Global Ag Ministers Assemble for Biotech Promotion

SACRAMENTO, California, June 23, 2003 (ENS) - More than 150 agriculture, science and environment ministers from 112 countries gathered at the Sacramento Convention Center today for the Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology at the invitation of the Bush administration.

The Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.S. Department of State, was met by protesters opposed to the use of biotechnology used to alter the genetic makeup of food crops.

"We want to bring countries together to launch a major new front in the battle against global hunger and poverty," said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman. "This conference offers policymakers in developing countries a unique opportunity to focus on what science and technology can do for their farmers, their consumers and their countries."

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Demonstrators in Sacramento Sunday protest genetically modified foods. (Photo courtesy Indymedia )
But the initial battle took place on the streets of Sacramento. Protesters took part in an unauthorized demonstration Sunday and an authorized march today. The police were out in force with helicopters, a tank, groups of up to 20 police cars , motorcycles and bicycles on patrol.

The Sacramento Police Department says 48 arrests were made that are associated with the conference protesters - 46 from Sunday and two from today. Those arrested were charged with violations ranging from failing to disburse, possessing a switch blade knife, trespassing, vandalism, and violating a city ordinance.

Demonstrators complained that police either did not audibly order them to disperse, or blocked exit streets when they were trying to obey orders to disperse. A group of young people peaceably assembled on the lawn of Capitol Park having a quiet discussion were attacked this afternoon without warning or direction given for dispersal by police with stun guns.

"We are in Sacramento protesting in part because we want healthy food. Here and around the world, people recognize that their bodies won't function well if fed junk food, be it slaughterhouse meat, genetically modified corn, or whatever," said one demonstrator.

The purpose of the ministerial gathering according to the USDA, is to "support the U.S. commitment to strengthen global food security." But many nongovernmental organizations believe that the conference is an attempt to build support among developing countries for the U.S. positions on genetically engineered crops and free trade - as a build up to the World Trade Organization ministerial meeting in September in Cancun, Mexico.

A public rally organized by nongovernmental organizations Public Citizen and the Sacramento Coalition for Sustainable Agriculture was held today on the west steps of the State Capitol building, near the Sacramento Convention Center, followed by a march through the streets.

Organizers called the rally "a celebration of the diverse movements supporting local, organic sustainable agriculture and opposing the industrial agriculture model and use of genetically modified organisms being advanced by the U.S. government. Speakers and participants included local and developing country farmers and farm workers, scientists, people working for consumer rights to healthy and abundant food, and environmentalists.

Inside the Convention Center, Agriculture Secretary Veneman presented a new report, "21st Century Agriculture: A Critical Role for Science and Technology," to serve as a basis for discussions at the conference.

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U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman with ministers from Morocco, Chad, Niger, and Cape Verde Islands at the USDA reception Sunday evening (Photo courtesy USDA)
The report describes the benefits of agricultural technologies such as soil management, water and irrigation management, pest management, nutrition content management and increasing yield potential and other desirable traits in crops.

It also discusses precision farming of crops with the use of computer, telecommunication and satellite technologies, and aquaculture and biotechnology.

The report concludes that with supportive policy, strong regulatory and institutional frameworks, and lower trade and other barriers, science and technology can further increase agricultural productivity and economic growth in both developed and developing countries.

National Science Foundation Director Dr. Rita Colwell delivered the keynote address on the power of genomics research to fuel new discoveries that will help feed the world.

While most European Union countries are listed as governments in attendance in Sacramento, the European Agriculture Commissioner Franz Fischler did not appear, although ministers from some Eastern European countries did show up.

In a phone call to Secretary Veneman, she told reporters, Fischler said the Europeans "were going to be in the throes of their discussions about their Common Agricultural Policy reform, which they have been doing over the last few days. And so, because of that we won't have a lot of participation from people from the European Union. And we're disappointed by that because, clearly, we want to have all regions participate and represented."

