Activists Fell Pollution-Fighting Trees

The latest in a rash of attacks on agricultural biotechnology has felled the only genetically modified trees in the United Kingdom. In an ironic twist, the 5-year-old poplars had been engineered to help lessen the amount of chlorine needed to bleach paper.

It's been a tough summer for researchers working on altered crops in the United Kingdom. In early June, a farmer in southern England used weed killer to destroy 26 acres of engineered oilseed rape produced by a biotech company called AgrEvo, because his farm's trustees were opposed to the trials and were worried that the rape might contaminate nearby organic crops. Then on 16 June, protestors ripped up a trial plot of genetically modified sugar beet planted by Monsanto in eastern England.

Yesterday morning, scientists at Zeneca Plant Sciences in Bracknell discovered that a test site of 152 poplars had been destroyed. "The small trees had been snapped in half, like someone had sawn them and yanked them down," says Nigel Poole, manager for regulatory affairs at Zeneca. Bark was torn off the larger trees. "The whole lot has been killed," says Poole.

The goal of the experiment, launched in 1991, was to test the hardiness of poplars engineered to make a novel kind of lignin, an organic polymer that toughens cells. Preliminary tests revealed that it took less chlorine or other caustic chemicals to add electrons to this lignin--a step necessary for making paper that won't yellow with age. Although Zeneca scientists had hoped to continue the experiment until 2002, they think the harvest from the dead trees will be enough to test how well they're suited to make paper. The company has no plans to tighten security at the site. "You can't secure a 500-acre farm," says Poole.

Anonymous activists claimed responsibility in a telephone call to an environmental organization called the Genetic Engineering Network (GEN), according to The Guardian newspaper. Staff at GEN were unavailable for comment today. "Very odd people must have trashed the trees," says David Prior, a spokesperson for the U.K.'s Department of the Environment, Transport, and the Regions, which grants permits for experiments on genetically modified plants. All the poplar trees were female, he notes, and they would not have produced pollen: "There was no risk at all of gene escape to the environment."