Genetic Modification in Flanders: The Appeal of the Wetteren 11

Graeme Hayes

On 28 October, the Ghent appeals court heard the case of eleven Flemish, French, Dutch and Walloon activists from the Belgian Field Liberation Movement, known as the Wetteren 11, or the Patatistas. Last year, the activists were handed suspended prison sentences of 3 to 6 months for their role in breaking into and partially destroying a field trial of genetically modified, mildew-resistant potatoes in Wetteren, just outside Ghent, in May 2011. The action had been widely advertised by the group in advance, as public, nonviolent civil disobedience; on the day, the police presence was too slight to cope with 400 or so activists, who broke through police lines and the security fencing to destroy a large part of the crop. The reaction of the public authorities was unambiguous: the following day, Kris Peeters, first minister of the Flanders region, declared that the activists would be prosecuted for conspiracy; one of the eleven, who acted as media spokesperson, was sacked from her job as a researcher at Leuven Catholic University; when charges were filed, the activists stood accused not of illegal trespass or criminal damage, as has been the case elsewhere in Europe and previously in Belgium, but of belonging to an organised criminal gang.

As one of the defence lawyers gently ironized in court, this is an unlikely charge to bring against a group of leftist/anarchist activists with horizontal and participatory internal decision making procedures (and even more so for the activist charged with being the ‘gang leader’). More broadly, the charge might easily be felt to fail to distinguish between organizations whose primary purpose is the pursuit of criminal activities and those, like the FLM, where law-breaking is a secondary concern undertaken in an openly declared attempt to change public policy. In June this year, five of the country’s leading legal academics wrote an opinion piece in De Standaard, arguing that such charges should never be brought against political organizations. For the defence, the charges are, simply, an assault on free speech – with Peeters’ comments cited as evidence of direct political interference in the judicial system.

The appeal verdict will be handed down shortly before Christmas. More than the extent of the sentence, it is the charge itself which points to the political stakes. The Flanders region’s economic development strategy relies heavily on the positioning of the region as a biotechnology hub, and particularly encourages partnerships between the public sector and private corporations. The Wetteren field trial, in fact, was such a collaboration: a cooperative venture between BASF, Wageningen University, and four Belgian universities grouped within the Flanders Institute for Biotechnology, and funded by the Flanders regional authority. Equally, it points to the stakes for public research. The FLM’s opposition to the field trial is based on three inter-related arguments: (i) that the authorization and evaluation processes, formally structured in terms of biosafety risk, exclude ethical and social considerations, instead presuming mono-cultural, property-rights solutions to agricultural problems; (ii) that the trial was not in fact structured as an independent assessment of biosafety risk, but as a public relations exercise communicating the benefits of GM potatoes as a ‘sustainable’ resource, whose application would be demonstrated by the trial (particularly irksome for activists was the sign erected on the trial site by the University of Ghent, claiming ‘Hier groeien de aardappelen van de toekomst’ – ‘Here grow the potatoes of the future’ – thus not only assuming the outcome of the trial prior to its conduct, but assuming it as a political and social object rather than a technical one); and (iii) that public universities, rather than seeking to promote independent critical knowledge, are in fact promoting the concerns of a specific techno-industrial agenda.

Such concerns are an eloquent response to the simplistic ‘anti-science’ agenda often levelled at groups attacking GM crops. Yet in their Wetteren action, the FLM caused permanent, irreversible damage to public research. In the immediate aftermath, they were widely attacked in Flanders as fundamentalists, or even ‘eco-terrorists’; in the Flanders parliament, the Greens formally condemned the action and, in private at least, several Belgian NGOs were fiercely critical, arguing that the action had significantly set back dialogue over GMOs with public authorities. In their defence, the Patatistas raise important questions over the boundaries of free speech, the legitimacy of criminal action, and the openness of the democratic process. For public universities and the researchers who work in them, in Belgium and elsewhere, they also raise important questions over the purposes of our own research, and its role as a democratic counterweight to neoliberal agendas.