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Seeds of Wrath: Silencing debate on biotech foods

Seeds of Wrath: Silencing debate on biotech foods

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L.A. Weekly
July 13 - 19, 2001
Seeds of Wrath: Silencing debate on biotech foods
by Dean Kuipers

Reducing biotech protesters to grumbles, murmurs and no-shows Photo by
Kate Seelye

"You'll Be Sorry"

-Sign held by demonstrator in front of Starbucks, which is now partnered
with Monsanto and other companies in developing a genetically engineered
coffee.

"Can we take a ride?" Han Shan, Ruckus Society organizer and spokesman
for an anti-biotech protest action called BioJustice, looks tense. He
leans in the door of a frenetic activist house in San Diego, motioning
me outside. As we walk to my car, he says, "We just got a report that
the cops are amassing right around the corner and may be preparing for a
sweep. Do you have a camera?"

Being an activist has really taken an Orwellian turn in the age of
globalization and anti-globalization. The New York Times' Thomas
Friedman (author of The Lexus and the Olive Tree) may have called
globalization "the next great foreign-policy debate," but, increasingly,
the terms of these critical debates are being set not by the public but
by corporate security: the police. To be fair, the police haven't done
as much to create this situation as have the industries that are leaning
on them - in this case, San Diego's Bio2001, the annual conference of
the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO). Bio2001 is only the
latest example of a bad trend: Because of industry power, discussions
vital to a global citizenry - about, for instance, public control of
genetic manipulation and the patenting of life itself - are being pushed
out into the streets. Where angry people are getting increasingly
confrontational. Where increasing militarization of the police response
is systematically shutting down dissent. Where no debate is really
happening at all.

In San Diego, like Quebec and other recent globalization flashpoints,
exercising your right to free speech now automatically comes with a sort
of packaged counterintelligence response. This includes surveillance,
tailing, nuisance ticketing and vehicle hassles, interfering with
employers and landlords, videotaping, permit rigging, kidnapping,
undercover police Black Blocs (too bad it's not funny, because it sorta
is) - and, above all, militaristic overkill, including water cannons,
armored vehicles and (as we recently saw in peace-loving Sweden) live
ammo. In saying No More Seattles, police everywhere have found a whole
new mandate, and since militarization has proved extremely effective in
deflecting attention from globalization issues themselves, it's bound to
increase.

Fifteen thousand executives from the booming biotech sector showed up in
San Diego last month, the world's largest biotech gathering. When they
gathered last year in Boston, they were met by a street carnival of
2,500 demonstrators. This year, in the wake of massive
anti-globalization protests worldwide, police expected anywhere from
4,000 to 10,000 protesters. But when only 1,000 people showed up for a
completely peaceful, high-energy march on June 24, no one had to ask
why.

The city made no effort to hide its intention of squeezing BioJustice
until it went away. Interviewed about the numbers of expected
demonstrators, San Diego Police Chief Dave Bejarano crowed, "At this
point, I don't think we're going to see more than 500 - a thousand would
be tops - which is good news."

According to department spokesman Dave Cohen, the San Diego P.D. spent
about $3 million in "hard costs" - overtime, new equipment, etc. - but
that doesn't include the Harbor Patrol (which monitored rowboating
protesters calling themselves BioJustice Buccaneers), the Sheriff's
Department or police departments from neighboring cities. Only 20
arrests were made, none of them violent.

"They've had this town locked down for months," says Shan as we drive a
few blocks to Balboa Park golf course. "Police here have been meeting
with business owners and spreading a culture of fear. We have gone to
extremes to make sure this has gone smoothly. We met with [the police].
We met with a mediation team from the City Council. We have been
transparent in our procedures and trainings and teach-ins, and the first
principle of anyone wanting to work under the banner of BioJustice was a
commitment to nonviolence. The march was perfectly peacful, not one
incident."

We pull over near a water-district building on Pershing. Below us, in
the parking lot, about 50 officers in full riot gear run through drills
in front of half a dozen paddy wagons, yelling, "Hup! Hup! Hup!" Two
officers in front cover the drill with shotguns.

"Shit," says Shan, grabbing a camera and clicking away. The cops stop
drilling and look at us. It's difficult to tell whether what we're
looking at is a staging area for an impending bust or a drill. Either
way, says Steph Sherer, the police-and-media liaison for BioJustice
(whose house is also headquarters), it's a display of intimidation.

"BioJustice formally asked BIO to a debate," says Sherer. "The executive
director of BIO called me back â and said we didn't 'deserve' a debate.
That we were wasting his time. And he asked me who I thought I was,
saying, 'You are a bunch of hooligans, I don't need to call you back.'"

