Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Pagan, Peer and Priest in GM Crops Raid!

My good self (left) and Jo Melzack are taken into custody
It is 5:05AM on 26th July 1999, a bright clear morning and at Walnut Tree Farm, Lyng, Norfolk a farmer is about to go to work in a field. An everyday rural scene except that the farmer is Peter Lord Melchett, Fourth Baron Melchett, ex-Labour minister and Executive Director of Greenpeace, and the field is a crop of T25 maize, genetically modified to resist a powerful weed killer.

A carefully planned Greenpeace operation had begun the previous night with five convoys converging on Lyng from around Britain. Shortly after 5AM Iain McSeveny, Greenpeace’s dour Scottish accountant cut the lock to the field and began a chain of events that would eventually see twenty-eight people, including Lord Melchett and myself, on trial in Norwich Crown Court and the whole future of GM foods thrown into doubt.

The Heavy Metal arrives
The crop is head high, six acres of ‘green concrete’, and a toxic desert in which nothing else lives. The tassels on the crop are just beginning to descend prior to pollination, at which point each head of maize will release 25 million grains of GM pollen. Greenpeace intends to stop this happening, and has brought a powerful tractor and mower for the purpose.

Melchett makes the final adjustments and the machine sets off, cutting through the crop at a good pace; the whole operation should be over in less than an hour. Nothing is being left to chance and a lorry is waiting to return the crop to its owner, the German multi-national corporation AgrEvo. There was however one factor that hadn’t been considered – the Brigham brothers, whose family has farmed this land since the 17th century.

First on the scene is a very angry William Brigham. He is treated cordially; after all it is his land even if it’s not his crop. There had been a meeting in the village hall the previous week, Melchett tells him, when over a hundred of the villagers had called for the crop to be destroyed. Mr Brigham had not attended, under the orders of the chemical company he explains. He storms off in a foul mood, his expletives recorded verbatim by John Vidal, a Guardian journalist invited along by Greenpeace to ensure fair play.

“running like Penelope Pitstop”
Next on the scene is younger brother Eddie, a man of few words. He is sitting on top of an industrial loader fitted with a huge bucket. His brother removes the gate from the hinges and Eddie rams the Greenpeace lorry out of the way.

He then drives straight through the field – and the crowd of people on the other side. Adrian O’Neill, a campaigner from Beverley, later described John Vidal and myself as both “running like Penelope Pitstop” to escape. Fortunately no one is hurt and Eddie heads for the mower, bringing the bucket down and stopping it dead. I decide to check that the driver is all right, but as I make my way to the immobilized tractor I suddenly find Eddie heading back towards me, leading to another rapid dash to safety. His mission accomplished, Eddie then leaves the field to cause some more havoc on the road, squashing the Guardian press car on the way.

GM maize; bag it, bin it
Undeterred by this setback, the Greenpeace team stop bagging and begin trampling the crop, whilst strimmers are unloaded and started up. By now the local police are arriving and over the next half-hour they very politely round up the protesters, some of who are now a long way into the maize. There is a feeling of anti-climax as we all stand in a line waiting to have our details taken. Perhaps two thirds of the crop is still standing, ready to pollinate.

We are loaded into various police vehicles and driven away. Arriving in Norwich the station staff are a bit surprised by their new arrivals especially Lord Melchett. “Is that Lord as in House of Lords?” asks the desk Sergeant. I find myself in a cell with Mick Waldrum, a Forester by trade and our tractor driver, who I’ve known since we were both part of the successful campaign to save the Great Bear Rainforest in Canada. Mick had been driving the tractor for most of the previous day to get it to the rendezvous. None of the windows opened and the cab's previous occupant appeared to have been an incontinent dog.

You're under arrest my Lord
The police do their best to make us comfortable, and we are cheered by gifts of food and newspapers from local well wishers. Rather ironically the headline in the local paper is “GM Crop to Stay”. However as time passes it becomes clear that we’re going to be staying too. The unfortunately named Sergeant Frame eventually tells us that we are being refused police bail and will have to spend the night in the cells.

Next day we appeared in Norwich magistrate court charged with the Criminal Damage ‘without lawful excuse’ of the crop, and more bizarrely with theft of it as well! Twenty-seven of us were freed on bail, but orders had come up from London that an example is to be made of Melchett and he is marched off to Norwich jail. Next morning he too is freed, but not before he receives a cake with a file in it, courtesy of the GM-free Iceland supermarket chain.

The Lyng 28 wedding photo
The wheels of justice turn slowly, and our story now moves forward to April of the following year and to the city of Norwich, where the Medieval Anchoress Mother Julian had created a bit of a stir by suggesting God was both male and female. Perhaps the issues today aren’t quite as profound, but the swarm of journalists suggests that the world is certainly taking note of the case.

In the Crown Court the twenty-eight defendants spill out of the dock and into the public gallery. The jovial Judge David Mellor opens the proceedings and the prosecuting barrister, the appropriately named Mr Farmer, tries to make his case.

He claims we are merely publicity seekers who have destroyed a vital scientific experiment, but unfortunately his witnesses keep letting him down. First Judith Jordan, representing AgrEvo (now renamed Aventis) admits that no studies had been done on the escape of GM pollen, then William Brigham admits that his crop was indeed imminently about to pollinate and that the nearest non-GM crop was only 400m away. Finally Sergeant Chipalfield, chief arresting officer, says that we were polite and determined and apparently not after publicity.

Next day Owen Davies Q.C. starts the defence case. “This isn’t a question of who did what but why they did it. AgrEvo has not sought damages; instead these people are on trial as common criminals.” A ‘lawful excuse’ for Criminal Damage is to prevent damage to other property, as in the case of a fireman who breaks down the door of a burning building. In relation to the charge of Theft he asks, “Did they want the crop to put in their sandwiches or freezers?”

