By Sam Wheeler
for the Mail Tribune
The FBI is calling the destruction of two crops of genetically engineered sugar beets in Jackson County “economic sabotage” that could lead to charges of domestic terrorism, depending on the outcome of the investigation.
About 6,500 sugar beets were destroyed in the clandestine acts of vandalism, which occurred overnight on June 8 and 11 at two separate fields. One of the fields is in the 1400 block of Tolman Creek Road, where less-than-a-quarter-acre-sized crop of sugar beets grown for their seeds still lay dead from being uprooted. Two FBI agents who were attempting to contact the landowners Thursday confirmed the crop had been vandalized.
FBI spokeswoman Beth Anne Steele would not comment on how the plots managed by Swiss multinational biotech corporation Syngenta AG were destroyed, or where the fields were located. Syngenta spokesman Paul Minehart also declined to give those details.
“We are looking for information that would lead us to be able to identify the person or people responsible,” Steele said.
The crimes are considered economic sabotage and a violation of federal law involving damage to commercial agricultural enterprises, she said.
Steele said domestic terrorism charges are “certainly an avenue that will be looked at … it depends on the particular facts of the investigation that are uncovered between now and then.”
According to an FBI release, one 1,000-plant crop was destroyed during the night of June 8, and another 5,500-plant crop was destroyed overnight on June 11, each on separate properties Syngenta partially leases from private landowners.
Syngenta workers discovered the destruction and alerted the FBI, Minehart said. No one has taken responsibility for the acts.
Steele said it is “likely” that both fields were destroyed by the same individual or group.
“We are still working to determine the full extent of crop loss and our investment in this … I think it’s safe to say that it’s over $50,000,” Minehart said.
Minehart said Syngenta, which leases several fields throughout Jackson County for growing genetically engineered sugar beet seed plants, hasn’t stepped up security at any of its plots since the recent vandalism — but it has security measures already in place.
“We certainly do use a variety of ways to protect our fields,” Minehart said. “That includes people, electronic surveillance. We don’t do that with all of our fields, but we do that with the ones where we might have a security concern. We do try to protect ourselves.”
Oregon Department of Agriculture Director Katy Coba said in a statement released Thursday she is “shocked and disappointed” by the crimes.
“To my knowledge, this is the first time someone has deliberately taken the cowardly step of uprooting high value plants growing in our state … there is no justification for committing these crimes and it is not the kind of behavior we expect to see in Oregon agriculture,” Coba said.
Chris Hardy, a founding member of GMO-Free Jackson County, condemned the acts of vandalism. His group led a citizens’ initiative that resulted in Measure 15-119, which will appear on the May 2014 ballot. The measure would ban genetically modified crops in the county.
“GMO-Free Jackson County does not support the destruction of another farmer’s crop,” Hardy said.
“It’s not a good process for taking care of this issue … our ballot initiative is the right way to do it,” Hardy said.
“The key thing here is that this is a crime against not only us, but we look at it as a crime against agriculture,” said Minehart. “It really puts everybody as risk, from farmers to consumers. And essentially it’s an assault on the rights of all law-abiding Americans.”
Jackson County Farm Bureau President Ron Bjork echoed Minehart’s concerns.
“Simple theft is bad enough,” he said in a press release emailed to the Mail Tribune. “This is a planned, deliberate effort to destroy a family’s livelihood and to strike fear into farm and ranch families. All of us are going to be rightfully concerned about who is lurking out there plotting to do us harm.”
The group Oregonians for Food and Shelter is offering a reward of up to $10,000 for information leading to the identification, arrest and conviction of the person or people involved. The Farm Bureau offers a reward of up to $1,000 for arrest and conviction for theft, arson or vandalism on a member’s posted property.
Anyone with information is asked to call the FBI at 541-773-2942 during normal business hours or the FBI’s Portland office at 503-224-4181 24 hours a day. Tips may also be emailed to Portland@ic.fbi.gov.
Sam Wheeler is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story originally appeared in Medford Mail Tribune.