San Diego biotech conference opens as hundreds protest |

San Diego biotech conference opens as hundreds protest

SAN DIEGO (AP) – The biggest annual biotech conference in the world opened Monday with a panel on one of the industry’s most contentious issues: genetically altered food.

Industry supporters launched a spirited discussion about golden rice, so-called not only for its yellow hue but because it is genetically infused with Vitamin A in the hope that developing nations will take to it to stave off malnutrition.

”We could not have come up with a better example of what biotechnology is all about,” said Mike Phillips, a spokesman for the Biotechnology Industry Organization. ”It’s a wonderful story of how the public and private sectors have come together.”

Critics call it ”Frankenfood.” They view golden rice and other genetically modified foods as potential health hazards, and argue not enough research has been done to determine whether they are really safe.

”The biotech industry is conducting a real time experiment with our biosphere,” said 26-year-old Shannon Service of Boulder, Colo., who was dressed as a Monarch butterfly. ”They don’t know the results, they can’t possibly know the results.”

Service was among fewer than 1,000 demonstrators who marched through the city Sunday, some dressed as ears of corn or genetically engineered tomatoes. They danced, played drums and carried signs with slogans like ”Biocide is Homicide.”

The protest was much smaller than organizers expected, and largely peaceful.

Proponents such as the Grocery Manufacturers of America say genetically altered crops reduce the amount of water and pesticides needed to grow the nation’s food.

”The same people who are marching against biotechnology are the same people who marched against pesticides several years ago,” said Gene Grabowski, spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America.

Other hot-button topics on the agenda for the 15,000 participants at the three-day BIO 2000 conference included embryonic stem cell research and the use of animal organs and cells to treat human illnesses.

Gov. Gray Davis addressed conference participants Sunday night, emphasizing the importance of biotechnology research.

”The idea is to push back the frontier of knowledge,” Davis said.

Organizers expected several thousand protesters, and blamed police and the media for the turnout.

”The whole downtown of San Diego has been militarized,” said Han Shan, spokesman for the Ruckus Society, a group that trains protesters in nonviolent demonstrations. ”There are a lot of people out here who feel we’re being criminalized for simply expressing concern with biotechnology.”

San Diego police maintained a strong presence. They said they were determined to avoid a repeat of the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, which led to more than 600 arrests and caused $2.5 million in downtown property damage.

Police said their main concern was the anarchist groups that have disrupted previous anti-globalization protests. The groups typically stand out because members dress in black and wrap their faces in ski masks or bandannas.

Several such people marched with demonstrators Sunday, but police spokesman Dave Cohen said there were no major confrontations with police.

Police arrested eight people over the weekend, including two men who were taken into custody Sunday for investigation of carrying concealed daggers, Cohen said. Two others were arrested for allegedly vandalizing a police car, and others for carrying protest signs outside of the demonstration area.

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