A major legal question mark last night hung over the activities of eco-protesters who attacked genetically modified crops after a jury could not agree on whether a Greenpeace raid on a GM maize field had broken the law.
The jury of six men and six women failed to reach a verdict at Norwich Crown Court on the criminal damage charge against Lord Melchett, executive director of Greenpeace, and 27 of the group's activists who took part in the raid at Lyng, Norfolk, in July. They were discharged by Judge David Mellor, who granted the Crown Prosecution Service a fourth night to consider the possibility of a retrial.
Lord Melchett and his colleagues admit that they had used a motor mower to attack the six-acre field, part of the Government's programme of farm-scale trials of GM crops. But they claim the defence of "lawful excuse" permitted under the Criminal Damage Act, 1971, which allows someone to damage property in order to prevent damage to other property.
The defendants told the court that the maize they attacked, genetically engineered to be tolerant of a powerful weedkiller, was about to come into flower, and its pollen could have "genetically polluted" other crops, which they wished to protect from such damage.
All 28 defendants were cleared of a secondary charge of theft, relating to their intention to bag up the maize and return it to its owners, the German agrochemicals company Aventis. But it is the failure of the Crown to convict them on the criminal damage charge which will alarm the Government and in particular the Environment minister Michael Meacher who has made public details of more than 30 sites being used in this year's GM trials. An acquittal on the basis of "lawful excuse" could have triggered more attacks leading to so many farmers dropping out of the trials programme that it would collapse.
A spokesman for the Department of the Environment said last night: "Whatever side of the GM debate people are on, these crop trials are vital if we are to find out what effect if any GM crops might have on our environment."Reuse content