Greenpeace GM crop attack declared legal

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Greenpeace protesters who attacked a field of genetically modified crops were not breaking the law, a jury decided yesterday. The verdict, which deeply dismayed the GM industry and the Government, appeared to clear the way for further attacks on trial sites.

Greenpeace protesters who attacked a field of genetically modified crops were not breaking the law, a jury decided yesterday. The verdict, which deeply dismayed the GM industry and the Government, appeared to clear the way for further attacks on trial sites.

The 28 Greenpeace activists, led by their executive director, Lord Melchett, raided William Brigham's GM maize crop on his farm in Lyng, Norfolk, in July last year. They had a "lawful excuse" for their actions, the jury of seven men and five women decided at Norwich Crown Court after deliberating for five hours.

Under the Criminal Damage Act, 1971, property can be lawfully damaged if the action is to protect other property, and the jury accepted the Greenpeace contention that the maize was attacked so that its pollen could not "genetically pollute" other crops near by, and that the action was therefore legal.

Mr Brigham's field was part of a network of farm-scale evaluations of GM crops being sponsored by the Government to test the effects on wildlife of the powerful weedkillers the new crops are genetically engineered to tolerate.

English Nature and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds support the evaluations, believing they may produce evidence that prevents GM crops ever being grown commercially in Britain, but more radical environmental groups, led by Greenpeace, feel the risk of contamination of the environment from the evaluations themselves is simply too great for them to go ahead.

The verdict came after an 11-day retrial A first trial in April ended with a jury unable to agree on the charge of criminal damage, although it cleared the "Greenpeace 28" of the accusations of theft of the crops. They had intended to cut them down, bag them up and return them to Aventis, the chemical company that owns them.

The latest verdict was greeted with delight by Greenpeace, with defiance by the Government, with gloom and foreboding by companies developing GM chemicals, and with resentful anger by Mr Brigham. "Greenpeace is a massive environmental pressure group," Mr Brigham said. "We are a small family farm. It used bully boy tactics to get its own way and today the bullies have won.

"This raid on our farm happened during the early hours of the morning and was a frightening experience for myself and my family," he said. "Those who carried it out now appear free to do the same again with impunity."

Lord Melchett hinted that Greenpeace was indeed contemplating further raids if the trials programme was not halted by the Government, as he demanded.

"We took this action to defend the British countryside and British farms from GM contamination," he said. "We were right to do that. And now the time has come for Mr Blair and the chemical companies to stop growing GM crops."

His demand was brusquely rejected by the Government. "The crop trials will continue," said a spokesman for the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. "If we halted our strictly controlled research then there would be widespread GM crop planting, without us getting the real scientific evidence we need. Our top priority is to protect the environment and human health."

The Crown Prosecution Service sounded a warning that the verdict did not mean there would be no prosecutions in the future. Peter Tidey, the Chief Crown Prosecutor for Norfolk, said: "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 prosecute. Each case is unique and we will continue to review each case on its merits."

Scimac (the Supply Chain Initiative for Modified Agricultural Crops), the body representing the GM chemical companies said it was "surprised and concerned" by the verdict. "We're disappointed that an extremist minority didn't have enough confidence in the scientific strength their own arguments to let the science decide," said a spokesman.

The defendants were awarded their costs for both trials, estimated at £100,000.

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