The GMO Battle

Stories from the Troubled Beginning of the Biological Century

This working paper by Richard D North is an important contribution to the historiography of the debate about biotechnology. Its specific focus is the relationship between environmentalists, consumer organisations, the media, politicians and the public.

Sweden is an interesting example of what can happen when politicians create a legal right that in essence gives everyone access to other peoples property in the countryside.

The Swedish Right of Public Access (“AllemansrÃ?tten”) allows anyone to roam about freely and even go camping on other peoples property in the countryside. You may pitch your tent for a day or two on land which is not used for farming, and which is not close to a dwelling. You may light a campfire as long as there is no risk of the fire spreading. You may swim, tie up your boat for a day or two, or go ashore everywhere, except close to dwellings or where entry has been prohibited by the authorities (for instance in a bird or seal sanctuary). Driving your motorboat or rowing, sailing, paddling on somebody else’s water is permitted. You may pick wild berries and flowers, mushrooms and take fallen branches and dry twigs from the ground. However, certain flowers, which are so rare that they are at risk of extinction, are protected by law and may not be picked up. [1]

What are the implications of this legislation for the environment? According to the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency:

“The more of us there are, the more important it is that we respect the rules of the wild. We are guests of nature and are obliged to show consideration for the environment. This is the fundamental principle of the Swedish Right of Public Access.” [2]

But can we rely on people’s good will for protection of the environment? The people who drafted the legislation did not think so, since they imposed a legally enforceable restriction that activities should not cause disturbance or destruction. However, the conditions of Public Access are not clearly defined in Swedish law, and this has created considerable confusion as to what is actually allowed and what is not.

The outer boundary of what constitutes a breach of the Public Access laws was settled recently in a spectacular case of disturbance. The case concerned a landowner who had to put up with thousands of rapids shooters going down rapids on the landowners’ property in rubber boats provided by a Danish entrepreneur. The court ruling made it clear that there is nothing illegal per se about organised commercial exploitation of others peoples property within the boundaries of the Right of Public Access. In this particular case, however, the Court found that the landowner had suffered intrusions beyond the limits of Public Access. [3]

However, less spectacular exploitation of the Public Access legislation continues to this day. For example, commercial mountain bike races are held in the southern part of Sweden without need of any request for permission or compensation to landowners [4]. As a result, landowners must either make good the damage done by the bikers at their own expense, or leave the land in a degraded state.

Ironically, the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency actively encourages such exploitation. This is how it promotes canoeing to tourists:

“Gliding along in silence over still waters and along wild shores. Canoes and kayaks bring you close to nature. Beyond every promontory, behind every bend in the river await new nature experiences. You can travel almost everywhere along our coastlines and in our lakes and waterways.” [5]

Canoeing has become an environmental menace, especially in the southern part of Sweden. On the streams around Lake Möckeln, groups of 10-20 canoes travel every day, from early summer until late in September, leaving litter and causing damage by breaking twigs, felling timber and even engaging in axe-throwing contests, using trees as targets (this is illegal, of course, but happens anyway). Seabirds have left their habitat. Sensitive species such as diver and osprey have changed their behaviour and have become rare in the area. Fish spawning areas have been disturbed by canoes, boats and swimmers.[6]

The right to pick wild berries has created an opportunity to organise bus trips for people from Poland and other countries, who come to Sweden in the hope of making a fortune berry-picking. (Once they have arrived, the berry-pickers often find it difficult to earn enough money to pay for their tickets, but the perverse incentives remain.) [6].

Extended berry picking sojourns can lead to disturbance of wildlife habitat and other negative externalities. In the northern part of Sweden pickers sometimes arrive in late July to pick cloudberries, then continue with bilberries and end with lingonberries. This means a stay of some two and a half months in tent camps, often close by streams, without any form of sanitary arrangements. The results include extensive littering of land and fouling of water. [8]

History of Sweden’s Public Access Legislation

One often hears the claim that this right of access is an old Swedish custom. This is not true. Whilst historically there have been very limited rights of access and use, these applied only to local people. The present order was clearly created in a fairly recent legislative process. The myth about Public Access being an old custom was created in the 1950s when Social Democratic politicians wanted to introduce legislation providing Public Access to beaches without the government having to pay property holders for the intrusions this would cause. [9]

Public Access scholar Gunnar Wiktorsson has pointed out that there appears to be a connection between demographic changes and the politics of roaming. In the 19th century a clear majority of Swedes lived in rural areas and were employed in the agricultural sector. Legislation focused on rights to private property and the provision of a legal framework that protected those rights, which was appropriate for a society consisting of a multitude of small farmers and landowners. This changed dramatically in the early 20th century. The Social Democrats, under influence from the contemporary debate in Germany and other countries, demanded that “selfish” landowners give the growing urban population access to rural areas. The demands were put forward with increasing urgency as industrial workers were provided with legal rights to paid vacation.

