This week's cover story delves into the infamous University of Washington arson and the underground environmental movement it blew up. The 2001 arson, intended as a protest against genetic engineering, targeted a plant biologist named Toby Bradshaw--an interesting character in his own right.
He's a blunt, motorcycle-riding, 55-year-old contrarian who dismisses his attackers as "idiots" and, unlike some of his colleagues, seemed to emerge from the arson with his psyche in tact.
As if to thumb his nose at the enviro/animal rights crowd, he has outside his office a picture of a jokey billboard for a South Carolina restaurant. "There's plenty of room for all God's creatures," the billboard reads. "Right next to the mashed potatoes." Inside his office, the walls are decorated with the skulls of animals he's hunted in locations ranging from Idaho and Wyoming to Zimbabwe.
"That's where I get my meat," he says, pointing to the skull of an elk that weighed 600 or 700 pounds and kept him going for most of 2008. "I shoot it." He keeps 10 hawks at his house for his hunting trips, which have him disappearing into the Rocky Mountain wilderness for a week or two every fall and coming back with the makings of elk Teriyaki and antelope chili.
Yet, if you think that makes him the archetypal opposite of the vegan types who attacked him, think again. While far from vegan, he says that a vegetarian diet is, generally, better for the planet. He shoots much of the meat he eats precisely because he believes it's the only real responsible way to get the stuff. Like many vegetarians, he holds that commercial meat production is a waste of natural resources because animals are fed food that would be far more productively used feeding people.
On the topic of genetic engineering, though, Bradshaw couldn't be further apart from environmental activists.
Leslie Pickering, a former press officer for the Earth Liberation Front, under whose auspices the UW arson was committed, describes the ethos that prevailed in his circles. "A lot of people in the environmental movement had a deep ecology perspective: Nature has its own inherent value... For us to be manipulating that through technology, just because it was new, seemed wrong."
Many mainstream environmental activists are also opposed to genetic engineering. Michael Hansen, senior staff scientist at the Consumers Union, the organization that publishes Consumer Reports, points to what he calls a "huge expansion" in the use of pesticides brought by genetic engineering. That's because the technology is often used to make crops resistant to Roundup, a common weed-killer. Consequently, he says, farmers who would have only sprayed Roundup before crops came up can do so afterward, dousing foods we eat like soybean and corn with chemicals.
Hansen points to a 2009 study done by Oregon researcher Charles Benbrook, affiliated with a non-profit called The Organic Center, showing that farmers sprayed an additional 318 pounds of pesticide in the preceding 13 years due to genetic engineering.
"I really don't give a rat's ass what the weight is," Bradshaw says. "What I want to know is: How toxic is it per gram? Roundup is about the least toxic herbicide known."
He's even more dismissive of the pastoral ideal held up by some environmentalists. A military brat, Bradshaw spent part of his childhood on his grandparents' tobacco farm in North Carolina. "It was nasty, nasty work," he says. "Hot. Sweaty. Tobacco seeped through your skin."
It seems fitting then that when Bradshaw poses this question--"Do you want to know what the biggest problem for biodiversity is?"--he answers this way: "Agriculture. It's responsible for more ecosystem destruction and biodiversity loss than any other thing by a mile--by a long mile."
"Why do you think forests were cleared?" he continues, his voice rising. "It wasn't for timber, it was for agriculture." The four biggest crops in the U.S.--corn, soy bean, wheat and cotton--take up land equivalent to the combined states of Washington, Oregon, and California, he says.
"We can't do without agriculture," he says, recognizing the obvious. His point is that compared to the habitat loss caused by farming, the risks of genetic engineering are trivial. And he sees them as arising only if the technology is misused, say by inserting pharmaceuticals like insulin into plants to grow them cheaply--a process known as "pharming"--and potentially contaminating the food supply.
Ironically, Bradshaw wasn't doing genetic engineering when Solondz's and Waters' underground cell set fire to the building where he worked (pictured above). But he is now. He uses the technology to verify his research on the genetic difference between different types of monkey flowers--beautiful pink- and scarlet-bloomed plants (pictured at right) that he keeps in a greenhouse next to his office.
One could think of him, again, as thumbing his nose at his attackers, except that as he portrays it, he doesn't give a rat's ass about them either.