Report from BioDevastation 7




S

everal
hundred activists from around the world gathered in mid-May in St.
Louis to strategize and exchange reports of the global opposition
to genetically modified (GM) organisms. BioDevastation 7 was scheduled
to coincide with the corporate-dominated World Agricultural Forum,
affiliated with locally-headquartered Monsanto and hosted by Cargill—both
among the strongest proponents of GM crops. Reports from activists
indicated that the agricultural genetic engineering industry, on
the heels of both worldwide protests and lukewarm market successes,
is on the defensive and resorting to increasingly desperate tactics. 


BioDevastation
7 sought to extend the critique of GM crops to include their relationships
to war and environmental racism. Unexpectedly, these connections
were vividly demonstrated by an unlikely ally: the St. Louis police
department. Upon arriving at the BioDev venue, we were shocked to
learn that nearly 30 local activists and BioDev participants had
been arrested on spurious grounds. 


Slowly,
details became available throughout the day. The building that houses
the Gateway Greens and St. Louis Independent Media Center (stlouis.indymedia.org),
as well as a nearby housing cooperative, had been raided that morning.
Accompanied by the city inspector, police kicked in the door of
the house and detained its occupants for living in a condemned building—
though it had not previously been condemned. The police confiscated
large street puppets, protest banners, the bicycles and tools of
the Flying Rutabaga Circus (a traveling troupe that highlights the
dangers of industrial agriculture), computers, and a kiln. Additionally,
a passenger van was pulled over for seatbelt violations and its
driver arrested for possession of drugs, which were Vitamin C tablets.
A group of bicyclists were detained for riding without biking licenses,
despite the fact that the biking license law had been removed from
the books two years ago. 


During
the week preceding BioDev, the SLPD had prepared the St. Louis public
for this harassment by propagating dire warnings of violent protesters.
Police Chief Joe Mokwa told the Associated Press, “We don’t
anticipate the same level of violence or intensity [as in Seattle
in 1999], but we do know right now that we have some visitors in
our city who were involved in the Seattle protests and other protests.”
The local television news accompanied these stories with footage
of vandalism from the Seattle World Trade Organization (WTO) protests. 


After
the raids, Mokwa displayed for the media the “weapons”
that had been confiscated at the houses. These largely consisted
of rock climbing and juggling equipment (used by the Rutabaga circus),
bags of gravel and roofing nails (the supposedly condemned house
is being renovated), and a dark bottle with a rag stuffed in the
top—which witnesses claim was planted. 


Most
charges were dropped or reduced by the next morning. But the activists
spent 20 hours in jail, had difficulty obtaining their confiscated
gear, and still face charges such as “obstructing traffic”
with their bicycles. So far, all bicycles that have been returned
have had their tires slashed.  



Agricultural
GMOs 



T

hroughout
the conference, panelists discussed how GMO crops consistently benefit
enormous transnational life sciences corporations—the “Gene
Giants”—while endangering farmers. For example, Roundup
Ready crops lead farmers to purchase more Monsanto Roundup herbicide
and Bt crops may undermine the organic alternative by making pests
resistant to natural pesticides. Neither set of products, however,
significantly increases crop yield. Instead they serve as a lever
by which the corporations can privatize the commons of plant genomes
and gain further control of the word’s food supply. 


A
particularly instructive case is that of Percy Schmeiser, who spoke
at BioDev. He operates a small family farm in Saskatchewan where,
for 55 years, he saved seeds for the next year’s planting.
Recently his canola fields were contaminated by pollen from a neighbor’s
Roundup Ready crop, causing his own plants to be partially genetically
modified without his knowledge. Though this might on its face seem
to be grounds for legal action by Schmeiser against Monsanto, instead
the corporation argues that Schmeiser must pay a technology use
fee and has successfully sued him for infringing on its intellectual
property claim. Schmeiser has appealed and his case will soon be
heard by the Canadian Supreme Court. However, he faces hundreds
of thousands of dollars in legal fees. 


Most
nations have rejected GM crops and food. Just days before BioDev,
however, the United States government initiated a lawsuit in the
WTO against Europe. The U.S. claims that Europe’s labeling
requirements and moratoria for GM food products amounts to a barrier
to “free trade.” Yet the Europeans view this as protecting
consumer and environmental health, tasks that should follow the
precautionary principle of erring on the side of safety. Many observers
are suspicious that the lawsuit is part of a retaliation campaign
against “old Europe” for its opposition to the Iraqi War. 



War
and Food Imperialism 



F

ood
has long been a tool of warfare, but the emergence of patented GM
crops and the confluence in the U.S. of corporate power and militaristic
government has taken this to a new magnitude. The Gene Giants are
pursuing unprofitable GM products as a mechanism to undermine and
overtake the food production systems of the developing world, a
process Vandana Shiva calls “food imperialism” (see “Food
Democracy vs. Food Dictatorship,”


Z

April 2003). Multiple speakers on the “Globalization, Food
Imperialism, and War” panel noted that this is a key component
of a new imperialism, achieved through American military aggression
and corporate-dominated economic globalization. The message broadcast
by the invasion of Iraq is, “Do what the U.S. government wants
or we will crush you.” This applies not only to power plays,
but also to food and trade policies, as exemplified by the WTO lawsuit
and cynical manipulation of food aid to Zambia. John Kinsman of
the National Family Farm Coalition elaborated by noting that both
America’s “War on Terror” and biotechnology’s
strong-arm enforcement of intellectual property claims require citizens
and farmers to become “snitches” on one another. 