The European Union countries have been resisting the import of genetically modified crops and seeds prompted by objections from consumer and environmental organizations who fear the contamination of traditional and organic crops and possible allergic reactions to the biotech foods.

The Bush administration is moving forward with a World Trade Organization (WTO) challenge to the European Union moratorium on approvals of new biotechnology products, an Office of the U.S. Trade Representative spokesman said Thursday.

Richard Mills, assistant trade representative, said the administration decided to act after WTO consultations failed to resolve the dispute. In May the United States joined Argentina and Canada with the support of nine other countries in seeking the consultations, a procedural requirement before requesting a WTO dispute settlement panel.

According to the U.S. complaint, the European Union moratorium on approvals of new biotech products for planting or import violates the WTO agreement on sanitary and phytosanitary measures, which requires "sufficient scientific evidence" for regulations aimed at protecting human health and the environment. It also requires regulatory authorities to operate their approval procedures without "undue delay."

In Washington, DC, today President George W. Bush urged governments to "end their opposition" to biotechnology in order advance the global fight against hunger.

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President George W. Bush waves to the crowd after addressing the Biotechnology Industry Organization 2003 annual convention. (Photo by Eric Draper courtesy The White House)
Addressing the Biotechnology Industry Organization's annual convention, Bush said many European governments have blocked the import of new biotech crops based on "unfounded, unscientific fears."

"Because of these artificial obstacles," he said, "many African nations avoid investing in biotechnology, worried that their products will be shut out of important European markets."

"For the sake of a continent threatened by famine I urge the European governments to end their opposition to biotechnology," Bush said.

"America and other wealthy nations have a special responsibility to combat hunger and disease in desperate lands," said Bush, noting that the United States will provide more than $1 billion in food and aid in the coming year.

The U.S. Agency for International Development today announced the Collaborative Agricultural Biotechnology Initiative which is intended to "help developing countries access and manage the tools of modern biotechnology as part of an integrated drive to improve agricultural productivity, environmental sustainability and nutrition," the agency said in a statement.

The initiative includes research and technology development, and the strengthening of public institutions for research, development of policy and regulatory frameworks, informed decision making and public outreach to promote safe use of biotechnology.

Local private sector development will help to deliver new technology and integrate it into local agri-food systems.

These strategies to promote the products of American biotechnology assume that the developing countries want biotech solutions to food shortages. But a new report by nongovernmental organizations Food First and the Pesticide Action Network takes issue with that assumption.

"Voices from the South" advances the view that the multilateral institutions and U.S. policy makers are "in the pockets of those who stand to gain from GM foods - the corporations."

"Massive corporate expenditures on public relations are creating a false sense of need, urgency and safety concerning new technologies. Just one biotech industry consortium, the Council for Biotechnology Information, has a $250 million war chest which has helped it place ads promoting biotechnology on television and in the print media," the report says.

The arguments being used in this publicity effort, the report says, are "green washing - 'biotech will create a world free of pesticides,' poorwashing - 'we must accept genetically engineered foods if we are to feed the poor in the Third World,' and hope dashing - 'there are no alternatives.'"

Family farmers from throughout the United States dumped genetically modified corn today at the Sacramento conference to "expose the distortions and lies being perpetuated by the Bush administration and the biotechnology industry in the promotion of genetically engineered seeds and foods."

“Family farmers have suffered significant economic losses from the use of GE products,” said Walter Kessler, California dairy farmer and vice president of the Family Farm Defenders, “but the truth about GE crops and their impacts on family farmers is being buried in the slick multi-million dollar public relations campaign being waged by the biotechnology industry and promoted by the USDA, primary sponsors of this conference.”

Read "21st Century Agriculture: A Critical Role for Science and Technology" online at: http://www.fas.usda.gov/icd/stconf/pubs/scitech2003/index.htm

Read "Voices from the South" online at: http://www.foodfirst.org/progs/global/ge/sactoministerial/voices.php