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2000-03-28

Activists Protest Biotech Foods in Boston

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The biotech industry received a pledge of support from Senator Edward Kennedy, who said genetic engineering can dramatically improve people’s lives. Kennedy spoke to about 1,500 chief executives and researchers gathered at the BIO 2000 convention in Boston yesterday. He spoke just hours after protesters dumped thirty gallons of "genetically altered" soybeans outside the convention center, where biotech executives and researchers are holding the largest gathering of its kind. [includes rush transcript]

Well, this past weekend, thousands of protesters marched against the genetic tampering of foods at the Boston conference. They were voicing their opposition to the biotech industry and the increased globalization of society.

Guest:

  • Chaia Heller, faculty member of the Institute for Social Ecology, and author of Ecology of Everyday Life (Black Rose Books, 1999). She is also with the Biotechnology Project, and the Northeast Citizens against Genetic Engineering.

Tape:

  • Highlights of Boston protest. Sound by Amoshaun Toft, Boston Independent Media Center and Free Media Network.

Related links:

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The biotech industry received a pledge of support from Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy, who said genetic engineering can dramatically improve people’s lives. He spoke to about 1,500 chief executives and researchers gathered at the BIO 2000 convention in Boston yesterday, speaking just hours after protesters dumped thirty gallons of "genetically altered" soybeans outside the convention center, where biotech executives and researchers are holding the largest gathering of its kind. Well, this past weekend, thousands of protesters marched against the genetic tampering of foods at the Boston conference, voicing their opposition to the biotech industry and increased corporate globalization of society.

    PROTESTER: We’re calling for an end to the commercialization of genetically engineered products and holding the corporations fully liable for the negative consequences of what they have already released. We’re calling to abolish the ownership of all forms of life, including the patenting of seeds, plants, animals, genes and cell lines.

    PROTESTER: So, congratulations for striking a blow that’s going to not only bring down the genetic engineering of food, but is the beginning of the downfall of industrial agriculture, chemical-intensive agriculture, and the beginning of the rise of family farms, sustainable organic farming.

    PROTESTER: It is time for a revolution, not just a social one, but a political one, not one just for consumers, but for citizens, not just for states, but beyond states, beyond national boundaries, for human beings and the world that we’re a part of.

    PROTESTERS: This is what democracy looks like! People and power! This is what democracy looks like! People and power! This is what democracy looks like!

AMY GOODMAN:

The sounds of the protesters outside of the largest gathering of chief executives and researchers at the BIO 2000 convention in Boston. We’re joined right now by Chaia Heller, who is a faculty member of the Institute for Social Ecology and author of Ecology of Everyday Life.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!

CHAIA HELLER:

Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN:

You’re also with the Biotechnology Project and Northeast Citizens Against Genetic Engineering. Can you talk about the events of the last few days?

CHAIA HELLER:

They have been extraordinary and have exceeded our wildest expectations. We had almost 4,000 people in Copley Square on Sunday, and it was a beautiful day in the United States. It was really the day that the US not just woke up, but really took a stand about the biotech industry. And it was the biggest demonstration against the biotech industry that North America and Europe have seen so far. It was really, really an exciting and important event.

AMY GOODMAN:

Talk about the major issues raised by the protesters outside.

CHAIA HELLER:

Well, the issues just are really pretty manifold and are pretty much interconnected. People were talking about genetically engineered food. People were talking about the medical implications. People were talking of eugenics implications. People were talking about the fate of small farmers around the world, if we’re moving — if we should move to this model of agriculture. But what was so interesting with it was a really unique coming together of scientists and ecologists, with just people and farmers and consumers and activists from around the world, from Europe and India, who were really all talking about the fact that this new industry has emerged without any sort of democratic debate or any sort of participation by citizens around the world, and that it has slowly. in a very silent sort of way, encroached upon almost every dimension of our lives.

AMY GOODMAN:

The name of the counter-conference that thousands were part of was Biodevastation 2000.

CHAIA HELLER:

Right.

