A new strain of ethical dilemma;Another Voice;Opinion

6th August 1999 at 01:00
IS IT right to break the law for a cause you believe to be just? It's an old chestnut popular with English, modern studies and guidance teachers. Traditionally, pupils are asked to consider, for example, how Nelson Mandela the terrorist became Nelson Mandela the freedom fighter.

In September teachers will have their own case study in Jill Bee, 52, an assistant art and design technology teacher at an independent boarding school.

On June 16, along with other protesters, she donned a protective white suit at the Cereals 99 Agriculture Show near Royston, Hertfordshire and symbolically "decontaminated" the bio-tech giant Monsanto's stand by uprooting 10 genetically-modified sugar beet plants from a demonstration plot.

She then leafleted bystanders explaining that she was making an "accountable, non-violent protest against Monsanto and GM crops". She did not know that she was in contempt of an injunction granted to Monsanto that protects it against the actions of protesters. The company wants her jailed along with all other protesters.

Who gets your vote? A profit-driven mega-corporation or Jill Bee who describes herself thus: "I am not normally a person who would demonstrate. I think I am trusted and considered to be honest and law abiding. I did not have any intention of jeopardising my children, my husband or my job... I still feel very strongly that GM foods are potentially very dangerous. I take full responsibility for my actions."

Last week however, magistrates were out of sympathy with a higher-profile protester, farmer Lord Melchett, who as executive director of Greenpeace had helped uproot a farm-scale trial of GM maize at a neighbouring farm in Norfolk.

His co-accused were granted bail while he was remanded in jail on charges of theft and criminal damage - until the powers that be thought better of it. Editorials and letters columns buzzed with disapproval of his tactics as anti-democratic "Luddite frenzy".

Does Peter Melchett strike you as being a frenzied anarchist or as a seasoned campaigner who has reached the conclusion that if the Government won't protect the environment from the potentially catastrophic and irreversible effects of genetic manipulation, then someone else has to? One can understand reticence over people taking the law into their own hands, but it is surely a predictable reaction when the biotech industry seems hell-bent on forcing GM food down the throats of an unwilling public, and Government seems to be happy to aid and abet it.

Poll after poll has shown that the overwhelming majority of British people do not want to see the environment used as an open-air laboratory for GM crops. The MORI poll of June 30 confirmed that 79 per cent of us do not want field trials of GM crops.

Think about Agrevo's maize crop uprooted by Melchett and fellow activists. Trials of this strain of maize have been banned by the Swiss government because it contains an antibiotic resistance marker gene which could cross-pollinate with other crops. (Once passed on in the food chain, the alarming consequence could be to render useless valuable antibiotics used in human medicine.)

Earlier this year, the British Medical Association called for a ban on the use of such genes. Our Ministry of Agriculture's draft guidance on the subject admits that the use of such crops "will involve a massive amplification of these genes in the biosphere".

To many scientists, this amounts to criminal negligence. "It is irresponsible for the Government to continue with massive field trials in view of the evidence its own scientists are taking into account", says Dr Mae-Wan Ho, reader in biology at the Open University.

To the lobby that argues that GM crops must be tested if we are to learn of their potential benefitsdisbenefits, Dr Ho says that gene transfer or effects on health are not being monitored in the current

trials. In short, the Government cannot contain any genetic pollution and isn't even looking for it.

Concerted action against GM crops is being taken. Last week the Local Government Association - which represents some 250 councils in England and Wales - agreed to ban GM foods indefinitely, pledging to serve GM-free school meals by the end of the year. Sheer force of public opinion has already pushed all major supermarket chains into eliminating GM ingredients.

But once farm-scale GM crop

trials are up and running, such measures will become pointless as the inevitable gene flow from trials contaminates both conventional, and even organic, crops. I'm not sure I'd have the nerve to take direct action like Jill Bee or Peter Melchett, but I heartily respect them for doing so.

Joanna Blythman is the author of 'How To Avoid GM Food', Fourth Estate, pound;4

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