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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.
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.
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. r
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CUBAN 5 - From May 30 to June 5, supporters of the Cuban 5 will gather in Washington DC to raise awareness about the case and to demand a humanitarian solution that will allow the return of these men to their homeland.
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BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike- A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides, music, exhibitors, and more.
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LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in NYC.
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