1,000 pack theater for public debate on biotechnology. The heavily policed event was spirited but mostly civil.
By Mike Lee -- Bee Staff Writer
Published 2:15 a.m. PDT Tuesday, June 24, 2003 Sacramento Bee
An eclectic crowd of nearly 1,000 filled the Crest Theater Monday night for the only public debate in conjunction with this week's international agriculture conference at the Sacramento Convention Center.
The spirited but mostly civil event attracted approximately as many people as the U.S. government-sponsored invitation-only meetings of agriculture ministers and showed the depth of public interest in genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
Adorned by piercings, body art, bandannas and anti-GMO signs, the crowd provided a stark contrast to the dark suits down the street.
Attendees paid $5 and put up with a heavy police presence outside the theater to listen to six panelists with widely divergent views about biotechnology.
David Hegwood, a lawyer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, applauded the attention to issues raised by the international conference. "(Biotechnology) is worthy of much more debate of this kind," he said.
Organized by groups opposed to biotech crops, the forum highlighted differences in approaches to the use of genetic engineering to alleviate starvation in the Third World.
Proponents of biotechnology say it holds great promise for introducing vitamins, vaccines and higher-yielding or drought-tolerant crops for developing countries in the future.
Opponents say it's doing nothing now to improve conditions for the world's hungry because the technology is locked up in patents by a few large companies that don't see commercial value in poor nations.
"This whole debate about biotechnology reminds me very much of the debate about nuclear technology," said panel moderator Mark Hertsgaard, a San Francisco author.
"Each of the technologies has such enormous power for good and ill," he said.
Anuradha Mittal, a native of India and co-director of the Institute for Food and Development Policy -- better known as Food First -- raised the crowd to its feet when she said the United States should stop pushing biotech crops as food aid to nations that reject it.
"The Third World can think for itself and ... says no to genetically modified foods," she said.
Martina Newell-McGloughlin, director of the University of California's biotechnology program, said genetic engineering won't solve every Third World problem, but that its possibilities are too great to dismiss. "The advantages of biotechnology for Africa is that it's packaged technology in a seed," she said.
While current commercialized GMOs don't include crops grown widely in developing countries, Newell-McGloughlin said university research is addressing many crops important to the Third World.
"The real issue is not biotechnology," she said. "The real issue is starvation."
Silvia Ribeiro, an anti-GMO author and researcher in Mexico, responded: "This is not about visions of biotechnology. This is about reality."
And the reality, said Ribeiro, is that biotechnology is controlled by a few corporations that should not be trusted with the food supply of entire nations.