Vandals destroy $20,000 in property on St. Paul campus

by Max Rust

A U.S. Forest Service facility on the St. Paul campus is the second building in two months to be attacked by vandals who oppose genetic engineering.
In an e-mailed communique distributed Tuesday, a group calling itself the Genetic Jokers claimed responsibility for an April 1 action that destroyed more than $20,000 in property belonging to the Forest Service.
Although the facility is on the St. Paul campus, University researchers do not work there.
The vandals spray painted messages such as “NO TREE PHARMS,” glued and jammed the building’s locks, and sprayed the windows with etching cream, a corrosive substance.
The jokers also flattened the tires and etched the windows of six Forest Service vehicles before pouring paint stripper on the hoods.
The Jokers’ communique indicated that the research in the building included the “genetic mapping of poplar and white pine trees and genetic manipulation to change lignen contents.”
But Deb Dietzman, the Forest Service’s communications director, said the research conducted at the facility is not what the vandals thought, although the Forest Service does manipulate and map genes at other stations.
The researchers in St. Paul are studying oak and poplar trees that are naturally resistant to diseases such as oak wilt, she said.
According to the station’s newsletter, the researchers also inject Butternut trees with a canker-causing fungus to determine which varieties are resistant.
“This particular (research) doesn’t seem to match what you’d expect to be a target,” Dietzman said.
According to the communique, the Jokers were apparently inspired by another group calling itself the Ministry of Forest Defense that claimed responsibility for the destruction of 1,600 tree seedlings at a British Columbia Forests Ministry plot near Victoria, British Columbia. In another incident near Victoria, 3,000 tree seedlings were destroyed by the Genetix Goblins.
Attacks on biotech are increasing throughout North America. In February, University research involving genetic modification of oats was destroyed by the Earth Liberation Front.
The FBI and University police are investigating that incident, but FBI special agent Coleen Rowley said that case is still open. Rowley also said the FBI will assist with investigating the Jokers.
Denny Henke, a member of the group Genetix Alert in Tennessee, which distributed the vandals’ e-mail, said that although the Forest Service attack and the attacks near Victoria were not on transgenic research — research in which the DNA of one organism is injected into another — the actions are still justified.
“The researchers’ intent is to gradually weed out the trees which do not show resistance,” Henke said. “At the very least, what they’re doing is showing an intent to basically genetically intervene. Their intent is to alter the natural ecosystem, but in any natural ecosystem, there are supposed to be trees that are susceptible to certain things.”
Henke said his group is concerned not only about altering natural ecosystems, but also about what he sees as a lack of testing of genetically modified crops.
This notion was reinforced Wednesday by the National Research Council, the operating arm of the National Academies, who released a report indicating that government agencies must “bolster the mechanisms they use to protect human health and the environment,” regarding the regulation of transgenic pest-protection plants — plants in which genes have been modified through modern genetic engineering to express traits that make them resistant to pests.
The council suggests that three government agencies responsible for regulating genetically modified crops — the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration — should clarify their roles in regulation, exchange information and create a database that lists information about plant compounds of dietary or toxicological concern to aid other researchers.

Max Rust covers agriculture and technology and can be reached at [email protected].