AMY GOODMAN:

I was in Boston on Sunday when this all took place and got a copy of the Globe, where they lay out in a kind of promise controversy, back and forth, the biotech debate. It starts out by saying something along the lines of what Senator Kennedy said, that the promise held out by genetically engineered medicine, cures for cancer and chronic illnesses such as asthma, hepatitis B, and cystic fibrosis — twenty-two biotech drugs approved in the US during 1999. But then it says, in terms of controversy, the January death of the patient at U. Penn experiment highlighted controversy over safeguards. Will only the rich get access to promising, expensive therapies? What’s your response? Also, Ted Kennedy vowing his support for genetic engineering.

CHAIA HELLER:

Well, shame on Ted. And I have to say I’m a little bit surprised. I think once he sees the direction that this movement is going and the overwhelming citizen support for it, I imagine he’s going to change his position rather quickly.

About the medical issue, what really sort of surprises me and profoundly disturbs me is that we know that the vast majority of illnesses have a clear environmental link. They’re clearly linked to pollutants and chemical stressors and social stressors, such as poverty and racism and work stress — related stress. We know that any kind of genetic link that is the only predisposition in most cases when there is a genetic link to an illness and known genetic link and that is the environment that pulls out that predisposition.

And so, what really is disturbing is that in a society in which we have so much knowledge and understanding of the clear relationship between environment and the world and illness, it is very dubious when you see so much money going into researching a technology that only represents three percent of the known medical illnesses in the world. We know that most illnesses could be addressed and cured and dramatically reduced if we would change public hygiene around the world, if we could increase access to medical care, if we could change the way people live, and really address profound quality-of-life issues that are really related to the structure of society itself. You know, I sort of want to say that we’re doing — spending, you know, close to $5 billion now in mapping the human genome on this hunt to find these, you know, gene killers. And we know that there are, you know, chemical waste sites, superfund sites around the country that we know are killing people through cancer.

So, when you have this sort of situation, you have to start asking questions about who is setting these funding agendas, these medical agendas and these research agendas and who is benefiting from them. And I think if you ask those questions, the answers become very clear, that it is certainly corporations who are funding, increasingly moving into the private — into the public sector, and are really setting the research agendas for what kind of medicine and what kind of medical research we’ll be having happening.

AMY GOODMAN:

Chaia Heller is a faculty member of the Institute for Social Ecology. In the last weeks we’ve seen the cloning of five piglets, one of them named Dotcom. Xenotransplantation of animal organs for humans, using pigs and other animals to generate badly needed hearts, livers and other organs with genetic modifications to reduce risk of organ rejection by patients, that’s one of the promises laid out in the Boston Globe of biotechnology. What is your response to that?

CHAIA HELLER:

Well, once again, who is setting these medical priorities and these agendas. What I find to be very disturbing is that they’re playing on the human fear of death and the human — very legitimate human fear of illness and mortality. And everybody wants to live, and everybody wants to live forever. And they’re playing on that desire and the fear. And again what is so perverse to me is, in a society where if you really look and did an assessment, if you did a mapping of where illness lies and what the clear environmental causes are, you would really have a different set of medical agendas. And I’m not convinced that so much money would be going into this kind of research.

What I’m saying, and what I think we heard this weekend, was that citizens want a public debate, and they want to have some public citizen input into defining these agendas, so that we are not — these decisions do not happen in corporate boardrooms behind closed doors. I think that citizens should be able to participate in deciding what should be the medical priorities for this country. Where should public monies go? How should university research agendas be set up? These are the questions — these are questions around democracy.

And I think — I was happy that you played that tape of the chant that came out of Seattle about “This is what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!” I think this movement that began in Seattle and that is clearly gaining momentum in Boston and probably on until April 16th in Washington, D.C., this movement is a movement for democracy, and a new kind of democracy, and that is what is so exciting. People are saying that a representative democracy, where they have to tug in a very childlike way on the sleeves of representatives to get them to listen to their sort of, you know, pleas and wishes, that is not democracy, and that is an insufficient form of democracy. And citizens are saying we want direct participation in decision-making processes so that these decisions do not happen behind corporate — in corporate boardrooms behind closed doors. We will not be shut out.

AMY GOODMAN:

One of the issues that’s been raised, concern about the piglets being cloned and others, is the threats of introducing animal diseases into the human population —

CHAIA HELLER:

Absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN:

— not to mention the slaughter of thousands of animals in experiments, discouraging organ donation by humans at death. But what about that introduction of animal genes into the human population?

