Biotechnology, S.F. activism collide Sunday at conference

By Edie Lau and Mike Lee -- Bee Staff Writers

Published Saturday, June 5, 2004

No region is more bullish on biotechnology than the Bay Area, and no city more prone to public protests than San Francisco. Combine those elements, and you've got next week's BIO 2004 convention: a volatile blend hotter than spliced DNA.

The yearly conference comes to San Francisco on Sunday under the banner of "Where it all began," an homage to the place where university scientists 30 years ago first figured out how to cut and paste genes.

It makes perfect sense for the industry to gather there to celebrate its hopes and feats - until you consider that San Francisco also is Demonstration Central. And few issues these days rally activists like genetic engineering.

"We never thought they'd come to S.F., but they are - which gives us an unparalleled opportunity to spotlight the greed and insanity of their war on nature," activist Mary Bull wrote in a clarion call to protesters via the Internet.

In the offices of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) in Washington, D.C., even conference organizers admitted wondering why they were convening in a city with a reputation for activism.

BIO President Carl Feldbaum sent an e-mail last week to attendees alerting them to probable demonstrations. But beyond that, he shrugged off concerns, saying it's business as usual: BIO's annual conventions have been dogged by protesters since 1998, the same year Europe stopped approving new biotech crops.

"The people inside the (conference) building are trying to develop cures for cancer and Alzheimer's and Parkinson's (diseases)," Feldbaum said, referring to medical applications of biotechnology, which dominate conference discussions. "They look out with wonder at what the people are doing and saying out there."

Divided opinions over biotechnology are as complex as they are deep, particularly when it comes to genetically engineered food. On Sunday, The Bee will publish the first of a five-part series examining the global controversy over agricultural biotechnology.

Last June, the same issue brought about 2,000 protesters to downtown Sacramento, the site of a government-sponsored international meeting about how science and technology can help feed a hungry world.

Many of the same activists will be in San Francisco for the BIO convention.

One is Kim Glazzard, founding member of a new group called Organic Sacramento. Glazzard, who makes a living as a secretary for a state agency, said last year's event in Sacramento directed her attention to food.

"It raised serious concerns about where our food production is going," she said. "And California being such a hub of agricultural activity ... makes it that much more critical that Sacramentans pay attention to this issue."

Glazzard plans to catch a "teach-in" over the weekend, but her job prevents her from joining a march scheduled for Tuesday that organizers hope will bring BIO 2004 to a standstill.

Whether demonstrators will actually succeed, even organizers aren't promising. For one thing, conference attendees almost certainly will far outnumber activists. As of Friday, BIO counted 14,326 registrants for the four-day affair at the Moscone Center.

Demonstration organizers said they anticipate a few thousand people will participate. "The people at the BIO convention are all paid to be there," said Brian Tokar, director of the Biotechnology Project at the Institute for Social Ecology, a nonprofit organization in Vermont.

The San Francisco Police Department is taking nothing for granted, said spokesman Sgt. Neville Gittens. "We're prepared for everything: violence, congestion, anything that might occur," he said. "We expect people to come and voice their rights ... but civil disobedience won't be tolerated."

Darlene Chiu, deputy communications director for San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, also struck a firm tone against the prospect of disruptions. "We are prepared to minimize the impact to the conference," she said.

"In terms of the business and the conference being in town," Chiu said, "it does bring a lot of dollars to the city, and it's important because we do want to build up our biotech community."

The city's visitor bureau figures participants will spend $22.8 million before they leave. As conventions go, BIO will bring far fewer than the 50,000 people who attend the annual MacWorld conference, but many at BIO are CEOs and other big spenders.

"They all have expense accounts," said Mark Theis, vice president of conventions for the San Francisco visitors bureau.

At the San Francisco law office of Pillsbury Winthrop LLP, communications manager Eric Gertsman said the conference is on everyone's lips in the city's business district. "Just the buzz about it is pretty big," he said.

During last year's conference in Washington, D.C., a featured speaker was President Bush, who promised to cooperate with the industry to unleash "the great powers of biotechnology." This year, one of the featured speakers has more of a California feel - actress Brooke Shields. Her connection to biotechnology is that she used a fertility drug to conceive a baby.


About the Writer The Bee's Edie Lau can be reached at (916) 321-1098 or elau@sacbee.com.