1,000 pack theater for public debate on biotechnology

The heavily policed event was spirited but mostly civil.

By Mike Lee -- Bee Staff Writer

Published Tuesday, June 24, 2003

An eclectic crowd of nearly 1,000 filled the Crest Theater Monday night for the only public debate in conjunction with this week's international agriculture conference at the Sacramento Convention Center.

The spirited but mostly civil event attracted approximately as many people as the U.S. government-sponsored invitation-only meetings of agriculture ministers and showed the depth of public interest in genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

Adorned by piercings, body art, bandannas and anti-GMO signs, the crowd provided a stark contrast to the dark suits down the street.

Attendees paid $5 and put up with a heavy police presence outside the theater to listen to six panelists with widely divergent views about biotechnology.

David Hegwood, a lawyer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, applauded the attention to issues raised by the international conference. "(Biotechnology) is worthy of much more debate of this kind," he said.

Organized by groups opposed to biotech crops, the forum highlighted differences in approaches to the use of genetic engineering to alleviate starvation in the Third World.

Proponents of biotechnology say it holds great promise for introducing vitamins, vaccines and higher-yielding or drought-tolerant crops for developing countries in the future.

Opponents say it's doing nothing now to improve conditions for the world's hungry because the technology is locked up in patents by a few large companies that don't see commercial value in poor nations.

"This whole debate about biotechnology reminds me very much of the debate about nuclear technology," said panel moderator Mark Hertsgaard, a San Francisco author.

"Each of the technologies has such enormous power for good and ill," he said.

Anuradha Mittal, a native of India and co-director of the Institute for Food and Development Policy -- better known as Food First -- raised the crowd to its feet when she said the United States should stop pushing biotech crops as food aid to nations that reject it.

"The Third World can think for itself and ... says no to genetically modified foods," she said.

Martina Newell-McGloughlin, director of the University of California's biotechnology program, said genetic engineering won't solve every Third World problem, but that its possibilities are too great to dismiss. "The advantages of biotechnology for Africa is that it's packaged technology in a seed," she said.

While current commercialized GMOs don't include crops grown widely in developing countries, Newell-McGloughlin said university research is addressing many crops important to the Third World.

"The real issue is not biotechnology," she said. "The real issue is starvation."

Silvia Ribeiro, an anti-GMO author and researcher in Mexico, responded: "This is not about visions of biotechnology. This is about reality."

And the reality, said Ribeiro, is that biotechnology is controlled by a few corporations that should not be trusted with the food supply of entire nations.

About the Writer The Bee's Mike Lee can be reached at (916) 321-1102 or mflee@sacbee.com.

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 proved safe over the long term, either for the environment or for consumers.

Free trade: Proponents say that removing barriers to trade, such as tariffs, allows businesses in developing countries to have 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. Opponents say the method comes at the expense of environmental 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.