Leading Article: Greenpeace takes direct action against its own credibility

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The Independent Culture
GREENPEACE HAS made direct action a politically effective method of campaigning. But, in the case of its destruction of the genetically modified crop trials in Cambridgeshire, it has chose the wrong means to reach the wrong objectives. There is no reason to dispute the sincerity of the Greenpeace protesters and their leader Lord Melchett, who destroyed swaths of a field of genetically modified corn early on Monday morning. They and other eco-activists believe that GM crops threaten the environment and must not be allowed to grow in Britain, especially in the commercial amounts that farmers and biotechnology companies want to plant.

But while allowing that direct action in contravention of the law can on occasion be justified, in this case it is not. In the past Greenpeace has based its campaigns on the findings of science, and this has carried weight with the public. It has not always been proven right; its opposition to the sinking of the Brent Spar oil rig did not in fact win scientific consensus, and scares about dioxins have never been supported by longer- term scientific studies. But in a free society, where information is plentiful, consumers can make their own decisions. The problem comes when Greenpeace and other eco-activists ignore both science and the wider democratic process.

Greenpeace points to surveys showing huge numbers of the British public opposing GM trials, and they cite the local meeting it held, where many attenders said that they opposed the trial. But on the first point, it is elected government, not opinion polls, that rules in a democracy; and on the second, it is obvious that few GM proponents will go to an event where they can be sure of being shouted down. The democratic case against carrying out GM crop trials has yet to be made.

Greenpeace's destruction of the test crop looks more like that of someone who has lost the argument. It claims that the running of GM farm-scale trials to evaluate the effects of acres of GM crops on surrounding animals and plants is anti-democratic. Yet those trials' very existence indicates how much ministers feel they must cater to the concerns of the general public.

By law, ministers could have given the green light to commercial planting at the end of last year. But, in response to concerns raised by the public and by English Nature, the official advisory body on environmental matters, the go-ahead was delayed so that these farm-scale trials could take place. That seems to us like active democracy. The idea that this Government sets its face against the public will is laughable, given that there has probably never been an administration more worried about how its policies will play with the voters.

Is the whole of the British environment so threatened by seven - now four - GM crop trials? Is the threat so immediate that it necessitates destroying part of a farmer's livelihood? GM crops may not prove to be the solution to the world's needs for food. They might have an awful effect on the environment. However, if we tear up the plantings in a Luddite frenzy before the trials are completed, we shall never know.

It would be a retrograde step were the attacks on these sites to encourage the Government to keep their locations secret. The progress and results of these trials should be open, and checkable by every interested party; Michael Meacher should pledge that the sites of the locations will remain publicly available.

Perhaps, in turn, Greenpeace could pledge to assign scientists to monitor what is happening around those sites. That would be a means of winning the argument. But don't tear up the trial crops. Leave them alone. They will either condemn or acquit themselves.