The ‘Big Potato Swap’

On May 29th 2011, hundreds of activists decontaminated a GM potato field trial in Wetteren (BE). They pulled up genetically modified potatoes and replaced them with organic varieties, which are naturally blight resistant.

The voluntary introduction of 108 genetically modified potatoes in the environment was carried out by the Flemish Institute for Biotechnology, University of Ghent, Higher Education Ghent, and the Flemish Agency for Agriculture and Fishery in cooperation with world’s largest chemical company BASF and the University of Wageningen.

The ‘Big Potato Swap’ was a public and nonviolent action of civil disobedience. The Catholic University of Leuven sacked researcher Barbara Van Dyck because of her participation in the ‘Big Potato Swap’ (read more about the dismissal here). The Belgian State is now prosecuting 11 of the activists for criminal gang!

Civil Disobedience

During the ‘Big Potato Swap’ more than 200 activists deliberately tresspassed the law in order to draw attention to the major problems with, and consequences resulting from, the introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into agriculture and food chains. The activists wanted to challenge the governments’ agricultural policy which facilitates the introduction of unwanted GMOs in food and agriculture, while health and environmental impacts have yet to be sufficiently tested. By taking this action they were also taking a stand against the increasing privatisation of research and the privatisation of food production, including the patenting of crops.

It succeeded: the public debate took off in the papers, online, and on the radio and television. Schools and universities took part in the debate as did NGOs and the political and farming sectors. This act of civil disobedience made people aware of the dangers of GMO’s and the role that public research
plays in their development. We need to find real sustainable and fair solutions to respond to future food challenges.

Democratic Deficit

Why civil disobedience? Groups have been calling for a democratic debate about the introduction of genetically modified crops for years. Local as well as international environmental and agricultural organisations have been campaigning constantly for sustainable agriculture and emphasising that GMO’s cannot be a part of this.

The Belgian groups objected to the potato field trial which they described as unwanted and useless. Above all, they highlighted the environmental risks involved in such an experiment. Three experts from the Belgian Biotechnology Safety Council gave negative advice regarding the potato trial. They emphasised the environmental risks linked to the trial and pointed out that it was scientifically ungrounded. In August 2012 a judge in Ghent ruled that the GM field trial itself was actually illegal because there was no justification for the fact that the ministers in charge did not allow for objections or for minority positions on the Biotechnology Safety Council to be considered.

The action took place after all these other attempts from people to express their views had been systematically swept aside. The structural problems in agriculture, and the consequences of the use of genetically modified organisms have still not been openly discussed in Flanders, and public debate about the issue is systematically avoided.

Criminalisation of Activism for a Sustainable Agriculture

11 activists have been accused of belonging to a criminal gang, and were being asked to pay €200,000 damages. Why so much? Because the Flemish Institute for biotechnology, University of Ghent, Ghent HogeSchool and the Institute for Agricultural and Fisheries Research wants them to pay not only for six months of private security for the site, but also for the pro GMO rally, the time the biotech industry spent dealing with the press, and the many hours that the lecturers spent spreading pro-GMO propaganda by e-mail and Facebook.

Broad Support for the 11 Accused

More than 90  people have volunteered to join the 11 accused in the docks to reinforce the message that campaigning for a sustainable agriculture is not criminal (see voluntary defendants). Among them are farmers, politicians, academic scholars, civil society representatives, concerned citizens and French voluntary reapers. This is a strong message that the 11 accused belong to a broad social movement against GMO. The activists received streams of support messages from local and international organisations, concerned citizens, academics and farmers (Support Statements).

Trial Day 1 : Unfair Trial

The group of activists had prepared a thorough defence to stress the political goal of the ‘Big Potato Swap’. This was based on calling up expert witnesses, video testimonies from scientists, and video footage from the action in order to prove that 1) the action was covered by the principle of freedom of expression,  and 2) that action was necessary in order to protect the precautionary principle. The action in Wetteren was carried out to protect the environment, public health and small-scale farming.

On January 15th 2013, the defendants and their lawyers left the court room and the trial after the judge had refused to hear their expert testimonies or consider evidence based on video footage. The testimonies were crucial to emphasise the political nature of the action. The judges therefore denied the defendants their legal right to an appropriate defence, as well as the opportunity to question the use of genetically modified organisms in agriculture.

The judge also refused to allow the 91 voluntary defendants to be included into the proceedings. The presence of so many voluntary defendants demonstrates that a large number of people do not accept that action for sustainable agriculture has been criminalised.

Judgement 1: Gang Formation

On February 12th 2013, the Judge condemned the 11 by default guilty for gang formation. This verdict is a dangerous precedent which will have an impact on all kinds of civil action. With this verdict, the Belgian court  has fundamentally undermined the right of citizens to freedom of speech.

The 11 opposed this verdict and demanded a new trial which respects their legal right to a appropriate defence in court. On  May 28th, 2013  this new trial took place in the court of Dendermonde.

Judgement 2: Gang Formation

On September 24th the 11 have been convicted for gang formation

Appeal to judgement!

The 11 appealed to this judgement and will appear in Court in Ghent on October 28th 2014.

The message to the politicians, the media, academia and the judiciary is clear: we, and many people with us, will continue to struggle for a fair, sustainable, GMO-free agriculture, and this movement continues to grow.

Find out more about the courtcase:

News on the courtcase

Voluntary Defendants