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Protesters Quietly Decry 'Frankenfood'

About 1,500 march in Sacramento as a conference on farm technology opens.

June 24, 2003|Eric Bailey and Rhashad Pittman | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — Foes of genetically modified food, some dressed as butterflies and giant tomatoes, paraded through the cordoned-off streets of the capital for the second day in a row Monday, as top federal officials and representatives of 120 nations opened an international conference on farm technology.

The largely subdued protests turned Sacramento's normally busy downtown core unusually quiet. Most office buildings near the Capitol were locked, parking lots were vacant, and many government workers stayed home. Police arrested 13 protesters on a variety of charges.

A four-block area surrounding the Sacramento Convention Center was turned into a virtual armed camp, blocked by traffic barricades and lines of officers outfitted in riot gear, flanking black armored cars.

Inside, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman opened the first Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology with a buoyant speech extolling the virtues of genetically modified food as the world grapples with hunger gripping 800 million people.

"Biotechnology is already helping both small- and large-scale farmers around the world by boosting yields, lowering costs, reducing pesticide use and making crops more resistant to disease, pests and drought," she said.

Bioengineering advocates say crops can be embedded with pesticides or made to withstand potent weedkillers, and can be imbued with vitamins and vaccines that can help improve health in developing nations. Promoters of such techniques say they have improved harvests and helped preserve the environment while helping feed the developing world.

"There's an enormous smugness associated with the position that we who live in bounty are going to keep the rest of humanity from catching up," said Roberto Newell Garcia, Mexican undersecretary of agribusiness and development.


Fight With Europe

The conference is being held as the U.S. pushes the World Trade Organization to pressure the European Union into accepting bioengineered food. U.S. negotiators in Geneva failed to persuade the Europeans last week to lift a ban on biotech foods. The Sacramento conference is a prelude to a possible showdown between the U.S. and Europeans in September at a WTO conference in Cancun, Mexico.

Activists say the long-term health risks of genetically modified foods have not been fully studied, and risks remain. They contend the Bush administration is acting at the behest of agricultural corporations to foist their products on Third World countries that are uneasy about the new scientific approaches and don't want to see their family farmers made beholden to U.S. suppliers of seed.

"What's going on in the convention center is being billed as a solution, but it is only a solution for the big agribusiness corporations," said Patty Lovera of Public Citizen, which helped organize Monday's rally. "They're trying to sell silver bullets, and there are no silver bullets."

After arresting 36 people Sunday, police made another 11 arrests Monday. Violations included resisting arrest, failure to disperse and vandalism. About 1,500 people joined in a march through downtown Sacramento.

"I've been in worse; people for the most part are peaceful," said Sgt. Jim Jarosick of the Sacramento Police Department. "We took it very seriously. There was a potential. It has not materialized. But the conference has two more days."

A number of demonstrators muttered about the police response Sunday, saying officers overreacted when streets grew crowded. Dumpsters were turned over, a few windows were broken and taggers hit cars with graffiti, but most of the protesters remained nonviolent.

"What the police really are is a private security force for all the multinational corporations gathered here," said Luke Anderson, a British bioengineering foe and author.

By 1 p.m., the crowd had swelled to about 1,500. In the midafternoon march, protesters ambled in a several-block circle around downtown, taking a full eight minutes to pass the state Capitol. The mood remained festive, with protesters dressed as colorful bugs and butterflies.

Street theater mixed with musicians and speeches. People passed out pamphlets pitching everything under the organic sun. At a late-afternoon rally in the park outside the Capitol, demonstrators distributed organically grown sliced peaches, corn and vegetarian turkey.

Several marchers, including at least one dressed as Frankenstein, made reference to so-called "frankenfood." In addition to protesting genetically modified food, marchers denounced clear-cutting of forests and globalization.

"We're being poisoned," said Shenaaz Janmohamed, 23, a student at Cal State Sacramento.

"You can't play God and think you can make nature," said Kaira Espinosa, 23, of Oakland.

Several protesters came with their children.

"I want the children to know what is going on with the food supply," said Kofi Khemet, 45, who brought his three daughters, ages 7, 9 and 13. "I'm scared to eat," the 9-year-old said.

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