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Eco-vandals put a match to 'progress'

(Page 3 of 3)



"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?"

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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