The demographic changes are problematic from a conservationist perspective. As a representative of the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency has pointed out, Swedes today have less contact with their natural surroundings, and thus they are also less knowledgeable about nature and wildlife. As a result, it has become more difficult to apply the Golden Rule of Public Access: do not disturb and do not destroy. People may roam about but many are not aware of all the activities that can be harmful [10].

Unintended Consequences

One example is the lighting of fires. You are allowed to light a fire, but you are not allowed to destroy anything. Everyone can understand that this means you have to avoid starting a forest fire. But not everyone may understand that this also means you should not light a fire directly on or next to flat rocks. The rocks become discoloured and may crack.

In one of his essays, Herbert Spencer noted that the so-called practical politician “never asks whether the political momentum set up by his measure, in some cases decreasing but in other cases greatly increasing, will or will not have the same general direction with other like momenta; and whether it may not join them in presently producing an aggregate energy working changes never thought of.” [11]

Public Access in Sweden seems like a typical case of political momentum producing unintended consequences. The possibility of commercial exploitation of other peoples’ property was not intended to be a part of the right of access, nor was the creation of negative environmental effects. In most cases the environmental disturbances may be relatively minor, but there can no longer be any doubt that the interests of conservationists stand against the interests of proponents of free roaming. When the above mentioned case of rapids shooting was settled in favour of the landowner in the court of appeal, one environmentalist magazine put it like this:

“Public Access against conservation: Nature won in the second round.” [12]

The Swedish Society for Nature Conservation (SSNC) sees a need to inform people that unwise use of the right of Public Access may do harm to wildlife. The diver, a sensitive bird, has been chosen as a symbol for this in a campaign called “Give the Diver a Break” (“Ge lommen en chans”), where the organisation tells people that the diver is threatened not only by pollution and destruction of wetlands but also by roaming. [13]

Another unintended consequence is that that the mythology surrounding the Public Access makes it difficult for property owners to voice their opposition. Anyone who dares criticise the abuses that have resulted from the legislation runs the risk of being accused of wanting to deny the Swedish people their supposedly ancient customary right to enjoy a walk in the woods and experience the pleasures of nature. Criticising the Right of Public Access would amount to “politcial suicide”, as a representative of the farmers association LRF has put it [14].


The right of Public Access in Sweden has caused environmental degradation and thereby made the countryside a less desirable place to visit. The beneficiaries of the legislation have often been entrepreneurs seeking to make a quick buck by bussing in tourists to pick berries or putting on canoeing and mountain bike events. In the absence of a right of public access, landowners might well have allowed these activities to continue – for a fee. This would perhaps have meant less profit for the entrepreneurs who are currently abusing the right of public access, but landowners would have stronger incentives to keep the countryside in good condition.

Per Ericson is editor of Ekvilibrium, a newsletter on free-market environmentalism published by the Swedish think tank Timbro


[1] Information in English is provided by The Swedish Environmental Protection Agency at


[3] Wiktorsson, Gunnar (1996), Den grundlagsskyddade myten. Om allemansrÃ?ttens lansering i Sverige, City University Press, Stockholm, pp. 212-219

[4] Göteborgs-Posten, May 29, 1997


[6] Carin Ehrenberg: Kanotturism, in Kungliga Skogs- och lantbruksakademiens Tidskrift, 131 (1992), pp. 157-160

[7] Tidningarnas Telegrambyrå, August 25, 1997

[8] John Andersson: BÃ?rplockning, in Kungliga Skogs- och lantbruksakademiens Tidskrift, 131 (1992), p. 162

[9] Wiktorsson, Gunnar (1996), Den grundlagsskyddade myten. Om allemansrÃ?ttens lansering i Sverige, City University Press, Stockholm, pp. 167-180

[10] Gunnar Zettersten: Allemansr�tten en tillgång i Europasamarbetet, in Kungliga Skogs- och lantbruksakademiens Tidskrift, 131 (1992), p. 169

[11] Herbert Spencer: The Man Versus the State, Liberty Classics, Indianapolis, 1982, p. 43

[12] Miljömagasinet, July 20, 1995

[13] See the SSNC site at

[14] Göteborgs-Posten, May 29, 1997