"They know we'd wipe the floor with them," says Shan, agitated.

"This is just what I need," said Sherer, weary and hoarse from a week of
press conferences. "We get to the end of this thing, then they sweep my
house."

The problem with this exchange is that no debate happened. While
hippie-hating San Diegans were distracted by the need to protect their
city from what one TV reporter kept cryptically calling the "radical 5
percent" of protesters - the 5 percent who evidently never showed up -
the biotech industry went right on policing itself on the critical
issues at hand. Demonstrators' concerns about biotech are as diverse and
universal as DNA itself, including ethical and scientific challenges to
cloning, stem-cell research, Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and
Genetic Engineering (GE); the possibility of mutation or the development
of new pathogens; the lack of response to safety issues, and the
increasingly disturbing issue of gene patents, among others.

No problem, we have the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the
Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Food and Drug
Administration (FDA) to protect us, right? Well, that's not clear. And
that's the problem. Despite poll after poll indicating that U.S.
consumers want labeling for "Frankenfoods" - the activist term for GE
products - no such labeling law has ever made it past the FDA. (In a
recent informal ABC News poll, 93 percent favored labeling.) That should
be a basic protection. Labeling is the law of the land in Europe, Japan
and other civilized countries. It's hard not to feel a bit cynical about
this when Bush starts loading these agencies with industry-friendly
appointees. Linda Fisher, for example, who is now the deputy
administrator of the EPA, was formerly a vice president with biotech
megafirm Monsanto's D.C. lobbying office for five years.

This is why people are in the street: no public advocacy.

"Corporations - the executives and investors and lawyers and PR people -
are making decisions that affect the future of all life on Earth," says
Brian Tokar, faculty member at the Institute for Social Ecology in
Vermont and editor of Redesigning Life?, a collection of essays
challenging genetic engineering to be released next week. "Those
decisions need to be made in the public sphere, not behind closed doors,
in corporate boardrooms and at high-priced business conventions."

"What we're doing is new, and it raises a lot of questions," says Dan
Eramian, V.P. of communications for BIO. "Genetic discrimination. Germ
line therapy - meaning you can change a person's gene structure in the
embryo. These are really serious questions. People want to protest this?
They have a right to protest."

Activists all weekend long pointed out that, despite good intentions on
the part of some scientists, most of the altruistic claims of biotech
have been shot down: Biotech doesn't grow more food. Doesn't feed more
people. Has not increased the nutritional value of foods. Isn't the
darling of the Third World. (In fact, most developing nations are
formulating GE screening guidelines now, and some, such as tiny Sri
Lanka, have banned such foods
outright.) Biotech products have become a liability in world markets and
thus in the stock market.

I cannot frame the resulting problem any better than author, ag expert
and MIT scholar Frances Moore Lappé, who chastised the biotech industry
in the op-ed pages of the June 27 L.A. Times: "Hunger is not caused by a
scarcity of food but by a scarcity of democracy."

GMOs? You're soaking in them. You've been eating them for years, in a
majority of processed foods and even in places you think are all green
and friendly. Like Trader Joe's (Greenpeace tested a sampling of its
products and found GE ingredients in the corn-bread mix. Sorry.) Gerber
baby food recently announced it would stop using them. The 1999 StarLink
corn debacle opened everyone's eyes to the problem, when an Aventis
CropScience variety approved only for livestock feed (because of
potential allergic reactions in humans) turned up in corn dogs, Kraft's
Taco Bell taco shells, Kellogg's Corn Flakes and then 300 other
processed foods. Subsequently, the U.S. corn industry saw exports
decline as much as 90 percent to some countries. Ironically, the biotech
biz uses that as an excuse to go on doing it - the genie's already out
of the bottle, it says. But only in the U.S. And it's not too late to
put it back in.

It's not hard to see why big companies are pushing so hard to globalize:
Right now, the only barriers against the spread of GMOs are national
borders.

A global system of patent enforcement is a major agenda item of what
globalization chronicler Robert Kaplan has called the "dense ganglia" of
international trade agreements and institutions such as the World Trade
Organization. Then megacorps could just go ahead and sue the hell out of
the rest of the world for: 1) using their GMOs, or 2) slandering their
GMOs by refusing to use them. In fact, this is already happening. As the
case of Monsanto vs. Schmeiser has shown, it doesn't even matter if
anyone knows the patented gene exists.

