June 15, 2001

Commentary

Biotech Protesters - Why Are We Here?

by Brian Tokar

Why are hundreds of concerned people from all over the country coming to San Diego to protest this month's biotechnology industry convention? Reviewing recent media reports, one might conclude either that people are protesting just for the safe of protesting, or that we are simply uninformed about the nature of the scientific and medical breakthroughs that the biotechnology industry promises. But, as usual, there is another side to the story.

Throughout the world today, people are raising profound criticisms of biotechnology. People across Europe and Asia have rejected the use of genetically engineered foods, for example. Some cite personal health concerns, while others cite the growing evidence that engineered crops can cause serious environmental damage. A recent survey suggested that less than a quarter of the American public would willingly eat genetically engineered foods if given a choice. The Food and Drug Administration's own focus groups urged that engineered foods be labeled, yet the agency continues to reject calls for mandatory labeling and independent safety testing for these products.

Last year, hundreds of name brand products had to be recalled because they contained a variety of genetically engineered corn that is not approved for human consumption because it might cause severe allergies in some people. If biotech companies have their way, our food will be contaminated with untested, experimental varieties of engineered foods, and new genetic creations will continue to proliferate in the environment with no way to recall them.

The biotech industry promises endless medical miracles, but there is a compelling need for skepticism here as well. While biotech companies attract massive speculative investments-to the tune of a third of a billion dollars last year- many of our basic health care needs are neglected. Recent pharmaceutical mergers, often driven by the high cost of biotech research, have led to higher drug prices, monopolized markets, and a shift in research priorities away from our most basic needs. Gene research is increasingly lucrative, while research on the environmental causes of disease languishes, and a basic health care is increasingly unaffordable. And where will this all lead us? Designer babies? Human clones? A new generation of eugenic attempts to "perfect" human nature? These are frightening prospects, but they are clearly where biotech medicine is trying to lead us.

People are also raising concerns about the patenting of life and the privatization of genetic information. Biotech companies are searching the globe for useful plants, and even human gene sequences, that can be sold and patented. Indigenous peoples speak of stolen heritage and farmers throughout the world are losing control of products their ancestors have cultivated and processed for countless generations. Biotech executives would have us believe that patenting is necessary for scientific progress, but scientists are becoming more and more skeptical. When scientific information is owned by private companies, it threatens the open communication that has always been essential to real scientific progress. The private ownership of human genes raises profound ethical concerns, and there is a potential for very serious abuses of these new kinds of ownership rights.

Some of the world's most articulate critics of biotechnology are coming to San Diego the third weekend in June to explain these concerns and offer a counterpoint to the rosy scenarios painted by representatives of the Biotechnology Industry Organization. We will hear from people like Dr. Vandana Shiva of India, who has challenged claims that inventions like the so-called "golden" vitamin A rice can meaningfully contribute to solving health problems caused by malnutrition. Malnutrition can be prevented by helping people reclaim the ability to feed themselves, argues Dr. Shiva, not by exposing them to more products of American agribusiness, with their always-exaggerated benefits.

Jim Hightower, the feisty radio host, columnist and former Texas Agriculture Commissioner, is coming to San Diego to explain how biotech agriculture threatens family farms. He will be joined by a delegation of farmers from the Midwest, who will testify about how engineered crops are compromising the future of their families and communities. Dr. Peter Rossett and Anuradha Mital from the San Francisco-based organization Food First will explain why biotech crops won't feed the world, Dr. Miguel Altieri from the University of California at Berkeley will help explain the alternatives and his colleague Dr. Richard Strohmann will explain why genetic research may not be the best strategy for curing disease. San Diego will be visited by an astounding array of critical scientists, farmers, representatives of indigenous nations, disability activists and other concerned citizens from across the US and around the world.

Typically, the police here in San Diego are forecasting confrontation, and trying to prepare citizens for the worst. This was also tried last year in Boston, when 4000 people demonstrated against the BIO convention without incident. The city of Boston wasted millions of dollars of taxpayers' money preparing for a scenario that was worlds apart from what the organizers intended, and that predictably never occurred. Organizers of "Beyond Biodevastation 2001" believe that the best way to challenge the biotechnology industry is to expose it to public scrutiny and give people a chance to decide for themselves if the biotech vision of the future is what we really want. If that kind of constructive dialog takes place over the next three weeks here in San Diego, then our event will have been a resounding success.

Brian Tokar is the editor of Redesigning Life? The Worldwide Challenge to Genetic Engineering (Zed Books) and a faculty member at the Institute for Social Ecology in Vermont.

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