Totnes Genetix Group

What we do..

This is what ToGG does now...

  • ToGG holds a stall every friday next to the town market
    keeping locals informed of the latest developments and
    providing a contact point for those interested in getting involved.
  • ToGG produces and distributes the Genetix Update,
    the bi-monthly newsletter of the Genetic Engineering Network.
  • ToGG has a letter writting group who lobby the government
    and industry while raising the issues in the media.
  • ToGG supports direct action and offers transport to rallies
    and other events.
  • ToGG publishes leaflets on a range of key subjects relating
    to the issues raised by genetic engineering.

  • ToGG holds public meetings and lectures while also providing
    speakers for debates elsewhere.

and this is how it all began...

It all started in April 1998, when we heard about plans to plant a trial of genetically engineered maize within 200 metres of Riverford organic farm near Dartington, Devon. A protest was organised and it was clear that there was huge local opposition to these plans when 600 people turned up to the march, some even coming from businesses in Totnes which had closed for the afternoon to show their support.

A solicitor acting for Guy Watson wrote to the government requesting that the consent for the crop trial be revoked. The government declined. The Soil Association reluctantly told Guy Watson that, because of strict rules governing organic food, he would lose the organic status of his sweetcorn if there was any evidence that it had been contaminated with genetic material (via cross pollination) from the trial of GE maize.

In early May, the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) went ahead with the planting. This variety was being tested for a company called Sharpes Seeds to see if it could be entered onto the national seed list and therefore be sold commercially in the UK. The maize had been engineered with a gene from a soil bacterium that gave it resistance to the broad-spectrum herbicide glufosinate (as in Monsanto's 'Roundup'). This meant that the field could be sprayed with the chemical and everything would die except for the GE maize.

Over the summer, increasing evidence of the dangers of GE was coming to light, and a growing body of organisations and independent scientists were calling for an immediate moratorium. Guy Watson decided to take the government to court. He was supported by the Totnes Genetics Group, Friends of the Earth and the Soil Association.

We argued three points:

  • The risk of damage to the organic sweetcorn had not been properly evaluated.
    NIAB did not have a consent of their own to release GE crops into the environment but were relying on one given to Sharpes Seeds.
  • Since 1995, the government has been ignoring statutory obligations which necessitate two previous trials before a seed can be tested for the national seed list.
  • The case ended up in the Court of Appeal where it was ruled that the government had acted unlawfully in dispensing with this statutory obligation. This applied to 163 trials of GE crops across the country. However, the Court said that they were not going to order the trial planting to be destroyed.

The organic farm was offered no protection! People across the world had been following this case and there was widespread alarm and disillusionment. Not only were we told that farmers who wished to avoid contamination of their crops have no rights under existing regulations, but also that the government is planning to introduce retrospective legislation to legitimise these trials.

Against this background, two women were arrested on Monday 3rd August and charged with removing the GE maize by hand. A public meeting was held in Totnes at which 300 people demonstrated unanimous support for the action which many felt to be both courageous and responsible under the circumstances. We immediately collected several hundred signatures on a statement which read: "In view of the government's failure to halt the trial of GE maize in spite of deep concern within the local community, we believe that the action taken, although illegal, was in the public interest." It was widely felt that the charges should be dropped immediately and many people intend to support the two women in every way possible.

On November 17th Jacklyn and Liz appeared at Totnes Magistrates Court to be told that the charge against them had been modified to one of conspiracy to cause criminal damage. This seemed to be an indication that the prosecution didn't think they could make the original charges of criminal damage stick, or it may have been an attempt to "widen the net" with a view to pinning similar charges on the other arrestees when they appeared in court. The best news for J & L was that their onerous bail conditions were somewhat mitigated: their curfew was reduced to a Residency Order (meaning they had to reside at their normal addresses but do not have to stay in between 10pm and 6am as before. However, they remained banned from Devon, and still had to report to a police station twice a week.

To cut to long story short... a week before they were due to appear before a jury, the prosecution rang their solisitors while they were preparing their defence and informed them that the charges had been dropped. Jacklyn and Liz decided to press for a hearing to try to discover the reasons for the dismissal. Several hundred people braved the rain to celebrate .


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