Published on Thursday, September 21, 2000 in the Guardian of London
Greenpeace Wins Key GM Case
Not guilty: Protesters who destroyed crops are cleared
by Paul Kelso
Greenpeace's executive director and 27 other environmental activists were yesterday cleared of causing criminal damage to a field of genetically modified maize, in a verdict with profound implications for the future of GM crop trials and direct action.
Lord Melchett and his fellow protesters, 13 of whom also work for Greenpeace, were acquitted at a retrial at Norwich crown court after claiming they had lawful excuse to attack the crop at a farm in Lyng, Norfolk, in July 1999.
At the original trial in April the 28 were cleared of theft, but the jury was unable to reach a verdict on criminal damage charges after seven and a half hours.
The defendants, who include a Baptist minister, a beautician and the caretaker from Greenpeace's London office, were awarded costs for both trials. The total cost to the crown prosecution service was estimated at £250,000.
Speaking outside the court, Lord Melchett said the verdict sent a clear message to the government. "The time has come for Mr Blair and the chemical companies to stop growing GM crops.
"We have known for a long time that people don't want to eat GM food; supermarkets won't sell GM food and now the time has come for people to stop planting GM food."
He said the verdict did not give a green light to other protesters to destroy crops, but refused to rule out similar action by Greenpeace in the future.
"The next step is for the government to take action. We don't have immediate plans, but if the government don't do anything and the chemical companies don't stop planting these crops, we won't rule anything out."
A spokesman for the Department of the Environment said the crop trials would continue. "If we halted our strictly controlled research then there would be widespread GM crop planting without us getting the evidence we need," he said. "Our top priority is to protect the environment and human health."
Seventy three sites were chosen for crop trials this year and already 12 spring-sown oilseed rape crops, 12 forage maize crops and 24 beet crops have been harvested. Twenty five sites are being planted with GM autumn-sown oilseed rape.
Under EU law the government has no plans to ban GM crop planting, but the biochemical companies have agreed to take part in a four-year trial programme, now in its second year.
William Brigham, the farmer on whose land the GM maize was grown, said the verdict gave "the green light to trespass and the green light to vandalism".
"This attack was a frightening experience for myself and my family," he said. "Greenpeace is a massive environmental pressure group and we are a small family farm. They used bully boy tactics to get their point across and today the bully has won."
Scimac, the industry body which represents Aventis, the biotech company which developed the GM maize on Mr Brigham's farm, also condemned the verdict.
"This raises concerns that go much deeper than the safety of GM crops," its chairman, Roger Turner, said. "It raises fundamental questions about the ability of our legal system to cope with the gradual erosion of respect for public rights and authority.
"We are disappointed that an extreme minority do not have enough confidence in the strength of their argument to let science decide."
Mike Schwarz, a partner at Bindman and Partners, the solicitors who acted for Greenpeace, said the verdict was a vindication of the jury system. "Juries understand reasonable citizens' actions. But to get to juries you have to get past police forces keen to clamp down on protesters and a CPS which wants to keep these cases in magistrates courts and away from juries."
The verdict provoked anger from the National Farmers' Union, which described it as "perverse" and as declaring "open season" on farmland.
The NFU's president, Ben Gill, said he would be writing to the home secretary, Jack Straw, ahead of a planned meeting to discuss the issues raised by the case.
"We find it extraordinary that even with such clear evidence a not-guilty verdict was reached," he said. "This gives the green light to wanton vandalism and trespass."
Peter Tidey, chief crown prosecutor for Norfolk, defended the decision to bring a retrial. "Criminal damage is a serious offence and allegations that an offence was premeditated and carried out by a group of people are taken into consideration when deciding whether to proceed," he said.
Dressed in white overalls with the Greenpeace logo on the back and accompanied by four journalists including a video cameraman, the group set about removing the entire six and a half acre crop.
They had brought with them a tractor with a cutting device and a tipper truck. "I was there with the intention of removing the entire crop, of bagging it and returning it to its owners, AgrEvo Ltd [now Aventis] in King's Lynn," Lord Melchett told the court.
The aim of removing the entire crop was crucial to the defence case. The protesters argued that they had lawful excuse under the Criminal Damage Act 1971 to uproot the crop, as leaving it to flower and pollinate would have led to a greater crime - the contamination of other crops in the vicinity. "We are delighted the jury agreed with us," Lord Melchett said.
Greenpeace targeted the maize on Mr Brigham's land after he gave an interview to the Eastern Daily Press in which he said he would be growing the crop under contract for AgrEvo.
The publicity prompted villagers in Lyng to hold a public meeting to discuss the crop trial. Mr Brigham was invited but, on the advice of AgrEvo, did not attend.
Following the meeting, Lord Melchett wrote to him urging him to discontinue the trial. Shortly afterwards the farmer gave an interview to Farmers Weekly in which he indicated that the maize was due to flower within a week. This prompted Greenpeace to carry out its action.
"That crop, when it flowered, would release GM material widely," Lord Melchett said. It posed "the most serious environmental threat... it's alive, so it can't be cleared up like chemical pollution, or even nuclear waste."
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000