Seeds of Wrath
|Photo by Kate Seelye|
Youll Be Sorry
Sign held by demonstrator in front of Starbucks, which is now partnered with Monsanto and other companies in developing a genetically engineered coffee.
Can we take a ride? Han Shan, Ruckus Society organizer and spokesman for an anti-biotech protest action called BioJustice, looks tense. He leans in the door of a frenetic activist house in San Diego, motioning me outside. As we walk to my car, he says, We just got a report that the cops are amassing right around the corner and may be preparing for a sweep. Do you have a camera?
Being an activist has really taken an Orwellian turn in the age of globalization and anti-globalization. The New York Times Thomas Friedman (author of The Lexus and the Olive Tree) may have called globalization the next great foreign-policy debate, but, increasingly, the terms of these critical debates are being set not by the public but by corporate security: the police. To be fair, the police havent done as much to create this situation as have the industries that are leaning on them in this case, San Diegos Bio2001, the annual conference of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO). Bio2001 is only the latest example of a bad trend: Because of industry power, discussions vital to a global citizenry about, for instance, public control of genetic manipulation and the patenting of life itself are being pushed out into the streets. Where angry people are getting increasingly confrontational. Where increasing militarization of the police response is systematically shutting down dissent. Where no debate is really happening at all.
In San Diego, like Quebec and other recent globalization flashpoints, exercising your right to free speech now automatically comes with a sort of packaged counterintelligence response. This includes surveillance, tailing, nuisance ticketing and vehicle hassles, interfering with employers and landlords, videotaping, permit rigging, kidnapping, undercover police Black Blocs (too bad its not funny, because it sorta is) and, above all, militaristic overkill, including water cannons, armored vehicles and (as we recently saw in peace-loving Sweden) live ammo. In saying No More Seattles, police everywhere have found a whole new mandate, and since militarization has proved extremely effective in deflecting attention from globalization issues themselves, its bound to increase.
Fifteen thousand executives from the booming biotech sector showed up in San Diego last month, the worlds largest biotech gathering. When they gathered last year in Boston, they were met by a street carnival of 2,500 demonstrators. This year, in the wake of massive anti-globalization protests worldwide, police expected anywhere from 4,000 to 10,000 protesters. But when only 1,000 people showed up for a completely peaceful, high-energy march on June 24, no one had to ask why.
The city made no effort to hide its intention of squeezing BioJustice until it went away. Interviewed about the numbers of expected demonstrators, San Diego Police Chief Dave Bejarano crowed, At this point, I dont think were going to see more than 500 a thousand would be tops which is good news.
According to department spokesman Dave Cohen, the San Diego P.D. spent about $3 million in hard costs overtime, new equipment, etc. but that doesnt include the Harbor Patrol (which monitored rowboating protesters calling themselves BioJustice Buccaneers), the Sheriffs Department or police departments from neighboring cities. Only 20 arrests were made, none of them violent.
Theyve had this town locked down for months, says Shan as we drive a few blocks to Balboa Park golf course. Police here have been meeting with business owners and spreading a culture of fear. We have gone to extremes to make sure this has gone smoothly. We met with [the police]. We met with a mediation team from the City Council. We have been transparent in our procedures and trainings and teach-ins, and the first principle of anyone wanting to work under the banner of BioJustice was a commitment to nonviolence. The march was perfectly peacful, not one incident.
We pull over near a water-district building on Pershing. Below us, in the parking lot, about 50 officers in full riot gear run through drills in front of half a dozen paddy wagons, yelling, Hup! Hup! Hup! Two officers in front cover the drill with shotguns.
Shit, says Shan, grabbing a camera and clicking away. The cops stop drilling and look at us. Its difficult to tell whether what were looking at is a staging area for an impending bust or a drill. Either way, says Steph Sherer, the police-and-media liaison for BioJustice (whose house is also headquarters), its a display of intimidation.
BioJustice formally asked BIO to a debate, says Sherer. The executive director of BIO called me back â and said we didnt deserve a debate. That we were wasting his time. And he asked me who I thought I was, saying, You are a bunch of hooligans, I dont need to call you back.
They know wed wipe the floor with them, says Shan, agitated.
