It was New Year's Eve at Michigan State University, but the glow in the night sky wasn't fireworks. It was arson in the agriculture building. More than that, it was sabotage.
"I think I was just in shock," says Michigan State Professor Catherine Ives.
A terrorist group claimed it set the fire specifically to stop the work of those who study genetically modified food.
"I lost basically my entire professional life," says Ives. "I lost every paper I ever wrote that analyzed the benefits and risks of this technology."
Gene technology is under attack like never before. Protests called "crop busting" - where demonstrators yank the crops from the ground - have come to America.
Thereve been 15 such protests in the last year, most of them at university test plots. Then came the arson. To authorities, the fire at Michigan State represents a major escalation in the protest movement against genetically engineered food. The group claiming responsibility, the Earth Liberation Front, is the same one that claimed the multimillion dollar arson at the Vail ski resort in 1998, which was an anti-development protest. This year the letters ELF were spray-painted after one crop busting at the University of Minnesota.
Now, federal investigators say the violent, radical green movement has a new mission. "It seems to me as if anybody who's engaged in genetic research is potentially a target" says Stephen Peifer. Peifer, a federal prosecutor in Oregon, is presenting evidence against the ELF to a federal grand jury. He believes that "Sooner or later there will be human injury, or perhaps loss of life if this continues."
"I want to see these actions continue to increase," says Craig Rosebraugh, who claims to speak for the Earth Liberation Front. A well-known Portland, Ore., environmentalist, Rosebraugh says he receives anonymous communications from the group, but doesn't know the members. He confirms the ELF wants to sabotage genetic plant research.
"It's not just Michigan State University, it's not just universities, it's each and every entity involved in genetically modifying organisms that's going to be targeted," says Rosebraugh.
Rosebraugh sees the arson at Michigan as a legitimate form of protest, an attitude that baffles Ives, who says her genetic research will help increase food production in Africa.
"Our program is set up to help poor people and poor farmers and I find it difficult to find justification for trying to stop that ind of work," she says.
So far there have been no arrests, but federal agents are treating this as sophisticated terrorism. They believe the same organized radicals who use arson to protest animal testing and logging, have found a new cause in gene altered plants.