Percy Schmeiser's story is well-known, but is the one of the
best-developed examples of just how GMOs and patents are changing the
global gene pool - and the relationship between corporations and
everyone else. The 75-year-old Schmeiser has farmed for most of his
working life in Bruno, Saskatchewan. He also served as mayor of Bruno
from 1966 to 1983 and in the provincial Legislature from 1967 to 1971.
He grows canola, an increasingly popular oil seed formerly known as
rapeseed. Like many farmers, Schmeiser prides himself on reseeding from
his own canola stock every year; over 40 years, he has essentially
developed his own personal seed bank. That seed bank was his guarantee
of the quality of his crop - that is, until Monsanto tested his crop and
claimed ownership of it.

In the 1990s, Monsanto developed a variety of canola that could survive
treatment with its ultrapopular herbicide Roundup. This Roundup-Ready
(RR) canola was planted on fields adjacent to Schmeiser's and, according
to Monsanto's gene sleuths, turned up in a portion of his fields in
1997. Monsanto filed a $400,000 lawsuit against Schmeiser for using its
seed. Schmeiser had never planted it. He said it was the product of
wind-borne cross-pollination. He then filed suit charging that Monsanto
had deliberately contaminated his crop with "genetic pollution."

Predictably, in March 2001, Judge Andrew MacKay ruled in favor of
Monsanto in the first case, saying that Schmeiser had infringed upon its
copyright. He made it clear that how the RR canola got there didn't
matter, saying, "The source of the Roundup-resistant canola . . . is
really not significant for the resolution of the issue of infringement."
Schmeiser's pollution suit has yet to come to trial.

The ramifications of this decision, should it hold up on appeal, are
immense. Rapidly conglomerating seed companies (Monsanto owns many
of the world's biggest right now) would have no trouble at all literally
dominating the global food supply. Simply plant your untested, possibly
genetically harmful new variety and let nature take its course. If it's
really superpotent, perhaps it will displace all other varieties and
become the world's dominant variety. It can't be undone. Then, in a few
seasons, send everyone a bill.

Schmeiser sums it up (on his Web site) this way: "If I would go to St.
Louis and contaminate their [Monsanto's] plots - destroy what they have
worked on for 40 years - I think I would be put in jail and the key
thrown away."

In the absence of any meaningful public debate about the merits of GE
anything, the first line of resistance to this technology has become
farmers and consumers. Wheat farmers in Idaho and Washington, citing
fears that they'd be blackballed by foreign markets just like U.S. corn
growers, recently pledged to grow no GE wheat. Monsanto (weird how often
you read that name, eh?) recently pulled its genetically engineered
potato off the market after the two largest potato growers and
distributors in North America, J.R. Simplot, which supplies McDonald's,
and Canadian French-fry giant McCain Foods, refused to use them, saying
it's their policy to accept no GMO potatoes. Such actions are becoming
more common. If people don't buy them, there's no incentive for biotech
to invent them.

But will those farmers and consumers be allowed to organize and meet the
biotech industry as anything but end users? At this point, it's not
looking too likely. It's simply too convenient for international trade
organizations and industry groups to bully their way into the market and
blame any resulting scuffle on anarchists and the police. Leaving BIO,
for instance, to hold internal debates over bioethics within the ranks
of its own members, according to BIO spokesman Eramian. As the GE fox
watches over the increasingly GE henhouse, most of the kids in the
street are watching the detectives.

"Let me put it this way," says Biojustice campaigner Sarah Seeds. "There
were three Black Blocs marching on Sunday, and two of them were
comprised entirely of undercover police."

Perhaps, muses Ruckus co-founder and Greenpeace campaigner Mike Roselle,
before the public can turn its attention to the actual issues, the
movement will simply need to achieve some kind of ritualized stasis with
the police. "I was watching some Korean protests on TV recently," he
said, attending a June Ruckus camp outside San Diego where Biojustice
campaigners were trained. "It looks super-gnarly, but afterward the
thousands of people go home and there are like six arrests and two minor
injuries. It's become this sort of ritualized confrontation. Maybe this
is where this movement is heading. Maybe this is the new nonviolence."

In the meantime, democracy as practiced by biotech has its own special
flavor. It tastes like chicken.

For more information on genetically engineered foods, GMOs, food-safety
protocol or patent developments, see Greenpeace, Pure Food Campaign,
and the Los Angeles Independent Media Center.

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Now available from Zed Books:
Redesigning Life? The Worldwide Challenge to Genetic Engineering
Featuring the writing of 26 leading critics of biotechnology from around
the world, edited by Brian Tokar.
http://www.zedbooks.demon.co.uk/autumn2000long.htm or
http://www.social-ecology.org/redesigning/
Institute for Social Ecology, http://www.social-ecology.org Northeast
RAGE, http://www.nerage.org

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