In court yesterday (20 September), 28 members of Greenpeace, included its executive director Lord Peter Melchett, were acquitted on charges of criminal damage despite having admitted that they did actually perpetrate the act they were accused of, and even produced home video tapes of them doing it. The activists were protesting against the use of genetic technology in food production, which creates what they publicly brand “frankenfoods,” and the environmental pressure group is said to be “delighted” with the victory.

The orchestrated destruction and removal of GM crops on Norfolk farms, on two consecutive July weekends last year, has been surrounded by controversy since the trial began on 4 April. The farm was a test site, part of a nationwide trial of GM production last year, but Greenpeace protestors believed that they were not guilty of criminal damage and that action was necessary to prevent neighbouring farms being damaged by GM maize pollen.

Lord Melchett explained: “We acted to protect the environment, the countryside and British farming from GM contamination and we were right to do that.” He added, “I was invited to a public meeting in the village of Lyng, Norfolk, and was completely horrified… the local people… hadn’t been consulted – this field trial had been imposed on them and they felt outraged, and wanted it removed.”

Fellow protestor Nicky Cook, defended her actions saying: “We were never given the democratic right to say whether we wanted the environment to be used for experimentation with GM crops….so I felt (demonstrating) was the only option left open to me.”

The activists were arrested after their second attack and at Norwich crown court, where they made up one of the largest groups of defendants in British history, they were cleared of theft on 17 April. The jury could not decide on the verdict of criminal damage however, and it was discharged to reconvene in September for two weeks.

This second trial focused on the damage, worth an estimated £2000, which the activists caused using strimmers and bare hands to rip up plants and trample them into the ground.

John Farmer, prosecuting, said that there was no legal reason why the crops should not have been grown, but the jury reached the verdict of not guilty. Judge David Mellor ordered that the prosecution pay the costs incurred by both trials, which reached in excess of £250,000. Greenpeace, meanwhile, has arguably paid a price in a less tangible way, attracting sometimes negative publicity as a result of its action which has slowed membership growth in recent months. The organisation hopes that new support will be rallied by the victory.

The government have vowed to continue the testing despite Melchett’s threat that he “could not rule out” further attacks. A spokesman for The Department of the Environment said: “If we halt our strictly controlled research there would be widespread GM crop planting without us getting the real scientific evidence we need. These farm-scale evaluations are vital for us to assess whether there are any unacceptable effects on the environment and human health by growing and managing GM crops.”

GM crops are currently used across Britain in animal feed, but several retailers, such as frozen food group Iceland, have announced their commitment to avoiding any GM material.

The Greenpeace protesters believe that the verdict is a clear vindication of their stance over the GM issue, but police and farmers are hoping a precedent has not been set. Detective Sergeant Tom Neill led the investigation and commented, “We accept the verdict but believe that the prosecution was fairly brought.”

The National Union of Farmers was not so stoical. President Ben Gill stated: “We find it extraordinary that, even with such clear evidence, a not guilty verdict was reached. This gives the green light to wanton vandalism and trespass.” The verdicts were described as “perverse,” as “declaring open session” on British farmland, and Gill said he would be writing to Home Secretary Jack Straw ahead of a planned meeting between the pair. With the imminent start of the winter test plantings, Neill felt it important to stress that “Further acts which affect people going about their lawful business will be investigated as normal by the Norfolk police.”