First in to bat for Greenpeace is Peter Melchett. He talks about his fears of the escape of GM crops, which the Government’s own research has said, is inevitable. Greenpeace, he says, has no problems with medical use of GM or laboratory experiments. Instead of field trials of herbicide-resistant GM crops, the government should be investing in chemical free Organic agriculture. He is aggressively cross-examined by Mr Farmer, but manages to keep a straight bat.

Rev Carroll
Next it is the Reverend Malcolm Carol’s turn. A Baptist Minister, Malcolm travelled down to Lyng from Yorkshire with myself. Having only been told at the last moment of the plan he had come equipped for anything, and had even brought his flippers with him in case we were going to sea! (Described in court as ‘clothes for when it is wet’). His subsequent campaigning has seen GM crops banned from all Church of England land.

One by one the other defendants gave their evidence. About half work for Greenpeace in some capacity or other, including Paul Belotti, a grandfather and the Caretaker at Canonbury Villas. The rest are volunteers from around the country and include a Beauty Therapist and a volunteer for the Woodcraft Folk. None had ever been accused of dishonesty before, with the exception of local Oxfam campaigner Michael Unwins, shamefully convicted of stealing a cabbage in the early nineteen sixties.

Other witnesses are also called including Dr Mark Avery of the RSPB. Dr Avery sat on the committee set up to oversee the Government’s GM field trials. He tells the court that this committee first met to plan the trials in October 1999 – after the Lyng crop had been planted. This rather undermined the charge of disrupting vital scientific work.

Greenpeace had prepared a dossier of scientific opinion on the dangers of GM technology, later published in a book. In the event this never came before the jury and the job of explaining what our concerns were fell to one of the defendants, Chris Holden, a recent graduate of Cardiff University. Alone of all the people involved with the trial; Chris had actually done some genetic engineering and could explain what it was. The term ‘engineering’ he explained, was misleading. Genetic Modification proceeded by trial and error and the results were always unpredictable.

Eventually it was my turn at the crease. I explained how as part of the Greenpeace local groups network I had led tours round supermarkets pointing out GM products to shoppers. Two days after a tour round my local Marks and Spencers the entire chain had gone GM free! Under cross-examination Mr Farmer tries to bowl me a few googlies, but I manage to fend them off.
From the Greenpeace website
Martin told the jury that "science advances in various ways and that in terms of the methodology of a scientific experiment, you need to know your methodology before you start the experiment - the Committee that was going to decide how they were going to run the field-scale experiments didn't meet until July 1999 and didn't publish their guidelines until late 1999." Martin said of the GM trial at Lyng, which had been planted in spring 1999, "I don't think it had scientific value or monetary value - perhaps it had some political value."
He told the jury that the GM maize at Lyng couldn't be sold, swapped or exchanged for anything else, and was scientifically non-viable, adding, "unless the farmer grows ornamental maize, I can't see what value it had."
Eventually, at the end of two and a half weeks of evidence Judge Mellor sums up, describing the Greenpeace team as having the mindset of “an elite military unit”. The experience had certainly been a testing one for the group. Sitting silently in court whilst the prosecution attacked us one by one was probably more nerve racking than the action itself. Some relief was provided by an evening spent on Peter Melchett’s Organic farm meeting his herd of Red Pole cattle (causing two to give birth), which reminded us that it was the green fields of England that we were fighting for.

Eventually the jury retires and for two anxious days we waited for the verdict, leaving the court only to take lunch under the Green Men of the Norwich Cathedral cloisters. Eventually the jury return, having dismissed the Theft charge but unable to agree about the Criminal Damage. Rather downcast we return to our homes to await the retrial.

Meanwhile, back in the real world there had been significant events. On 12th April, in the middle of our trial, the boss of Aventis had received a letter from rival company Advanta. There was worrying news from Canada. Kept secret until our trial was over the story broke on 17th May, the same day Prince Charles spoke of wanting a more spiritual view of Nature.

A batch of oil seed rape from Canada had been contaminated with GM seed, possibly from a nearby field. The contaminated seed had then been sown across thousands of acres of the British countryside. Initially the government said nothing needed to be done, but when Greenpeace threatened legal action the order went out for the contaminated crops to be destroyed.

Front page of every broadsheet
The central plank of our defence was that if GM crops were grown in the open, the pollen would escape: on the wind, on the backs of bees and deer and on farm machinery. If GM pollen reached a conventional crop that field would become partly GM. If cross-contaminated crops have to be destroyed then they have clearly been damaged. And, as long as the danger is immediate and the means reasonable, causing damage to prevent greater damage counts as ‘lawful excuse’ in law.

So in September we returned to court for the second innings, and ran through all of the evidence again. But this time the jury was unanimous. We were innocent.


Well, it will soon be ten years since that happened. Bizarrely the BBC is still showing the clip of me being nicked whenever it covers a story on Greenpeace activists getting acquitted. Even my mum is sick of seeing it.

As a campaigner you can choose the battles you fight, but not the ones you win. In the last decade Greenpeace has won other victories, but we've yet to save the Amazon rainforest, switch the country to renewable energy or cap carbon dioxide emission. But we did stop GM crops in this country.

In the last decade GM food has slipped off the radar a bit. The verdict so far appears to be that whilst it may not be as dangerous as was feared, it isn't as useful as was hoped. However I'm still proud of what I did. We certainly didn't win the battle against GM food single handed - that fight was won before Melchett and co even entered that field. However we kicked the GM industry so hard whilst it was down that it still hasn't got up. And whilst GM crops are stalled in the starting blocks organic agriculture has had a decade to prove itself.

Maybe the jury is out on that too, but I know which way want farming to go.

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