The
connection between militarism and the biotechnology industry run
deeper. The pharmaceuticals industry is the second-most strongly
represented in the Bush administration, after oil. Recent mergers,
as well as research into “bio- pharming,” have erased
many boundaries between the pharmaceutical and agricultural industries.
For example, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was once president
of Searle, which was subsequently purchased by Monsanto. Similarly,
a former top executive with the seed giant Cargill, Dan Amstutz,
has been placed in charge of agricultural reconstruction in Iraq. 


Another panel
explored the role of biotechnology in the development of armaments.
Many of the chemical companies that brought us gunpowder, TNT, and
mustard gas have been transformed into the modern Gene Giants—Monsanto
is responsible for the development of Agent Orange. Furthermore,
the consistent theme of a panel on biowarfare and biodefense was
that the offensive and defensive biological technologies are similar
enough that biodefense research is enabling future development of
biological weapons. The current Administration’s efforts to
weaken the Biological Weapons Convention only strengthen such concerns.
Universities, military bases, and nuclear research labs are seeking
to become tomorrow’s biodefense facilities. 


But
in the rush to get a slice of the lucrative “homeland security”
funding, these sites—many of which have startling records of
mishandling materials and extreme secrecy—are creating the
potential for future accidents or misuse. Case studies were offered
by representatives from groups monitoring biodefense facilities
at Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos National Laboratories, Boston
University Medical Center, and the Army’s Dugway Proving Grounds. 



Environmental
Racism 



E

nvironmental
racism typically brings to mind images of dirty smokestacks located
near communities of color in America’s cities. Yet the panelists
demonstrated that the negative consequences of genetic engineering—both
agricultural and human—are felt disproportionately by people
of color. 


Carlos
Marentes of the Border Agricultural Workers Project reminded the
audience that migrant laborers, largely from Latin America, often
risk their lives to toil on farms for low wages while being exposed
to the toxic pesticides and fertilizers of industrial agriculture.
There is emerging evidence that pollen from GMO crops can stimulate
dangerous allergic reactions, particularly in people with asthma
and other atopic conditions. These ailments are much more common
among people of color and the malnourished. 


A
panel on “Crop Contamination and the Future of Indigenous Agriculture”
included a presentation by Professor Ignacio Chapela. Many participants
were aware of his data indicating that indigenous varieties of corn
in southern Mexico have already been contaminated with GM DNA and
of the subsequent smear campaign against him by a public relations
firm hired by Monsanto. The concerns were broadened to include the
effects of GM agriculture on indigenous people and farmers throughout
the developing world. For example, some GM crops are largely based
on the breeding developments in the developing world. These strains
are then patented by the life sciences giants, a process dubbed
“biopiracy.” 


Michael
Hansen, of Consumers Union’s Consumer Policy Institute and
Dr. Mwananyanda Lewanika, a scientific advisor to the Zambian government,
provided examples of how the U.S. government and the Gene Giants
have manipulated trade policy and food aid in an attempt to force
GM products on the entire world. In a recent public dispute, the
U.S. responded to reports of widespread hunger in southern Zambia—which
may have been exaggerated—by offering only GM food aid. Despite
immense pressure, Zambia rejected the shipments, realizing that
genetic pollution would endanger not only biodiversity, but also
its agricultural exports to Europe. While the U.S. representative
to the World Food Summit in Rome argued that Zambia’s leaders
“should be held responsible for the highest crimes against
humanity,” enormous quantities of excess food were wasting
in northern Zambia. Clearly, some assistance with transportation
would have represented a more genuine offer.


Other
speakers critiqued the worldview of the genetic engineers as deterministic
and reductionist and explored its potential impact on humanity.
Dr. Mae-Wan Ho argued that the “genetic view of the world,”
rooted in Darwin and Malthus, can justify slavery, racism, and eugenics.
In my workshop on the new human genetic technologies, I emphasized
that the use of inheritable genetic modification would exacerbate
socioeconomic and racial disparities. The prospect of human genetic
“improvement” harkens back to previous eugenic projects
and is inherently racist—especially in a market-driven society
with enormous power gaps among racially defined groups. 


BioDev
participants issued “A Global Citizen’s Declaration for
Biosafety and Food Security” (available at www.biodev.org)
and the conference concluded with a march and protest at the World
Agricultural Forum. 


Despite
the atmosphere of intimidation, participants realized that the GMO
industry is financially stagnating and resorting to desperate fear
tactics. We also looked forward to the Flying Rutabaga Circus biking
to Washington to lead a protest at the Biotechnology Industry Organization
meeting, as well as mobilizations at the WTO-linked Agricultural
Technology Ministerial in Sacramento, both in June.







Jesse
Reynolds has been active in biotechnology issues for five years. He
is working to prevent human genetic engineering and reproductive cloning. 


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