or subversive. "We're an academic institution - we don't close up and not let people in," McGloughlin says. "It's against the policy and the mission of the university."

That openness makes university experiments far easier to attack than corporate facilities. For reasons of their own - such as sabotage by disgruntled employees - biotech and food companies have taken steps to protect themselves. And the bigger and better-known the company, the better its security tends to be, says Scott Brooks, a food-safety expert. An attack "is a potential that's out there. [But] it doesn't make me a lot more worried about the safety of the food supply."

By targeting universities, eco-terrorists are following the path of least resistance. But they risk public backlash. University scientists usually don't make good poster boys for corporate greed.

The eco-terrorists see it differently. "It's very risky business," says Mr. Pickering of the ELF press office. "The changes that are made in one genetically engineered plant would be equal to millions of years of evolution. [And] when it gets to a point where a crop's being field tested, there's not much you can do to stop it legally. It's already out in the environment."

The group denies it's a terrorist organization. "The ELF realizes the profit motive caused and reinforced by the capitalist society is destroying all life on this planet," its website reads. "The only way, at this point in time, to stop that continued destruction of life is to by any means necessary take the profit motive out of killing." Its website opens with a photo of a burning structure and "Every Night is Earth Night!"

States strengthen laws

The antibiotech fires and destruction have already caused a backlash among state legislatures. This year alone, 17 states have passed laws strengthening penalties for attacks on research crops, according to the American Crop Protection Association, a Washington, D.C., trade group. Virginia, for example, made it a felony to destroy such plants.

ELF has suffered some recent setbacks. In February, for example, federal officials convicted three teenagers for ELF arson attacks on Long Island homes.

Last month, US Rep. George Nethercutt (R) of Washington introduced a bill that would create a federal clearinghouse to track the actions of eco-terrorists and would fund grants to beef up security for university biotech.

But "there's really only so much you can do," says Dr. Ives of Michigan State University. After the 1999 fire, her staff discussed using security badges, then dropped the idea as too obtrusive. "It's a tough thing to decide how much of your money you want to spend on security at a public research organization."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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