CHAIA HELLER:

Well, I think, you know, there’s this question of irreversibility. And you have this both within the environmental and the medical domain. Once you introduce novel, genetically modified organisms, whether they’re virus vectors that you use to move genes from one organism to another, or whether they’re bacteria, the antibiotic markers that you use in the process, or whether they’re the creation of, you know, novel organs that are coming out of novel organisms and going into novel places in a novel genome of the world, we don’t know the long-term effects.

And what I can say is we do have findings showing that there has not been sufficient research. And we have to ask ourselves, will corporations — are they the people, are they the institutions that we want to be defining (a) research and development agendas, and (b) should they play such a profound role in determining regulatory procedure? Do we trust them to manage the risks associated with these new technologies?

And I can say that I think we have a lot of — you know, we can look at Monsanto’s track record with Agent Orange, to be, you know, the least of it. We have — you know, we have a lot of very serious questions to ask ourselves. What happens when you have a technology that is driven by capitalism and not by human beings who have some sort of direct democratic participation in making decisions? What happens when you have corporations controlling the world? You know, this is not to be sort of apocalyptic, but I think this is sort of waking people up to the fact that they are incredibly disenfranchised from crucial decision-making processes.

Again, you know, we can talk about these risks. But the fact is that we don’t know. We are the experiment. Citizens have to ask themselves, do you feel comfortable with making the world into a laboratory for the biotechnology industry? Do you feel comfortable with wondering whether these — using a pig’s heart might introduce a pathogen, a virus, into the human genome?

AMY GOODMAN:

Chaia, how do you envision the dialogue taking place? Or do you see it as a dialogue? Well, is it a direct confrontation?

CHAIA HELLER:

I think right now we have to have a direct confrontation, because what needs to happen now is a tremendous amount of consciousness-raising and education of the public. But what I see happening, and what I hope will happen, is this single issue will gain momentum and will create a long-term broad-based movement for direct democracy. I, again, see the biotechnology issue as being an issue that wakes people up and is, in a sense, it’s hitting a cultural nerve. And I’m hoping that it’s going to help people to gain their, dare I say, revolutionary nerve to really see themselves as the people who, are able at this point — we’re at the beginning of a new century — who could actually create a new society.

The system that brought us to this point is a capitalist system that has been driving not just research, but almost every aspect of our lives. And I think what is — I’m an anthropologist, and what always is so interesting to me is at what point people find the commodification of life to be disagreeable or unacceptable. Why do we find it more unacceptable to have our genes patented than to have our lives owned and privatized and commodified by capitalism? Why is a woman who’s working in a sweatshop, in a maquiladora, why is the commodification of her life, her body, less odious than the patenting of the genome? And I think we have to sort of all put our anthropological hats on and ask ourselves, why do we find this more disturbing than other forms of capitalistic commodification?

At what point might we say, this — there’s something terribly wrong with this system? And is it possible to operate from a new logic that could bring us to a new way of serving the needs and the desires of citizens everywhere, that would not be profit-driven, that might be driven from a more moral place. Could we not have a more distributed and moral economy that was actually guided by citizens and not corporations?

AMY GOODMAN:

Well, Chaia Heller, I want to thank you for being with us, faculty member of the Institute for Social Ecology, author of Ecology of Everyday Life, which is published by Black Rose Books, and a part of the Biotechnology Project.

I also want to say that the sound we had at the beginning of this segment of speakers voicing their opposition to the biotech industry comes to us care of the Boston Independent Media Center. And you can go to the site, www.boston.indymedia.org, or www.biodev.org, that’s for Biodevastation.

These Indy Media sites are popping up wherever there are these mass protests. We saw them in Seattle. It became one of the most popular sites on the internet. We now see it in Boston, and an Indy Media site is being established in Washington, D.C., as well, for these massive protests that are planned for the first weeks of April, culminating in people trying to stop the annual meetings of the World Bank and the IMF on April 16th and 17th. And if you want to get more information on that, you can go to the web at www.a16.org. That’s www.a16.org.

And, by the way, Democracy Now! will be there in full, en masse in Washington covering the events, covering the AFL-CIO march against China and the World Trade Organization, covering the events on the weekend of the 16th, a Sunday, and the 17th, Monday, as people gather from around the world to deal with the impacts of the international financial institutions, whose greatest backer and most significant influence is the United States.

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