10 May 2002
FOLLY OF GM CROP TRIALS - GREEN WAR IN THE HIGHLANDS
1. Folly of GM crop trials: Executive is paying heavily for its lack
2. Home is a tent for eco-war general
3. Green war fought on Highland battlefield
4. Obituary for a GM crop puller
1. Folly of GM crop trials
Executive is paying heavily for its lack of consultation
The Herald (Glasgow) May 8, 2002
The bucolic Black Isle is not the sort of place that would normally be considered a hot spot of protest. But that is what it has become thanks to the Scottish Executive's decision to continue with genetically modified crop trials at Roskill Farm near Munlochy. It is not just Highland Council that is angry about the way local democracy has been by-passed. A growing number of protesters against the site feel the same way. The executive has conveniently classified GM crop trials as agricultural endeavours, which do not need planning permission. As there is no planning requirement, there is no need to consult the local community.
Ross Finnie, the rural affairs minister, has granted two consecutive GM trial licences at Munlochy, without any local consultation. The council has avoided taking sides in the GM biotechnology debate. Its concerns are about local accountability and consultation. The trials are intended to assess the impact of GM crops on neighbouring, non-GM ones and the effect on wildlife in both. A neighbouring farmer grows organic crops. These crops must remain uncontaminated to maintain their certification. If they become contaminated (which must be a real risk, given the proximity of the GM crops) livelihoods would be lost. If local concerns had been listened to in advance (as happens with housing developments, for instance) the executive would have had no excuse for being unaware about such a high-risk potential outcome. Did it really want to gamble in that way? Probably not. The gamble was a consequence of the executive not wanting to force farmers to take part in the trials. It invited them to come forward. But, as a consequence, it does not necessarily end up with the right sites. That seems to be the case at Munlochy. The tests have been extended to gauge the resistance of the oilseed rape to a poisonous herbicide that, theoretically, destroys weeds but not the crop. These tests have to be held "in the field" to work. They have been happening, but there are concerns that the herbicide could leach into Munlochy Bay, a nature conservation area for wildlife and plants. Rightly, campaigners want to know if Mr Finnie has done his homework before granting licences for the crops and extending the herbicide trials. But they have been repeatedly stonewalled.
The protest, which seems to be gathering momentum by the day, is an indication of just how badly the executive has handled the case for GM crop trials. GM crops might present a danger to biodiversity, or they might turn out to be a great benefit to humankind by enabling sturdy food crops to grow in famine-affected parts of the world. We will not know without rigorously-conducted, properly-controlled scientific research. The Munlochy trials demonstrate the critical importance of safeguards to reassure local communities that the experiments are safe; and the folly of failing to listen to local concerns or respond adequately to them. The executive is paying a heavy price for that failure. Mr Finnie has fallen back on the excuse that he cannot scrap the trials because it would be illegal under European laws. That is what he told his own Liberal Democrat party conference some three weeks ago (it voted to stop the trials) and, days before that, the Scottish parliament's transport and environment committee (it urged the executive to plough up the Munlochy oilseed rape, also because of potential environmental harm). But it does not seem to need scientific evidence of harm to stop the trials. The toughest sanction he might apparently face would be a civil action for breach of contract; hardly condign punishment. The Welsh Assembly, which has fewer powers than the Holyrood parliament, has refused to permit GM crop trials because of the possible environmental risk, and has done so apparently with Westminster's consent. If Scotland is to continue as a test ground for GM crops, Mr Finnie will have to open his mind to the potential risks, particularly in areas that really should not have been accepted for the trials in the first place.
2. Home is a tent for eco-war general
GM crop protest leader directs activists from Mongolian yurt next to a test field of oil-seed rape on the Black Isle
David Ross Highland Correspondent
The Herald (Glasgow) May 8, 2002
HIS living room is a Mongolian tent, or yurt, on the Black Isle. But from this unlikely Highland base, Anthony Jackson has been leading the battle against genetically-modified crops. His eight-and-a-half month vigil next to a field of GM oilseed rape near Munlochy has become the focus of Scotland's most concerted eco-campaign. Today, Mr Jackson will leave behind his tent and travel to Edinburgh, where he will watch as opposition politicians grill Ross Finnie, the environment minister, on his much-criticised management of Scotland's GM trials. Mr Jackson's trip south follows an escalation of activity against the crop trial, with three more protesters arrested, as part of direct action that has already seen one man sent to prison. Mr Jackson has always kept his and the vigil's distance from those prepared to take direct action against the crops, but he understands their frustration. He said: "Perfectly law- biding people are being driven to this out of sheer frustration because the democratic system is failing them. We have a minister who simply will hear nothing but what his officials tell him.
"The Highland Council and the transport and environment committee have both called on Mr Finnie to revoke his consent, as has local opinion here, over and over again.
But he claims he has no power to act and to do so would be illegal. He is wrong. "The Environmental Protection Act is very clear. Mr Finnie has the power to revoke his consent for the trial at any time without scientific evidence. It is only with crops that are grown commercially that you then have to invoke article 16, which does need scientific evidence of harm. "But that is exactly what the Belgian government has just done. So why can't Mr Finnie?"
