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Anti-GM Blockade of Sainsbury's Giant Essex Waltham Point depot.

Barry Kade | 05.07.2004 18:14 | Bio-technology | Cambridge | London

Sainsbury's giant M25 Waltham Point distribution centre in Essex was shut down in a dramatic anti-GM protest on Thursday night (1st July 2004). This was part of a nationwide night of blockades which closed all six of this food retail corporations major distribution centres around the country.

The giant Waltham Point 'fulfillment factory' by the M25 in Essex.
The giant Waltham Point 'fulfillment factory' by the M25 in Essex.

The Waltham Point centre is a giant mile long corrugated metal shed running parallel to the M25. From it a constant stream of articulated lorries flows out to the whole of London, the South East and East Anglia. The blockade started at 11pm and lasted for two and a half hours, before the police were finally able to remove and then arrest us. For a while, we stopped the corporate juggernaut. No lorries were able to enter or leave Sainsbury's brand new state of the art complex. Other blockades around the country lasted for many more hours.

We were doing this to protest at Sainsbury's continued use of milk from GM fed dairies, breaking its pledge to its customers not to use GM products in its food. This is one more illustration of the true attitudes of the owners and key figures within the Sainsbury's empire. For the major owners of this corporation have also also positioned themselves at the heart of the governmental/corporate complex still attempting to push forward GM crops.

So at 11pm we chained ourselves together in a circle in front of the entrance to Waltham Point, our arms locked into heavy iron tubes to prevent our easy or speedy removal. Others locked themselves onto the gates with D locks on their necks. Later another two protesters were aggressively manhandled by police as they blockaded a lorry.

Eventually we were all removed forcibly from our ring of iron by the police. Three from London and six from Colchester were then arrested and taken to local police stations. Here we were held in the cells for the next 15 hours for questioning, before being released on bail.

While we lay in the road, supporting protesters relayed us news about the successful simultaneous blockades at Sainsbury's other five biggest giant new 'fulfillment factory' distribution centres in Merseyside, South Yorkshire, the West Midlands and Bristol.

Webs of resistance spun across depot entrances throughout the country. Here was a demonstration of the power of non-violent direct action to shut down the multi-million pound distribution network of a giant corporation.

Waltham Point in Essex is one of the biggest of the new automated distribution centres in Europe. It is the size of 10 football pitches put together, and is estimated to feed more than 80 stores and handle 2.6 million cases a week, being the base of 200 trucks and 300 trailers. This cost £70 million to develop and is the largest of Sainsbury's new fully automated centres it calls its 'Fulfillment Factories'. The corporation is developing around just eight of these giant 'just in time' fast flowing perishable and quick turnover goods centres, closing its 21 older, smaller, less automated centres.

And on that night we were suddenly able to block the flow of Lord Sainsbury's river of profits, on the very same day as the Sainsbury's chairman resigned and the companies shave value plunged.

We lay down and cut off the vast hulk of its “fulfillment factory” from its dedicated connection onto the nearby M25 and its ceaseless orbital flow of all the things in the world, uprooted, commodified and caught in the whirlwind of the global market.

It is a world-wind that is transforming how we grow, manufacture and consume our food. This changes the relationship between agriculture, technology and ecology. It is part the latest stage of an epochal global shift away from peasant production to global commodity production and an industrialised and privatised ecology.

In the last decades those who have been separated from the land and corralled into vast conurbations and shanty towns now form the majority of the worlds people.

The development of GM crops by the worlds giant chemical corporations is a key part of this process. In the fantasies of venture capitalists, investors and company executives, nature could be reduced to a simple code and therefore could now be reprogrammed to suit corporate needs.

The corporations are pushing this technology while vast areas of scientific uncertainty still remain about its environmental and health effects. For they have also begun to privatise science, enclosing its commons as their ' intellectual property'. They are appropriating it as the new engine of their 'knowledge economy'. Thus they are limiting its field of vision by driving out any critical and independent scientific voices.


