Early expo protesters peaceable

By Edie Lau and Lesli A. Maxwell -- Bee Staff Writers

Published Sunday, June 22, 2003

Police roamed downtown Sacramento by bicycle, motorcycle and car to watch for civil disobedience and other acts of rebellion Saturday as demonstrators gathered in the city to protest an upcoming international agriculture conference.

There wasn't much for the beefed-up patrols to do.

Almost nothing, in fact, apart from shooing forest activists out of a paper store, and confiscating clay balls from the parking lot of the protesters' welcome center.

The heart of activist activity Saturday was at a "teach-in" at California State University, Sacramento. Partly earnest, partly festive and entirely peaceful, the teach-in attracted roughly 400 people wanting to hear and talk about what they believe is the dark side of crop biotechnology, corporate power, free trade and other aspects of agriculture.

For the next three days, protesters will continue highlighting such issues -- through demonstrations and rallies, a march, street theater and an organic food fair -- as dignitaries from more than 100 nations gather for a U.S.-sponsored Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology.

The meeting, taking place Monday through Wednesday at the Sacramento Convention Center, is described by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a chance to spread technology and scientific know-how around the world, especially in developing countries, with the aim of easing hunger. The meeting will bring together players in government, academia and the private sector.

Protesters -- by and large individuals and groups concerned with the environment and social justice -- see a completely different purpose for the invitation-only meeting.

"It's simply a slick infomercial for Monsanto and a handful of other gene manipulators," said George Naylor, an Iowa corn and soybean grower and member of the National Family Farm Coalition.

The coming clash of viewpoints has put the city on edge, though activists and authorities alike say they're hopeful for a completely nonviolent event.

Mayor Heather Fargo called a brief news conference to say the city is thrilled to host the international conference.

"We do expect some disruptions and some inconveniences," she said Saturday. "I want to urge residents and business owners to enjoy this weekend and week ... and I urge protesters to protest in a way that people can hear you. When you yell, people don't always listen."

Fargo said she had no plans to speak directly with demonstrators to request nonviolence and respect for city and business property. "They seem to have that perspective already," she said.

The first confrontation between activists and police at a staged event was fairly cordial.

It happened Saturday morning at Xpedx Paper and Graphics store near downtown, when 50 or so activists toting signs, drums and a bullhorn entered the store shortly after it opened.

They wandered the nearly deserted aisles, stood on stacked boxes of paper and chanted slogans against store owner International Paper, which is one of the world's largest timber companies. The demonstrators -- among them a 55-year-old Berkeley schoolteacher dressed in a tree costume -- had come to denounce a push by International Paper to develop through biotechnology new tree varieties that the company says can ward off insects, disease and other scourges.

Activist Brian Tokar of the Vermont-based Action for Social and Ecological Justice said the technology could turn forests into "green deserts" and that pollen from altered trees could contaminate natural woodlands. "The implications ... are so great because trees live for decades and their pollen spreads over large distances," he said.

In the store, two employees called police.

Four officers showed up almost immediately. The demonstrators promptly returned to the public sidewalk.

In the parking lot of the "welcome center" set up by protesters at 12th and C streets, officers found some hardened mud balls roughly the size of golf balls. Police Capt. Sam Somers said the balls were confiscated because they could be used as projectiles.

Activists said they were intended for nothing of the sort. Dave Meddle said the spheres of clay and soil contained eggplant and turnip seeds that were meant to be given away to promote urban gardens.

At the teach-in at CSUS, no such misunderstandings arose. Participants were in accord about their peaceful intent and shared mistrust of government and corporations.

Speakers came from far away -- Zambia, the Philippines, Latin America.

One was Drinah Nyirenda, a nutritionist from Zambia with a doctorate from the University of California, Davis, who explained why her government rejected genetically modified corn sent by the United States last year as her country struggled with a drought-induced crop shortage.

Nyirenda said the government's decision was not -- as many critics maintained -- to starve its people rather than accept biotech corn. "To us, the issue was, we had alternatives," said Nyirenda, executive director of Program Against Malnutrition, a nonprofit organization.

She said that among other things, the government was able to move surplus corn from regions of the country where drought was not a problem. Food supplies were tight, she said, but no one died of starvation.

And while there's no proof that eating genetically modified food is harmful, Nyirenda said that as long as doubts exist, it is imprudent to consume it in quantity. Corn, she said, is eaten at breakfast, lunch and dinner in many parts of her country, accounting for 70 percent to 90 percent of a typical Zambian's calories.

The teach-in also attracted people curious to learn more about the politics of food. Lori Brennan traveled from Colfax with her husband after their daughter, a college student studying sustainable agriculture in Washington State, urged them to go.

Brennan, a registered nurse, said she's been thinking a lot about food lately, as she sees the spread of obesity and food-related ills such as diabetes and heart disease. Six months ago, she began eating organic food.

"I may not agree with everything politically that's said (at the teach-in)," she said, "but I think this is very important -- to control our own foods."

About the Writer The Bee's Edie Lau can be reached at (916) 321-1098 or elau@sacbee.com. Staff writers Niesha Gates, Steve Gibson and Jocelyn Wiener contributed to this report.

Conference issues at a glance

The Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology is billed by the U.S. government as an opportunity to spread farm and food production technologies around the world, with the goal of alleviating hunger. Protesters say the story is far more complicated. Here's a summary of the top issues they're raising:

Hunger: Conference organizers say boosting crop productivity can ease hunger and famine, especially in developing countries. Opponents say curing world hunger is a matter of alleviating poverty and better distributing existing food.

Genetically engineered crops: Proponents say genetic engineering has the potential to increase yields, reduce pesticide use and make foods more nutritious. Opponents say biotechnology has not been proven safe over the long term, either for the environment or consumers.

Free trade: Proponents say that removing barriers to trade, such as tariffs, allows businesses in developing countries access to world markets. Opponents say free-trade rules are written to benefit big corporations, often to the detriment of people's health, the environment and small farmers.

Large-scale conventional farming: Proponents say it's the most efficient way to grow food at the lowest cost. Oppo-nents say the method comes at the expense of environ-mental quality, farm workers' health and animal welfare.

Conference access: Organizers say they couldn't invite everybody, for reasons of security and logistics. Protesters say it looks like a secret meeting to push the U.S. agenda for genetically engineered foods and support for big business.