It is eight years since Mr Jackson arrived in the Highlands from the Black Country in the Midlands, and eight and a half months since the 29-year-old former conservation worker took up residence at the side of the road across from the crop at Roskill Farm near Munlochy. A caravan, the tent, and a Portaloo have been his domain ever since. He shares them with others as part of the wider protest against Mr Finnie's decision last summer to grant, for the second year running without local consultation, a licence for the Munlochy GM trial. Yesterday, at Dingwall Sheriff Court, three other campaigners pled not guilty to vandalising the controversial crop. They were released on bail on condition they do not return to the field, and will stand trial in July. A total of 24 have now been arrested and charged, 13 in the last 10 days, but Monday night saw one of the biggest demonstrations yet. At about 6.30pm, 30 to 40 vehicles arrived at the test site, some blocked the approach roads while around 100 protesters emerged. A man wearing a Tony Blair mask drove a Land Rover with a long, heavy metal bar attached, up and down a long stretch of the 100-acre field, destroying a stretch of the crop alongside the road. According to eye-witnesses, nearly half of those present joined in the action, using sickles, sticks and their bare hands to cut and pull the flowering rape plants. After about three-quarters of an hour the protesters left the field again as police arrived to clear the area. Mr Jackson insisted yesterday: "We knew nothing about it. The first we knew was when the Land Rover arrived and went on the field."
He points to the government's defence in Europe of the Welsh Assembly's refusal to allow GM crop trials because the assembly believed they posed an environmental risk. The executive, however, was still not persuaded yesterday. A spokesman said: "We remain of the position that we can only halt farm scale trials on the basis of sound scientific evidence that demonstrates harm to human health or the environment. No such evidence currently exists and it would be illegal for us to halt trials."
Whatever happens, Mr Jackson will be back in his yurt tonight where he expects to remain at least until August when planning permission for the vigil runs out.
Three main Scottish sites, at Munlochy in the Black Isle, Daviot in Aberdeenshire, and Newport-on-Tay in Fife, have been chosen to grow GM oilseed rape as part of a farm-scale evaluation programme which is in its third and final year of planting. The results will be used to make informed decisions on whether GM crops have a commercial future in this country, according to Ross Finnie, environment and rural development minister. An anti-GM petition, signed by more than 4000 people, has been delivered to the Scottish Parliament. In total, 24 people have been arrested at Munlochy and charged with vandalising the crop since the trials began. Experts claim the trials pose no risk to health or the environment. However, Charles Saunders, chairman of the British Medical Association's public health committee, recently called for an end to GM trials until scientists could prove they were safe.
GRAPHIC: digging in: Anthony Jackson at the GM crop site at Munlochy, where he has mounted a vigil against the crop trials for eight and a half months.
3. Green war fought on Highland battlefield
The Times, 9th May 2002
ANTHONY JACKSON left his tent on the front line of Scotland’s eco-battle to open a new line of attack in Edinburgh yesterday. He returned disappointed but determined to his temporary home of eight months, overlooking the oilseed rape that has become the focus of an escalating conflict over the future of genetically modified crops in Britain.
Campaigners have been holding a vigil opposite the sprawling 35-acre trial site at Roskill Farm, near Munlochy, Highland, and dozens of protesters have been arrested trying to destroy the crop before it is ready for harvest.
The anti-GM protest began as a local crusade but has gathered cross-party support from politicians and backing from all sections of the community, from eco-warriors to a dowager countess. At stake is the future of GM trials in Britain.
The protesters have yet to convince the Scottish Executive that the site, now bright with yellow oilseed rape flowers, is a hazard. Yesterday Mr Jackson reacted angrily after hearing Ross Finnie, Environment Minister, refuse to halt the trial when he appeared before Holyrood’s Environment and Transport Committee.
Last month the committee agreed by five votes to four that the Executive should stop the GM trial. But yesterday Mr Finnie repeated his view that he would be acting illegally if he stopped the trial without scientific evidence that it was harmful to human health or the environment.
Mr Jackson, whose 4,500- signature petition against the trial sparked yesterday’s debate, said afterwards: "Mr Finnie is under pressure from the committee, his own party and the general public and as such he needs to be held to account.
"This is the future of food we are talking about and it has to be looked at properly and discussed in depth," added Mr Jackson, of Highlands and Islands GM Concern.
Mr Finnie was asked by Fiona McLeod, a Scottish Nationalist member of the committee, why the Belgian Government and the Welsh Assembly had put a stop to GM trials while the Scottish Executive insisted it could not.
The minister suggested that the Welsh Assembly may have acted outside the law and said he did not know the extent of the scientific evidence the Belgians had been acting on.
Mr Jackson, from Cromarty, and his fellow GM opponents, of every social and political hue, fear that it is too dangerous to wait for scientific evidence of possible problems. Surrounding farmers fear that their crops could be contaminated, nearby villagers have health concerns and environmentalists are concerned about the wider impact on the open countryside.
