Seven on GM crop charges part of group of up to 70

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Seven environmentalists charged with sabotaging a genetically modified crop were part of a group of up 70 people, many of whom felt uprooting GM sugar beet was necessary to protect human health and the environment, a court was told yesterday.

In the first case of its kind in the Republic, New Ross District Court in Co Wexford heard that many of the protesters were secretly filmed by security men employed by the US biotechnology company Monsanto in Dublin, before boarding a bus. They were again filmed as they arrived at a protest meeting in Duncannon, Co Wexford, and later as they arrived at a GM beet site nearby.

Mr David Bulbulia defending solicitor said there was no disputing the environmentalists' role in damaging the GM beet at Arthurstown, but he contested the charges brought against them.

Before the court were Mr John Seymour (84), organic farmer and food writer, of Killowen, New Ross; Mr Gavin Harte (33), environmentalist, of Grantham Street, Dublin; Caomhin Woods (33), a freelance journalist, of Maynooth, Co Kildare; Mr Pauric Cannon (57), secretary of Dublin Food Coop, of Crumlin, Dublin; Mr David Philip (34), environmentalist, of Sackville Gardens, Dublin; Ms Adrienne Murphy (30), environmentalist and Hot Press journalist, of Wilton Place, Dublin; and Mr Richard Roche (50), publican, of the Quay, New Ross.

Damage totalling £16,000 was alleged to have been caused on June 21st last at the farm of Mr Martin Foley of Coleman, Arthurstown, on a plot leased to Monsanto, which was carrying out tests under Environmental Protection Agency licence. The beet was genetically engineered to withstand Monsanto's herbicide RoundUp.

The seven, with the exception of Mr Woods, faced charges of damaging "without lawful excuse sugar beet belonging to Monsanto (Ireland) Limited, intending to damage such property or being reckless as to whether such property would be damaged" under the 1991 Criminal Damage Act. All seven were charged with forcible entry of a sugar beet trial site under the 1971 Prohibition of Forcible Entry and Occupation Act.

An EPA scientific officer, Dr Tom McLoughlin, said the cornerstone of regulations on the release of genetically modified organisms was avoidance of any adverse impact on the environment or human health.

Among more than 3,500 representations from the public about five GM crop trials licensed by the EPA last year were concerns about "unpredictable technology" and risk of "superweeds"; and the belief that GMO genes would spread to wild species or cross-pollinate with other plants. But their experts considered the risk of gene flow to a species related to the GM beet to be very low.

Asked about concerns regarding the EPA's reliance on Monsanto data, he said this was the way it was done in EU member-states and elsewhere.

Monsanto's Irish business manager, Dr Patrick O'Reilly, told Supt Tom Sanderson, prosecuting, the purpose of the beet trial was to examine weed control by applying RoundUp and the safety of using the herbicide on the beet itself.

Dr O'Reilly accepted there was concern among opponents of gene technology about "horizontal gene flow", but crossing of species barriers occurred in nature. The vast majority of science and scientific opinion favoured the technology, while concerns were being driven by emotion rather than fact, he said.

Mr Henry O'Donnell of Probe Security Network said certain suspects had been monitored in advance of the sabotage. He denied that a video had been used for identification rather than detection purposes.

Sgt Bart Slattery told the court he was on duty on the site with seven other gardai on June 21st but they were powerless to prevent what happened.

Mr Quentin Gargan of Genetic Concern said the arrival of GM soya raised his concerns about gene technology. Initially, he was worried about its impact on his health-food business but he was increasingly worried by the way GM foods were being introduced.

The hearing, before Judge Donnchadh O Buachalla, continues today.

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