This is just what I need, said Sherer, weary and hoarse from a week of press conferences. We get to the end of this thing, then they sweep my house.
The problem with this exchange is that no debate happened. While hippie-hating San Diegans were distracted by the need to protect their city from what one TV reporter kept cryptically calling the radical 5 percent of protesters the 5 percent who evidently never showed up the biotech industry went right on policing itself on the critical issues at hand. Demonstrators concerns about biotech are as diverse and universal as DNA itself, including ethical and scientific challenges to cloning, stem-cell research, Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and Genetic Engineering (GE); the possibility of mutation or the development of new pathogens; the lack of response to safety issues, and the increasingly disturbing issue of gene patents, among others.
No problem, we have the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to protect us, right? Well, thats not clear. And thats the problem. Despite poll after poll indicating that U.S. consumers want labeling for Frankenfoods the activist term for GE products no such labeling law has ever made it past the FDA. (In a recent informal ABC News poll, 93 percent favored labeling.) That should be a basic protection. Labeling is the law of the land in Europe, Japan and other civilized countries. Its hard not to feel a bit cynical about this when Bush starts loading these agencies with industry-friendly appointees. Linda Fisher, for example, who is now the deputy administrator of the EPA, was formerly a vice president with biotech megafirm Monsantos D.C. lobbying office for five years.
This is why people are in the street: no public advocacy.
Corporations the executives and investors and lawyers and PR people are making decisions that affect the future of all life on Earth, says Brian Tokar, faculty member at the Institute for Social Ecology in Vermont and editor of Redesigning Life?, a collection of essays challenging genetic engineering to be released next week. Those decisions need to be made in the public sphere, not behind closed doors, in corporate boardrooms and at high-priced business conventions.
What were doing is new, and it raises a lot of questions, says Dan Eramian, V.P. of communications for BIO. Genetic discrimination. Germ line therapy meaning you can change a persons gene structure in the embryo. These are really serious questions. People want to protest this? They have a right to protest.
Activists all weekend long pointed out that, despite good intentions on the part of some scientists, most of the altruistic claims of biotech have been shot down: Biotech doesnt grow more food. Doesnt feed more people. Has not increased the nutritional value of foods. Isnt the darling of the Third World. (In fact, most developing nations are formulating GE screening guidelines now, and some, such as tiny Sri Lanka, have banned such foods outright.) Biotech products have become a liability in world markets and thus in the stock market.
I cannot frame the resulting problem any better than author, ag expert and MIT scholar Frances Moore Lappé, who chastised the biotech industry in the op-ed pages of the June 27 L.A. Times: Hunger is not caused by a scarcity of food but by a scarcity of democracy.
GMOs? Youre soaking in them. Youve been eating them for years, in a majority of processed foods and even in places you think are all green and friendly. Like Trader Joes (Greenpeace tested a sampling of its products and found GE ingredients in the corn-bread mix. Sorry.) Gerber baby food recently announced it would stop using them. The 1999 StarLink corn debacle opened everyones eyes to the problem, when an Aventis CropScience variety approved only for livestock feed (because of potential allergic reactions in humans) turned up in corn dogs, Krafts Taco Bell taco shells, Kelloggs Corn Flakes and then 300 other processed foods. Subsequently, the U.S. corn industry saw exports decline as much as 90 percent to some countries. Ironically, the biotech biz uses that as an excuse to go on doing it the genies already out of the bottle, it says. But only in the U.S. And its not too late to put it back in.
Its not hard to see why big companies are pushing so hard to globalize: Right now, the only barriers against the spread of GMOs are national borders.
A global system of patent enforcement is a major agenda item of what globalization chronicler Robert Kaplan has called the dense ganglia of international trade agreements and institutions such as the World Trade Organization. Then megacorps could just go ahead and sue the hell out of the rest of the world for: 1) using their GMOs, or 2) slandering their GMOs by refusing to use them. In fact, this is already happening. As the case of Monsanto vs. Schmeiser has shown, it doesnt even matter if anyone knows the patented gene exists.
