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ecoglobe [yinyang] news (30 March 1999)

Agricultural containment in the UK


"Campaigners declare victory as government
set to back out of genetics trial"

Several hundred people are expected outside Plymouth Crown Court at 9.30am on Monday 29 March where two women who admitted uprooting genetically modified (GM) crops will hear - due to a high-level political U-turn - that all charges against them have been dropped.

Jacklyn Sheedy and Liz Snook faced up to ten years in prison for 'conspiracy to commit criminal damage' worth 605,000 after removing GM maize on 3 August 1998 from a test site near Totnes, Devon, which threatened to contaminate sweetcorn on a neighbouring organic farm.

After seven months of severe bail conditions, which included a 10pm - 6am curfew for the defendants, their lawyers received a highly unusual one-line letter saying that "for complex reasons the Crown intend to offer no evidence in the above case."

The women's defence solicitor, Mike Schwartz, said of the decision: "We served the prosecution by midday last Monday with ten expert reports detailing the risks posed by genetic engineering and the failures of the regulatory system. Within 24 hours I was told that the prosecution were going to drop all charges. It was made clear to me in a telephone call from the Crown Prosecution Service that this was a decision made at the highest level: by the Director of Public Prosecutions, David Calvert-Smith QC."

Mr. Schwartz continued: "This was a political, and in my experience, unprecedented decision. By withdrawing the case from the jury the Crown have accepted that there was compelling evidence that the defendants had a lawful excuse to remove the GM maize. The last thing the Crown wanted was to see a jury - a microcosm of society - acquit people who admitted taking direct action against GM crops."

Jacklyn Sheedy, from the Genetic Engineering Network, said that the decision vindicated their action: "We have always admitted damaging the genetically engineered maize, and this decision shows that we were right to stand up to the bullying of the biotech companies I hope this encourages other communities to take action to protect our environment."

Liz Snook added, "The government knows that ordinary people faced with the truth about genetic engineering would acquit us - and they just can't handle that kind of publicity. Questioning this technology really does make a dfference. The Totnes Community have fought hard against the GM invasion - this week NIAB announced that they will not be going ahead with planting GM crops at Hood Barton Farm, as had been planned. However, there are still hundreds of these test sites around the country. Even now irrevocable damage may have been done to the ecosystems on which we all ultimately depend. Everyone has the right to a GM-free environment."

Photo and interview opportunities: The two defendants, their solicitor Mike Schwartz and local campaigners will be available for interview outside Plymouth Crown Court on Monday 29 March together with expert witnesses due to be fielded by the defence. A major demonstration of support is also expected, which will include a 'field of maize', musicians, banners and performers adding a party atmosphere. For interviews, the legal briefing for the submitted defence or further information contact Totnes Genetics Group on 011-44-1803-867951 or 011-44-7957-188621.


1. The controversial test site of genetically engineered maize at Hood Barton Farm, Totnes, Devon was 275 metres from Riverford Farm, the largest organic vegetable producer in the the UK, run by Guy Watson. Mr Watson, supported by the Soil Association, Friends of the Earth and members of the local community, took the government to court last July after he found out that the organic status of his sweetcorn (valued at 20,000) was threatened by cross-pollination from the GE maize. The Court of Appeal ruled that the government had indeed broken seed regulations but the judge found that he had no power to order the destruction of the GM maize.

2. The government's advisory committee (ACRE) stated that at a 200 metre separation distance the likelihood of cross-pollination was 1 in 40,000. Confidence in the impartial nature of this advice was undermined last month by an independent report by the National Pollen Research Unit which found that it was more in the order of 1 in 93. A conservative estimate of the amount of pollen produced by each plant is 25 million grains.

3. The monks at Buckfast Abbey own twenty beehives which are immediately adjacent to the test site. ACRE failed to consider both the likelihood that honey produced by these bees would be contaminated by pollen from the GM crop, and also the fact that bees could carry the GM pollen for several miles to neighbouring crops.

4. Six hundred local people marched to the test site in protest before the crop was planted. After the government's failure to halt the trial approximately 20 people entered the field on 3 August 1998 to pull up the crop, thereby protecting the organic farm from GM contamination. Jacklyn Sheedy and Liz Snooks were arrested on the site and charged, ten others were arrested later and are still on bail. It now looks highly unlikely they will ever be charged. In the weeks after the arrests, 3000 local people signed a statement saying that they felt the action taken to remove the GM maize was in the public interest.