Lord Sainsbury is a key figure in this process in the UK. He is Tony Blair's multi-billionaire Minister for Science and Innovation. He is the man in charge of promoting biotechnology at the UK's Department of Trade and Industry. He has responsibility for science funding and research policy, and is also a key player on the governments powerful 'Sci-Bio' GM cabinet committee. He is also a key investor in GM research and the largest single donor to the Labour party, giving it £9 million pounds in five years alone between 1996 and 2001.

Lord Sainsbury is also the head of the family that form the major owners of the Sainsbury's supermarket chain. He personally owns 13% of the corporation, or £1.3 billion worth of shares, which give him tens of millions of pounds annually in dividends, while his family own another 35%. His network of supporters also own substantial amounts of shares, such as the CEO of one of his biotech companies, who owns 5%. Lord Sainsbury was the chairman of the Sainsbury corporation right up until his elevation into Science Minister by Blair in 1998.

As Britain's third richest man Lord Sainsbury has ploughed substantial amounts of the billions yielded to him by the Sainsbury's supermarket chain into developing genetic modification technologies. He himself owns two biotech companies, one which owns a patent on a fundamental process used in GM crops. His other firm yielded him an extra £20 million in increased share value from GM research in just two years.

His has also created the Sainsbury Laboratory for GM research in Norwich through a combination of his governmental and private funding resources. Thus he privately funds his Laboratory with millions every year from his 'Gatsby' charitable foundation supported by £200 million of Sainsbury shares. At the same time, since becoming science minister, he has overseen a massive 300% increase in his government department's funding for his Laboratory, channeling £1.2 million per year of public money into it. The leading scientists and eminent professors employed by this network of public and private patronage are also amongst the leading 'impartial' scientific advocates of the technology and its alleged harmlessness.

Sainsburys is caught in a contradiction. It wants to reassure consumers, made wary and sceptical in the UK after years of food safety scandals, that its food is really wholesome and 'natural'. Like other supermarkets it therefore promotes 'GM free' as a selling point. Yet it is also enmeshed within a network of corporate, investment and political interests that have bought into and are promoting the whole GM project. Thus it had carried on using milk from GM fed dairies, while consumers rejected it and other retailers have phased it out.

Thursday 1st July 2004 was the day it launched its special, limited “GM free milk” product range in 105 selected stores. This range will be priced higher than the rest of its milk, (but of course farmers will not be passed on this premium). It is aimed at making 'GM free' a more expensive, specialist marketing brand, rather than a universal right for all. It hopes that this will ultimately open the door for more GM.

Our 1st July nationwide blockade of Sainsburys 'fulfillment factories' happened on an auspicious day for another reason. Earlier on that day Sainsbury's had warned that its profits for this year would be "significantly below" expectations. This lead to the value of Sainsburys shares falling steeply, by 8.7%, and the sudden resignation of the current company chairman, Sir Peter Davis. He was facing a shareholders rebellion against his £2.4 million bonus while profits and market share were falling. All this was happening in the hours running up to the blockade.

Sainburys supermarket chain is in a crisis. Until the mid 1990's it was Britain's largest supermarket chain. Since then, it has fallen behind its rivals Tesco and Asda and is now challenged by the merged Morrisons / Safeway group. This crisis is despite the multi-billion pound update of its 'fulfillment factory' distribution network. Institutional shareholders are up in arms, with an internal battle over strategy. The trigger for the chairmans resignation on July 1st was his £2.4 million bonus, which angered powerful institutional investors because it did not reflect the companies poor performance. Of course, they are not worried about the workers. For at the same time, Sainsburys announced it is axing its Christmas bonus to its 100,000 full time staff: "This is a £2 million-plus award which will do Sir Peter very nicely while 15% of Sainsbury's staff missed out on a pay rise and the Christmas bonus scheme is being cut," said the Transport and General Workers Union.

As the companies annual general meeting approaches, demands are rising for Sainsburys to; stop using GM fed dairy and animal products, and stop investing in GM; Pay the farmers a decent price for their milk and other products; Stop their attempts to make their workers pay for their companies crisis, for this is a crisis that is caused by the greed of the rich in a globalising capitalism.

