400 peasants, clowns, and reapers liberate Belgian GM potato field

The "battle of the potato" field in Wetterem, near Ghent, Belgium, was a resounding victory for anti-GM activists on Sunday (29 May) as members of a crowd of around 400 people broke through police lines and barbed wire fences to destroy an experimental Genetically Modified potato crop.

Genetic modification of food crops is currently banned in the French-speaking Wallonia region of Belgium, and in the Brussels area, but the regional government of Flanders had given the go-ahead for this trial planting. People from across Belgium and further afield, including many "faucheurs volontaires" (volunteer reapers) from the established French anti-GM farming movement, came together under the banner of the "Field Liberation Movement" to put the experiment to an end.

The day started with setting up of a farmer's market and communal kitchen in a sympathetic field across the motorway from the target site. There were briefings, discussions, infostalls, and some interaction with members of a "Save Our Science" counter demo by GM supporters, who came to argue their case that only more agribusiness supercrops can save the hungry of the world from crises of poverty and malnutrition. At 2pm the crowd started moving, led by a big international samba band, across the motorway footbridge to the field of destiny on the other side. The organisers had called for "non-violence" and not to provoke the cops, and the crowd was colourful, noisy, with small children and grown-up clowns in abundance. Truly Luddite in spirit (in all positive sense of that maligned term) it had the flavour of a peasants' revolt confronting the high-tech forces of empire. Around 50 Flemish robocops waited, batons in hand, surrounding the field (only about the size of a basketball court), which was also ringed by sturdy fences topped with barbed wire, cameras and motion sensors.

As the sun broke through the clouds at 3pm a siren sounded and the action was underway. About half the crowd hopped the first low fence into the intervening meadow and ran towards the experimental enclosure. It was soon clear that the police were outnumbered, with many gaps in their lines through which protesters swarmed. (A major local football match may certainly have helped the protestors here.) The fencing was tough and attempts to pull it down with ropes proved unsuccessful. But it wasn't high enough to keep out climbers who carried strips of carpet to get over the barbed wire. Once inside the compound the security measures then worked to the reapers' advantage as the cops could only clamber after them, too late to stop potatoes flying everywhere. Organic seeding potatoes were hurled by others from outside the fence to replace the modified strain.

There were around 15 arrests, all those who had made it inside the compound were stuck and worthily sacrificed themselves to the law in the best pacifistic tradition. The police then had to dig a tunnel under the fence to get them out again, and they were immediately released after giving ID details. It is not clear yet what charges will be brought, but the consortium behind the field, which includes the university of Ghent, threatens to sue for damages. There were quite a few injuries including hospitalisations from barbed wire cuts and truncheon blows.

To quote from the Field Liberation Movement's press release: "To sum up, the day of action was very successful. This action points out three paths to follow: the "peasant market" offered a platform for farmers with a real alternative, the demonstration gave the public the occasion to show solidarity with this campaign, and the action of civil disobedience effectively liberated a public space. The debate is now open. From today, biotechnology has to demonstrate that its research is in the service of an agricultural model which is sustainable, ecological, and just."