It’s not clear why the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) chose San Francisco, home of “Protesters R Us” and “Rent-a-Mob,” for its annual convention this week. But one thing is for sure, the byproduct has been a measure of enlightenment, particularly concerning the protesters.
These are 1960s re-enactors whose activities reveal more about their own contradictions than the merits or demerits of biotechnology. At the event this week, they showed up in far fewer numbers, in the low hundreds, a steep drop from the two to three thousand protesting last year in Sacramento. In both cases, the those against biotech failed to shut down the convention but put on a show of their own.
Events planned for this year included a food fight at Fort Mason where combatants were expected to pelt each other with genetically altered tomatoes. They also dumped rotten fruit in the street. But the protest wasn’t just about food.
Organizer Mary Bull of San Francisco told reporters that “It’s about stopping corporate powers; stopping the financial machine behind the war [in Iraq]; stopping this system that’s commodifying more and more [things], and now commodifying our genes, our genetic material, the substance of life itself.”
Of Food and Frankenstein
Organizer David Kahn of Books Not Bombs told reporters that torture at the Abu Ghraib prison was not much different from the California Youth Authority. Others charged that San Francisco’s homeless policies are designed to appease corporations. All that was missing were references to “the violence inherent in the system.” The anticorporate demonology even dominated the serious discussion.
Andrew Kimbrell of the Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C., told the San Francisco Chronicle that “It’s not that we’re against biotechnology; it’s just that what the industry has done is take science that isn’t ready and rush it to the commercial market, all in the name of profit.”
Precisely when the science might be ready was not clear. Neither was it clear what kind of political and economic system was desired by those claiming to be anarchists but who oppose free trade, the free market, intellectual property rights and technologies that can increase food production. What, then, of charges that genetically altered foods are a potential Frankenstein monster?
Subtleties of Plant Patholody
Dr. Henry Miller of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and former FDA official, has written that hybridization, in which genes are moved from one species or one genus to another, might sound dramatic, but “the results are as mundane as a tomato that is more resistant to disease or has a thicker skin that won’t be damaged during mechanical picking.”
Gene-splicing, Miller says, “is actually safer than hybridization, because its results are more precise, circumscribed and predictable, and because it takes advantage of the subtleties of plant pathology.”
Charges by Greenpeace that biotech corn kills monarch butterflies have proved not to be true. Likewise, Starlink corn — intended for animals — could not cause devastating allergies if it found its way into human food, even in minuscule quantities. Neither is there any scientific evidence that “Roundup Ready” soybeans, by some accounts the most popular biotech crop in the world, are unsafe.
Vying for Biotech
Last October, Jonathan Rauch wrote “Will Frankenfood Save the Planet?” in the Atlantic Monthly. The subtitle stated the thesis that “Over the next half century genetic engineering could feed humanity and solve a raft of environmental ills — if only environmentalists would let it.” Rauch predicted that in ten years, most American environmentalists will regard genetic modification as “one of their most powerful tools.”
States and cities are already vying for the biotechnology industry. San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom not only welcomed the conventioneers but wants to give biotech companies a break on the city’s payroll tax. The companies would create jobs, which some 3,000 young people attended the convention to find. But they would also create new opportunities for the protest industry.
Those approaching the Moscone Center, where the convention took place, found themselves confronted by protesters yelling “Quit your jobs! Quit your jobs!”
Apparently work is evil too.
Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is director of Technology Studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.
This story was originally published on June 11, 2004, and is broughtto you today as part of our Best of ECT News series.