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Anti GE Tree Activists Kicked off Florida University Campus, Spied on by FBI

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Genetic Engineering page, Millions Against Monsanto page and our Florida News page.

A few months ago, while reporting an article about genetically engineered trees for Earth Island Journal's Autumn issue (read the story here), I had a mighty hard time locating plant biologists or genetic engineers at academic institutions who were willing to talk about the possible risks of growing GE trees in massive plantations. It seemed there was little debate over this controversial issue within the biotech community on college campuses - the very places where most of the research into GE trees is carried out.

So it didn't come as too much of a surprise when I heard that a group of environmental activists who were scheduled to make a presentation on GE trees at the University of Florida in Gainesville last month were booted off the campus, charged with trespassing, and banned from the university grounds for three years. What did come as a bit of a surprise was news that the FBI, too, was keeping tabs on the activists.

Genetically modified strains of trees like eucalyptus, pines, poplars, and fruit trees are being tested in hundreds of trial plots across the world, including the United States. In the US, except for a GE papaya tree variety that is grown commercially in Hawai'i, there are no commercial GE tree plantations - yet. (The US Department of Agriculture is considering a proposal to grow GE eucalyptus in commercial plantations.) Some environmentalists are concerned that transgenic trees will promote industrial monoculture plantations that could have a huge impact on forest biodiversity.

The Gainesville campus GE tree presentation was part of a multi-week speaking tour, "The Growing Threat: Genetically Engineered Trees and the Future of Forests," organized by the Global Justice Ecology Project, Campaign to STOP GE Trees, and Everglades Earth First! The speakers were traveling to campuses in several southern states to raise awareness about the proposed commercial release of genetically engineered, freeze-tolerant eucalyptus trees in the US South.    

The talk had been scheduled for October 28, a Monday. A conference room had been booked at the university's McKnight Brain Institute a month in advance. But four days before the event, the institute cancelled the booking. The institute officials first said it was because they had to "give priority to brain and neuroscience related functions." On being pressed for clarification, they said the AV equipment in the room wasn't working and they couldn't offer an alternative space. The university student who had booked the room checked the institute's calendar and found that there were four other conference rooms available, but institute officials didn't respond to his request for a new reservation by the time the weekend rolled in.  
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