U.K.: Protesting Modified Corn

Genetic modifications were supposed to make crops more resistant to pest and disease, but they have become vulnerable to another kind of attack, reports CBS News Correspondent Richard Roth.

Greenpeace videotaped its members as they ransacked a crop of genetically modified corn, one of several farm-sized experiments in Britain with gene-altered agriculture.

The environmental group was stopped when police intervened, but activists still insisted that field trials designed to test the safety of experimental crops pose a contamination risk.

Â"Organic crops which will then become genetically engineered in themselves, it may affect wildlife, we donÂ't know,Â" said one activist. Â"And once that is released out into the environment, affecting the environment, you canÂ't bring it back.Â"

But a series of recent raids on outdoor experiments in gene-altered food now has the government threatening to keep new tests secret. The argument is that safety canÂ't be measured without trials in the field.

Â"We needed the results of this crop, and weÂ're now not going to get themÂ" said a British official. Â"ThatÂ's very regrettable.Â"

The fact is, it is not just environmental activists in Britain who are suspicious about gene-altered food. Consumer concerns pushed major supermarket chains to label products that include genetically modified ingredients or to ban them entirely from store shelves.

The controversy amounts to an international food fight with estimates that EuropeÂ's resistance to genetically modified foods cost corn farmers in America some $200 million a year in lost exports.

On Monday, 30 protesters (including Greenpeace's executive director Lord Melchett) were arrested for destroying the corn.

The activists broke into a six-acre field at Lyng, near Norwich in eastern England. The corn was due to be harvested within a week.

Greenpeace said it was acting on behalf of the British people, reports CBS News Correspondent Pamela McCall.

Sarah Burton, a Greenpeace spokesperson, says most Britons support their fight against genetically altering plants. "We have at least 79 percent of the public behind us," she says.

"If the government insists on conducting this experiment against the public's wishes, it is up to organizations like Greenpeace to act on the public's behalf," said activist Jim Thomas.

While the U.S. has approved 50 varieties of genetically modified crops, in Britain they have yet to give the green light to even one, amid public concern that tinkering with nature could have dire consequences on wildlife and humans.

Genetically modified crops are plants whose genes are manipulated to produce specific characteristics, such as resistance to pests.

The Labor Party government said Greenpeace's attitude was "absurd."

"How can we possibly have an informed and rational debate about protecting the environment when there are people destroying the very evience we need to conduct this debate," said Jack Cunningham, the Cabinet minister responsible for scientific research.