What’s in a Seed? GM Wheat and the Rights of Farmers

September 15, 2012

IMG_2161Maverick organic farmer and activist Hector Christie was arrested in May for pulling up genetically modified (GM) crops at the Rothampstead Research centre in Harpenden. On 24 August, he was fined a total of over £4000 for the damage caused, though the valuation has never been released to the defence. Christie, who pleaded guilty, explains the context and background of GM trials and the concerns underpinning his actions.

A ‘Take the Flour Back’ demonstration against GM wheat trials had been planned, and the idea of catapulting organic seed over the fence into the trial site had been mooted when Christie decided to take a preliminary look around. In what he describes as a rather miraculous series of events, he found a way into the site, helped by an unwitting security guard who went to the toilet at just the right moment. Christie was in the GM trial field for approximately three minutes, during which the prosecution has claimed he pulled up hundreds of plants. Christie says that he initially scattered organic seed, then pulled up and bagged just a few plants before peacefully giving himself over to the police for arrest.

“I didn’t get the seriousness of what I was doing,” Christie says. “There were dozens of police in cars and vans. As I was driven away from the site I saw several of them in lanes and lay-bys along the way. I innocently asked whether there had been a major crime committed in the area but was told they were all for me.”

Christie was held for sixteen hours and questioned intensively. The police, he claims, knew every protest he had been on, and asked about his friends in other protest networks. Bail conditions were largely about keeping him away from the Olympics; the torch was passing close to his home in north Devon the next day and officers seemed convinced that he intended to cause disruption.

Until recently, Europe has been largely GM free. The media and consumers have kept biotech companies at arms’ length, but that is changing now with a U-turn to allow wheat trials at Rothamstead, and a massive PR campaign by the Conservative government promising to solve the world’s food problem through rolling out GM crops with higher yield. “Cameron recently accepted £250 million from the biotech industry,” Christie claims, before suggesting that “they need to pay for the Olympics somehow.” The latter may only be speculations, but who stands to gain should be a question in the GM debate.

Anti-GM protesters are adamant that they are not ‘anti-science’, but argue that genetically modified crops are being forced into the land, onto the supermarket shelves and into our food chain and bodies with scant regard for safety, biodiversity, the right to choose, farmers’ livelihoods or anything else except profit margins. Whilst no reports currently show a definite health-GM correlation, sufficient long-term independent testing has not been conducted to rule out long-term effects – and “Take the Flour back!” fear the consequences will be impossible to reverse. The CEO of Rothampstead Research centre reasons that we must embrace this technology in order to feed the growing world population, but the people doing the monitoring are often the very same people who will make a profit from GM. Director of Rothamstead, Professor Maurice Moloney, has been involved in developing the Roundup Ready canola, a patented Monsanto crop causing major problems for Californian farmers. Christie and fellow activists therefore fear that the results will be kept out of the public domain or manipulated to suit the profiteers.

The film Gmcropsfarmertofarmer.com, compiled by a Cornish farmer, is about how GM has affected the livelihoods of American farmers. Those interviewed deeply regret being coerced into growing GM crops. Having been ‘hooked in’ they can’t back out, even though, after three or so years, the insecticides and herbicides that the GM crops have been engineered to resist become ineffective. More and more of these chemicals must be used until eventually no amount will get rid of the resistant superweeds that appear, which have to be pulled out by hand. Christie shakes his head in disbelief as he insists that “This is obvious! If you keep applying the same herbicide or pesticide, nature mutates and resistance builds up. GM is a one-trick pony.”

Christie says that “The livelihood and way of life of everyone who works the land is seriously under threat. That’s why I felt I had to do something… I have tried every angle to get this message out: Engaging with ministers, protesting peacefully, writing endless letters…”. He invokes the spectres of tobacco, DDT and asbestos – all substances believed to be harmless and used liberally with devastating consequences. In the Phillipines, biologist Mae-Wan Ho reports incidents of sudden illness and death amongst people living close to GM maize crops. This coincided with the flowering season of the maize, which has now been removed from some areas, whilst similar episodes occur elsewhere. The government has refused to investigate further.

Social consequences of patented seeds are no less dire. In the Speakers’ Forum at The Green Gathering, Christie began his talk with a dramatic tale of suicide amongst farmers. Vandana Shiva has reported that tens of thousands, possibly even hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers have killed themselves since GM crops were introduced. Patenting of seeds by biotech companies forces some of the poorest farmers in the world to buy new seed every year, which is bad enough in itself, but becomes untenable when promised yields fail to become reality, driving the farmers deeper into poverty and despair. The biotech companies are now making a beeline for Africa, partly funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and again Christie highlights the inalienable and sacred right of the farmer to save seed.

He also points out that the US, Canada and Australia (which have accepted most GM crops with alacrity to date) have all rejected GM cereals. Wheat is a grass species native to the UK, and pollen from GM wheat could potentially crossbreed or contaminate grasses and cereals far and wide, despite claims to the contrary from the biotech industry. In the US, where genetically modified crops are widespread, even papers such as The Daily Mail are reporting that incidents of pesticide resistant weeds and insects are on the rise. A report from 2005 also reveals the evolution of a resistant ‘super-weed’ at an old trial site for genetically modified oilseed rape, now resistant to herbicide due to a genetic cross-breeding. This is also happening in Japan, a country without GM crops of their own. Evidence of wild-breeding GM canola and even crossovers to its related species broccoli has been reported along transport routes and near harbours where canola oil is imported. Activists are organising to protect a biodiversity they fear is at stake, calling for the relevant corporations to take responsibility.

“They call us ecoterrorists, but they really don’t get the picture,” Christie complains. He hopes that his trial will raise awareness and help the larger cause. Bindmans, a leading London-based law firm, took up Christie’s case when it became apparent that abuse of process and other inconsistencies had occurred. According to one of Christie’s friends, “It looks like special branch and people ‘higher up’ have been caught red handed treating a protester like a terrorist. Incredibly dodgy and clumsy details have emerged.” The total costs and compensation he has been ordered to pay include a £350 fine, £15 victim surcharge, £85 CPS costs and compensation to Rothampstead Research for the damage caused. In previous hearings, the prosecution had increased the compensation claim to £51,900, but later lowered this to £3850 –  a mere fraction of the original claim.

Though Christie pleaded guilty to criminal damage of the crops, he has not made up his mind about whether to pay the compensation. What is certain, is that he will not give up his campaigning for biodiversity in future. He is passionate about small farmers’ livelihoods and right to choose, as well as the big issues of long term food security and biodiversity. On his Tapeley Gardens website he writes “Do we in the countryside want to give up control of our choices and businesses to a few ruthless, solely profit driven large corporations? The UK is an island, and as such we have the most fantastic opportunity to be a source of GM-free food, plus we have a potentially invaluable GM-free seed bank for ourselves and the world in the future.”


By Ragnhild Freng Dale and Emma Fordham