Jamie Grant, who planted the crop for the multinational company Aventis, has grown weary of the protesters. "As a farmer you do not like to see crops being wrecked after you have cared for them. I appreciate that people have concerns but they have got to keep an open mind for new things.
"The future of GM technology is the future for farming and for medicine. I feel sorry for these people who have already closed their minds without hearing any of the counter-arguments."
Aventis, the world’s seventh-largest chemical and pharmaceutical company, is at the forefront of GM trials in Britain. The company owns the patent for plants that are genetically modified to resist glufosinate herbicide, which is used to control weeds. Its GM plants are also resistant to insects, disease and pests, and are designed to grow stronger and provide a bigger crop.
Anti-GM campaigners argue that no one knows the potential danger of plants that have been genetically modified. Politicians and environmentalists across the country have called for further investigations to be carried out before more GM crops are planted around Britain.
As for those already in the ground, opponents want them removed. More than 20 protesters have been arrested attempting to damage the GM plants at Munlochy. After several night-time raids, they claim to have destroyed about one third of the crop. Last week Michael Foxley, chairman of Highland Council’s land and environment committee, called for a day of direct action to get rid of the rest.
Donnie MacLeod, chairman of the Highlands and Islands Organic Association and a distributor of organic produce, was jailed for refusing to name other demonstrators who took part in a raid on the field. After 11 days in Inverness prison, he was released to a hero’s welcome. He is now banned from visiting the Munlochy site but continues to campaign against the GM trial and sells T-shirts, badges and posters supporting the protest at his shop and tearoom. His particular concern is transgenic pollution - the possibility that a gene from a GM plant could "jump" to another plant. "There was no risk assessment done before this crop was planted," Mr MacLeod said. "We are told there is no significant risk to human health but we were told exactly the same about BSE. The truth is that we don‚t know what the risk is."
Another respected member of the community who joined the protest is Iona Henderson, who was appointed an MBE last year. Mrs Henderson, who runs an animal welfare centre in Munlochy, spent her 47th birthday in police custody after being arrested for damaging the GM crop.
"It was a terrible experience but I do not regret what I did," she said. "I am worried not only about what GM crops could do to our food chain but about the pollen now blowing about in the wind and how that could affect our health."
Lady Angelica Cawdor, Dowager Countess of Cawdor, who runs an organic farm, has joined the anti-GM campaign too. "I am most definitely against GM. That is not to say that everything GM will always be bad but at the moment things such as the oil- seed rape are dangerous. Pollution is almost a certainty."
The value of the trial, and others to follow unless the protesters get their way, was argued by Dr Bill MacFarlane-Smith, scientific liaison officer with the Scottish Crop Research Institute. "We know we can manipulate levels of vitamin C and manipulate levels of anti-oxidants with consequent value for health, which is of particular relevance to the Scots," he said. "I can see substantial opportunities in using the new technology and improving disease resistance. There are very few people who have examined the science and been able to come up with legitimate objections on scientific grounds."
4. Remembering Penny Hanson (1939 to 2002)
"Genetic modification in plants may look innocent, but it is far too
dangerous a weapon to be let loose"
- Penny Hanson, 2 July 2001
Penny Hanson, amongst other things, will be remembered for pulling up GM crops. On Thursday 2 May she collapsed and died whilst on her way to work on an organic farm in Ghana. She was 63 years old. She regularly worked on organic farms and had been very excited about going to Ghana.
Penny seemed to be such a private person on the details of her life, somewhat enigmatic, and yet she was generous in sharing herself. She played the church organ and drove an old Morris. She excelled at cat-napping without losing the plot. She resisted the poll tax ? refusing to pay because they wouldn't let her pay enough for her fair due! She supported other GM crop pullers in court and was prolific in writing letters.
I feel honoured to have shared some of the last things Penny did in her life that meant so much to her. My first contact with her was last June 2001 when she asked me, on the phone, to come to Lincolnshire to help her pull up GM crops at a site in Low Burnham. How fantastically brazen! It always makes me smile when I think of that. When I met her she seemed so old and frail, I was worried about her, whether she could cope with the stress and the physical exertion of a night of GM crop pulling. She seemed anxious. Me too. Her strength of spirit eclipsed her physical frailty.
She was absolutely determined and relentless. What an amazing conspiracy we had going - I wonder if you can have a conspiracy of just two? Two people can fight back-to-back, said poet Marge Piercy. And we did.
Two days after our crop pulling action we met in London to deliver our statements explaining our action, along with a bouquet of GM oilseed rape to Michael Meacher at DEFRA. Penny didn't like having her photo taken at this event, but she decided to put up with it. We were not arrested.
Farmer Durdy did not allow any further GM trials on his land.
Penny took the brunt of the police's attention because she was nearest to the Lincolnshire police. I think it got to her. She wouldn't allow me to try to steer their attentions in my direction. She would phone me up to tell me the latest each time the police had visited. When we finally got the letter from the police to say they were not going to charge us, it was a relief, because I didn't want her to have to go through the strain of court.
If we had gone to court she would have been inspirational and we would have won. We won anyway. Thank you Penny. Most of all I'll remember and cherish your friendship.
Rowan Tilly, 6 May 2002
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