Percy Schmeisers story is well-known, but is the one of the best-developed examples of just how GMOs and patents are changing the global gene pool and the relationship between corporations and everyone else. The 75-year-old Schmeiser has farmed for most of his working life in Bruno, Saskatchewan. He also served as mayor of Bruno from 1966 to 1983 and in the provincial Legislature from 1967 to 1971. He grows canola, an increasingly popular oil seed formerly known as rapeseed. Like many farmers, Schmeiser prides himself on reseeding from his own canola stock every year; over 40 years, he has essentially developed his own personal seed bank. That seed bank was his guarantee of the quality of his crop that is, until Monsanto tested his crop and claimed ownership of it.
In the 1990s, Monsanto developed a variety of canola that could survive treatment with its ultrapopular herbicide Roundup. This Roundup-Ready (RR) canola was planted on fields adjacent to Schmeisers and, according to Monsantos gene sleuths, turned up in a portion of his fields in 1997. Monsanto filed a $400,000 lawsuit against Schmeiser for using its seed. Schmeiser had never planted it. He said it was the product of wind-borne cross-pollination. He then filed suit charging that Monsanto had deliberately contaminated his crop with genetic pollution.
Predictably, in March 2001, Judge Andrew MacKay ruled in favor of Monsanto in the first case, saying that Schmeiser had infringed upon its copyright. He made it clear that how the RR canola got there didnt matter, saying, The source of the Roundup-resistant canola . . . is really not significant for the resolution of the issue of infringement. Schmeisers pollution suit has yet to come to trial.
The ramifications of this decision, should it hold up on appeal, are immense. Rapidly conglomerating seed companies (Monsanto owns many of the worlds biggest right now) would have no trouble at all literally dominating the global food supply. Simply plant your untested, possibly genetically harmful new variety and let nature take its course. If its really superpotent, perhaps it will displace all other varieties and become the worlds dominant variety. It cant be undone. Then, in a few seasons, send everyone a bill.
Schmeiser sums it up (on his Web site) this way: If I would go to St. Louis and contaminate their [Monsantos] plots destroy what they have worked on for 40 years I think I would be put in jail and the key thrown away.
In the absence of any meaningful public debate about the merits of GE anything, the first line of resistance to this technology has become farmers and consumers. Wheat farmers in Idaho and Washington, citing fears that theyd be blackballed by foreign markets just like U.S. corn growers, recently pledged to grow no GE wheat. Monsanto (weird how often you read that name, eh?) recently pulled its genetically engineered potato off the market after the two largest potato growers and distributors in North America, J.R. Simplot, which supplies McDonalds, and Canadian French-fry giant McCain Foods, refused to use them, saying its their policy to accept no GMO potatoes. Such actions are becoming more common. If people dont buy them, theres no incentive for biotech to invent them.
But will those farmers and consumers be allowed to organize and meet the biotech industry as anything but end users? At this point, its not looking too likely. Its simply too convenient for international trade organizations and industry groups to bully their way into the market and blame any resulting scuffle on anarchists and the police. Leaving BIO, for instance, to hold internal debates over bioethics within the ranks of its own members, according to BIO spokesman Eramian. As the GE fox watches over the increasingly GE henhouse, most of the kids in the street are watching the detectives.
Let me put it this way, says Biojustice campaigner Sarah Seeds. There were three Black Blocs marching on Sunday, and two of them were comprised entirely of undercover police.
Perhaps, muses Ruckus co-founder and Greenpeace campaigner Mike Roselle, before the public can turn its attention to the actual issues, the movement will simply need to achieve some kind of ritualized stasis with the police. I was watching some Korean protests on TV recently, he said, attending a June Ruckus camp outside San Diego where Biojustice campaigners were trained. It looks super-gnarly, but afterward the thousands of people go home and there are like six arrests and two minor injuries. Its become this sort of ritualized confrontation. Maybe this is where this movement is heading. Maybe this is the new nonviolence.
In the meantime, democracy as practiced by biotech has its own special flavor. It tastes like chicken.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.
- Film Students Arrested After Display of Prop Guns Shuts Down 101 Frwy
Wed., Dec. 2, 7:30pm
Thu., Dec. 3, 6:00pm
Fri., Dec. 4, 7:00pm
Sat., Dec. 5, 1:00pm
- What Does Hamburg Know About the Olympics That Los Angeles Doesn't?
- Why Charter School Teachers Are Split on Unionization