Activists damage St. Paul seed lab

Max Rust

The high-profile activist group Earth Liberation Front claimed responsibility Friday for wreaking havoc on a University genetic engineering project Wednesday, causing about $1,000 in damage and setting research back more than three months.
More than 800 oat plants were found overturned Wednesday morning in a St. Paul campus greenhouse at Green Hall and three locks were glued shut. Phrases such as “ELF” and “Free the Seed” were spray-painted on the greenhouse walls.
The incident was not made public until two days later, after the University Police investigation and site cleanup were completed.
For the past three years, researchers have studied the genetically engineered oats, trying to identify disease-resistant properties. The project is funded by Quaker Oats, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University.
In a communique sent out Friday, ELF made clear its mission: “Let this action be a warning to the University of Minnesota and the entire biotech industry that if you continue to destroy the biodiverstiy on Earth, your profits will continue to fall.”
Attacks on biotechnology research have increased in recent months. In late October, a massive blitz of Internet postings urged activists to attack academic and corporate biotechnology research facilities.
David Somers, the project’s primary researcher, said he had attempted to step up the security of the greenhouse.
“We’ve tried to increase our vigilance, but it’s a fairly vulnerable situation, the greenhouse,” he said.
ELF recently took responsibility for the New Year’s Eve arson of a Michigan State University lab that totaled $400,000 in damages. In that attack, ELF targeted pesticide research being done for Monsanto Co.
Craig Rosebraugh, a spokesman for ELF who maintains that he doesn’t know anyone involved in Wednesday’s incident, said the group, and many like it across the United States, is influenced by similar activists in Europe where an estimated 150 to 200 genetically engineered crop fields have been destroyed.
Two other attacks on biotechnology firms took place in Minnesota in September: The destruction of crops being grown by Dupont’s Pioneer Hi-Bred in Mankato and a similar action on a Novartis test site near Northfield, Minn.
Despite Wednesday’s action causing only minimal damage, University officials did not make news of the incident public, choosing instead to wait until the story trickled out, said Martin Moen, spokesman for the College of Natural Resources, where the vandalism occurred.
“The decision was not based on ‘we don’t want to tell the media,’ but was on ‘we don’t want to give (ELF) publicity,” Moen said. “It was a significant but minor incident.”
University Police conducted their investigation late Wednesday morning. Cleanup of the site took place immediately after. By Friday, the surviving plants were back in place, with empty spaces on the tables representing the damaged plants.
Though the St. Paul campus is green to such vandalism, the attack was not an entire surprise.
“With the attack from the animal liberation people and attacks like (Wednesday’s) at other universities, this is not entirely out of the blue,” said Deane Morrison, a spokeswoman for the University.

Max Rust can reached at [email protected] and V. Paul Virtucio can be reached at [email protected]