Anti GE Tree Activists Kicked Off Florida University Campus, Spied on by FBI

Colleges and universities offer little room for informed discourse on plant biotech

A few months ago, while reporting an article about genetically engineered trees for Earth Island Journal’s Autumn issue (read the story here), I had a mighty hard time locating plant biologists or genetic engineers at academic institutions who were willing to talk about the possible risks of growing GE trees in massive plantations. It seemed there was little debate over this controversial issue within the biotech community on college campuses — the very places where most of the research into GE trees is carried out.

students studying on campus greenPhoto by Steve McFarlandCritics say there’s little debate over this controversial issue within the biotech community on college campuses — the very places where most of the research into GE trees is carried out.

So it didn’t come as too much of a surprise when I heard that a group of environmental activists who were scheduled to make a presentation on GE trees at the University of Florida in Gainesville last month were booted off the campus, charged with trespassing, and banned from the university grounds for three years. What did come as a bit of a surprise was news that the FBI, too, was keeping tabs on the activists.

Genetically modified strains of trees like eucalyptus, pines, poplars, and fruit trees are being tested in hundreds of trial plots across the world, including the United States. In the US, except for a GE papaya tree variety that is grown commercially in Hawai‘i, there are no commercial GE tree plantations — yet. (The US Department of Agriculture is considering a proposal to grow GE eucalyptus in commercial plantations.) Some environmentalists are concerned that transgenic trees will promote industrial monoculture plantations that could have a huge impact on forest biodiversity.

The Gainesville campus GE tree presentation was part of a multi-week speaking tour, “The Growing Threat: Genetically Engineered Trees and the Future of Forests,” organized by the Global Justice Ecology Project, Campaign to STOP GE Trees, and Everglades Earth First! The speakers were traveling to campuses in several southern states to raise awareness about the proposed commercial release of genetically engineered, freeze-tolerant eucalyptus trees in the US South.

The talk had been scheduled for October 28, a Monday. A conference room had been booked at the university’s McKnight Brain Institute a month in advance. But four days before the event, the institute cancelled the booking. The institute officials first said it was because they had to “give priority to brain and neuroscience related functions.” On being pressed for clarification, they said the AV equipment in the room wasn’t working and they couldn’t offer an alternative space. The university student who had booked the room checked the institute’s calendar and found that there were four other conference rooms available, but institute officials didn’t respond to his request for a new reservation by the time the weekend rolled in.

The Saturday before the event, the student and five other anti GE tree campaigners turned up at the institute and tried to enter the locked building to check whether the rooms were really unavailable. They first tried to open the door using the student’s ID card and then tried to talk staff and students into letting them in. Soon enough, cops arrived on the scene and cited the six for trespassing (read the police report here).

The activists say the police were “unnecessarily aggressive” toward them and didn’t seem interested in what they had to say. “We just wanted to see if we could go in and find someone to talk to about helping us out,” says Will Bennington, a campaigner with the Global Justice Ecology Project who was cited for trespassing.

“We tried to get creative [in looking for ways to get in], but we weren’t doing anything wrong. The long and short of it is we didn’t get in and were walking off when [the police] arrived.”

UF spokeswoman Janine Sikes says the activists “were very deceptive.” She had a third, differing reason to offer for the cancelation. “Instructional space is not available for non-university persons, groups or organizations,” she told the Journal via email. It’s not clear why the administration didn’t realize this at the time the booking was made in September, or why the various reasons cited for the cancelled bookings don’t match up.

Robbed of a venue, the activists instead gave a Skype presentation to UF Professor Bron Taylor’s environmental ethics class.  

“I wasn’t, of course, at the building where they were confronted, so I don’t know what exactly happened,” Taylor told me. “What I do know is there is a dearth of discussion on the issue of genetically modified organisms, both in the university and the world at large. And the debate doesn’t happen in a rational manner because there’s an influx of corporate money that manages the messaging.”

The University of Florida is one of the leading academic institutions researching transgenic trees. In 2011, the university’s Florida School of Forest Resources and Conservation and South Carolina-based GE tree company ArborGen won a three-year, $6.3 million grant from the US Department of Energy to develop GE loblolly pines for liquid biofuel production.

The matter, however, didn’t end here. Bennington says that four days after the Gainesville “trespass” incident, when the activists were about to start their presentation at Palm Beach State College in Boca Raton, the college provost, Dr. Bernadette Russell, turned up at the venue, called the assembled students out of the hall and informed them that the FBI had contacted her in the morning and warned her to keep an eye on the event because the activists could be “disruptive.” She then posted a security guard in the building for the entire duration of the presentation.

“It’s pretty astounding that running something as harmless as a PowerPoint presentation can draw surveillance,” Bennington says. “To be frank, we are on high alert now… We don’t really know what else to expect.”

The college administration as well as the FBI field office in Miami refused to comment on the incident, citing security protocols. But a Palm Beach State College student who had helped organize the event confirmed that Russell had indeed called the students out of the classroom and relayed the warning.

“Basically, she just said that the FBI had contacted to her in the morning because of the GE tree presentation and because some of the organizers were from Earth First!,” Lily de la Espriella, a 20-year-old environmental studies major, told me. She said the provost told her that she should check with the administration before organizing such events in the future. “I’ve helped organize other Earth First! events on campus before, but this is the first time I was asked to seek special permission,” De la Espriella says.

Bennington hopes these incidents will help show people how “the government and industry are so close” and how they join forces to quash dissent. (For a deeper look into how money influences US environmental policy, read our Autumn 2012 cover story package, The Worst Environment Money Can Buy. For more information on how corporations and law enforcement agencies are spying on environmentalists, check out our Summer 2014 cover story, Prying Eyes. ) The rest of the speaking tour, it appears, went off more or less smoothly.

Back when I was looking for plant biologists to speak with about GE trees, George Kimbrell, director of the Center for Food Safety, told me there were very few who would be willing and able to speak out against biotech in the US because agricultural and forest biotech companies, control the research through money and through patents. “Scientists are afraid,” Kimbrell said. “They are afraid of losing their grants, they are afraid of losing their ability to research.”

If the Florida incidents are any indication, this fear of losing funding extends to college and university administrations as well. As Gainesville ethics professor Taylor says, “I don’t see universities as a whole making the effort to have public debate about what’s going on behind their lab doors.”

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