The July 1st blockade also stands as a metaphor for a larger battle. This is the society wide blockade of the corporate multinationals GM agenda. In 1996 the corporations launched GM crops onto the market. It was expected that the UK would be covered with them in a year. Yet after eight years of resistance the corporate agri-biotech machine is cracking.

The Bayer corporation have retreated, withdrawing their only product approved for growing in the UK. Now, no GM will be grown commercially in the UK for many years, if at all. Monsanto and other GM corporations are also in retreat. GM crops are becoming increasingly discredited and obsolete.

Veteran campaigner Jim Thomas writes of eight years of: “raw, direct, popular opposition” in the UK which has managed to:

“- remove GM ingredients from all human foods sold in the UK.
- remove GM ingredients from pretty much all poultry and pig feed in the UK.
- reduce the number of UK GM crop field trials from hundreds of locations per year to currently one.
- cause Monsanto to leave the UK, stopping further breeding work here.
- reduce the number of GM varieties seeking government approval from almost sixty varieties down to a remaining two that have no chance of being legally grown.
- acted as a catalyst, inspiring campaigners and activists to challenge GM crops around the world.”

The UK has seen one of the most sustained campaigns of direct action and popular campaigning in recent history. Year after year, night after night, the GM crops were pulled up by local villagers and environmental activists. All this effort has shown the way to victory. Jim adds:

“Campaigners rarely get the satisfaction of so clearly winning - a win for the thousands and thousands of people who spent cold nights pulling up crops, long weekends talking to shoppers and farmers and years of emotional and intellectual energy countering the bullying, lobbying power and financial clout of the gene giants”.

The battle still is not won. The corporations have invested billions in developing GM crops.. Chemical corporations like Monsanto have taken a massive gamble and transformed themselves into GM seed companies.

Biotechnology was, along with information technology, supposed to be the herald of a new epoch of capitalism, a solution to its deepening period of crisis. In the 1970's chemical corporations like Monsanto saw the promise of an escape from the contradictions of the petero-chemical epoch. They dreamed they could leap ahead of the competition with rDNA technology. This would be the generator of wealth in the new 'knowledge economy'.

The reproductive capacity of nature would form a new means of production. Life was just a code and could now reprogrammed to suit corporate needs. New chemicals and pharmaceuticals could be grown in plants, rather than manufactured by workers in factories as part of the troubled petero-chemical complex. And thus these very plant species, wherever they reproduced themselves, their seeds would be the privatized and patented intellectual property of the corporations.

And first, they would flood the world with the most simple and crude product of this new knowledge, - crops engineered to be resistant to their own brand herbicides. These would be the heralds of the new bio-tech epoch.

Yet the contradictions of GM are proving more difficult to manage. GM technologies bring together such incommensurate timescales. They intervene in millions of years of evolutionary time, in ways as yet dimly understood. At the same time, corporations have never been governed by more short-term aims of dancing to the ever increasing rhythms of competition on the world market, where billions of dollars can shift in micro-seconds.

The scientific questions this radically new 'gene-splicing' technology raises will take decades to answer, questions ranging from the real role of DNA, the effects of scrambling it, and the long term consequences for human health and the eco-system.

Yet the massive institutional investors, who were so dazzled by the promise spun to them by scientists in the 1980's, (the dream of a second, privatised genesis), have now waited over twenty years for a return on their investment. This is all they can bare. They want a return on their capital soon. Unless firms like Monsanto can give them that, they will die. So the battle will intensify, as the US/EU WTO dispute over GMO's testifies. GM crops came onto the market in the mid 1990's, along with the WTO and neo-liberal globalisation. And resistance has grown to both.

The anti-GM resistance has shown its power. It is possible to stop GM crops. The multinational corporations agenda does not represent an inevitable and unstoppable line of 'progress'. Resistance can stop them, and open up the possibility of alternative paths of progress. These are the paths to a more sustainable, equal and just world.

Barry Kade
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Display the following 8 comments

  1. Good report — mike
  2. query — anarchoteapot
  3. How they removed us at Waltham Point. — Barry Kade
  4. gets me off work — bobby
  5. waltham point lies — gary clarke
  6. wrong place — kev
  7. solidarity — blockader
  8. reply to blockaders — kev