5. The genetically engineered maize was developed by Sharpes Seeds for resistance to glufosinate ammonium herbicide (brand name 'Liberty' or 'Basta') which is produced by AgrEvo corporation. Sharpes is a subsidiary of Advanta Holdings, itself half-owned by Zeneca, producers of the GM tomato paste sold in Safeways and Sainsbury's. The trial was being run by the National Institute for Agricultural Botany.

6. The two women were charged with 'conspiracy to cause' 605,000 worth of criminal damage - this being the total research and development cost for that entire variety of GM maize.

7. In Ireland seven people are facing similary charges for removing Monsanto's GM sugar beet. Their trial is due to begin on 31 March. Contact Davie Phillips: 011-353-1661-8123.

8. There is a 'Stop the Crop' protest action taking place in Scotland today in support of the Devon court case. For more information call 011-44-7775-905686.

9. For an arial photograph of the destroyed test site or a list of all known GM crop trials currently under way in the UK call 011-44-181-374-9516


email contact for more information:
LEGAL BRIEFING Devon case: R v Sheedy and Snook (Case No. T980556) Date and place of court appearance: Plymouth Crown Court, starting 29th March 1999.
Defendants: Jacklyn Sheedy and Liz Snook. 10 other people were later arrested in connection with the same incident and are still awaiting a decision as to whether they too will be charged, they will learn this on 9th April though it now looks highly unlikely that they will be. Charge: Conspiracy to cause criminal damage worth 605,000; the charge carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in custody.
Date and place of incident: 3rd August 1998, at Hood Barton Farm, near Totnes, Devon. This test site had already been the subject of controversial judicial review proceedings, which had sought to establish that the decision to authorise the trial was unlawful since it had not taken account of the presence of an organic farm owned by Guy Watson. In July 1998, the Court of Appeal had ruled that, although the crop trial breached seed listing regulations, the court had no reason to order it to stop.
Crop involved: T-25, a variety of herbicide-resistant maize developed by Sharpes. Sharpes International Seeds is a subsidiary of Advanta Holdings and they are the product of a joint venture by Zeneca (formerly ICI) and Dutch company Vander Have. The maize is designed to be resistant to glufosinate ammonium herbicide, aka Liberty or Basta and is produced by AgrEvo. T25 also uses the cauliflower mosaic virus as a promotor. The trial was being run by NIAB.

The defendants were set to prove that they had a lawful excuse for their actions. The Criminal Damage Act states that lawful excuse may include actions taken to prevent damage to one's own or another person's property rights or interests, as long as the action taken was proportionate to the damage feared.
The defendants would have argued that:
they were acting out of concern for public health and the wider environment, the public's right and ability to choose to eat non-GE food and the implications for sustainable agriculture, particularly in the developing world;
specifically, they feared that the test site may have led to contamination of other nearby crops (including the neighbouring organic crop), causing them to loose value;
they also feared that bees belonging to Buckfast Abbey would gather the GE pollen from the maize. There was a very real danger that their honey could have been contaminated in this, causing the honey to lose it's value. their action was justified by the inadequacies of the regulatory process, and specifically the fact that court action had failed to protect Guy Watson's organic crop;
the maize was about to pollinate, hence the danger of contamination was imminent, and the defendants believed with good reason that it could not be prevented by other means.
Expert witnesses will be called to testify that:
wind-borne pollen can travel considerably further than has been allowed for in the regulations governing crop trials;
bees can also carry pollen, over even greater distances (there are 20 beehives immediately adjacent to the field); moreover, the bees' honey could itself become contaminated and enter the food chain;
other maize crops in the vicinity could become contaminated (by cross-pollination or other means), which could devalue those crops if they were (or were perceived to be) a risk to human health;
there are many diverse ways in which the introduction of GE crops (and this crop in particular) could cause harm to human health, the environment and biodiversity, and the stability of agriculture in developing countries;
the regulatory framework governing this trial had not taken account of many of the potential risks (notably cross-pollination by bees and economic damage to adjacent crops), and failed to comply with the precautionary principle in accordance with European Union directives;
the regulations had, in any case, been breached by the crop trial.

forwarded from The Edmonds Institute
Received by email from:
by way of Genetic Engineering List New Zealand Natural Law Party
Date sent: Mon, 29 Mar 1999 07:07:23 -0600
Subject: Victory Declared in the U.K.- G-E Crops Pulled Up, Government Backs Down
Views expressed are not necessarily those of ecoglobe.
See: ecoglobe biosafety

ecoglobe [yinyang] news (30 March 1999)
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