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Showdown in Minneapolis: The Battle Over Genetic Engineering of Animals

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Genetic engineering is not just confined to crops and food. This past week in Minneapolis the International Society for Animal Genetics held their annual international conference. Scientists have been mapping the genome of common livestock, they say to determine new and cutting edge methods of disease resistance and to improve the animals for market and laboratory uses. [includes rush transcript]

Activists who converged on Minneapolis to protest the genetic engineering of animals were met with Seattle type police treatment and close to 100 were arrested.


  • Olivia Kramer, member of the local Minneapolis group GRAIN RAGE (Resistance Against Genetic Engineering).
  • Peter Wood, in the Research and Investigation Unit of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
  • Larry Schook, was one of the organizers of the International Society for Animal Genetics international conference in Minneapolis.

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

AMY GOODMAN: We continue on the issue of protests, but here in the United States. This past week, in Minneapolis, the International Society for Animal Genetics held their annual international conference. Scientists have been mapping the genome of common livestock, they say, to determine new and cutting-edge methods of disease resistance and to “improve” the animals for market and laboratory uses; that “improve,” I put in quotes.

Activists who converged on Minneapolis to protest the genetic engineering of animals were met with Seattle-type police treatment and close to 100 were arrested. We’re joined on the phone right now by Olivia Kramer, a member of the local Minneapolis group GRAIN RAGE (Resistance Against Genetic Engineering), RAGE. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Olivia.

OLIVIA KRAMER: Hi there. Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us what happened this week.


AMY GOODMAN: Tell us what happened this week.

OLIVIA KRAMER: Well, essentially, we mobilized a couple hundred people; over the weekend we had a counter-conference where we did workshops and discussions and videos and such. And since it’s such a new issue, it’s not something that people fully grasp. We spent a lot of time going over the science and the politics and economics behind the issue.

And then, on Sunday night we met in a local park, and we had a speak-out and teach-in that went really well, several hundred people there, all really attentive and obviously really interested in learning about the issue. And we had about fifteen speakers up there. And then we went on a downtown march at night, mostly on the sidewalks, and the police wouldn’t let us be in the street at all, even though we tried, so we, you know, pretty much kept to the sidewalks, and we ended up back to the park. And there were no incidents. It was really good.

There was — the conference was going on inside the Hyatt Regency, and we encircled the Hyatt several times, although they had really barricaded the conference, and actually the scientists. I don’t think they ever really left the hotel, except for one event in St. Paul, so it was really a military state all around the conference.

And then, on Saturday people met again in the morning downtown, and we had another march. And this time, we pretty much did the same thing, except for this time, the police wouldn’t even let us march on the sidewalks. And people were essentially boxed in for quite a while. On both sides the police were completely covering the sidewalk, and we couldn’t move. And so eventually people just used their spontaneity and element of surprise, and we ended up being able to get through the police lines, and we marched around in the street and on the sidewalks for a couple hours, and eventually we came to a point where the police actually tried to trap us from leaving the downtown area, even though they had corralled us out of the downtown area. And so, people got together and got out of the police barricade basically by pushing through the police lines.

And that’s pretty much where the first clash started, and they used a lot of pepper spray. They actually ended up denying using it later, and it’s still kind of an issue of contention, because there was so much media that was right there when the pepper spray was being used. And they — the police ended up actually trying to convince the public that some protesters had let loose tear gas in the crowd. And that’s just ridiculous, I mean, it’s really hard to get tear gas, so —- and there’s quite a few witnesses that saw them lobbing tear gas canisters. I mean, they were completely tooled up. They had exactly Seattle-style combat gear and rubber bullet guns, beanbag guns; they were on horses. It was definitely an over-mobilization, although it’s really not surprising, considering that they’re so intent on intimidating the sort of current form , the current surge of protests from continuing. And they’ll do anything that they can, and, in fact, they have used a lot of methods, even since then, other than in the street. They’ve raided a local activist’s house -—

JUAN GONZALEZ: Olivia, I’d like to interrupt you for a second. We’re also joined on the phone by Peter Wood, who’s in the Research and Investigation Unit of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Peter.

PETER WOOD: Thank you very much.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask you, the scientists — you were not there in Minneapolis, I understand, but the scientists who were gathering say they were interested, basically, in conducting research to prevent disease, to improve the quality of life for Americans. What are your objections to the kind of genetic engineering they’re involved in or the research in genetic engineering?

PETER WOOD: Genetic engineering isn’t about improving nutrition or feeding the hungry. It’s really about increasing profits for large-scale corporate farmers. If you look at some of the sponsors of this particular conference, you would see companies such as the Pig Improvement Company, Hybrid Turkeys and others, who make a living in turning sentient beings into nothing more than meat machines and who suffer greatly.

AMY GOODMAN: The Pig Improvement Company?

PETER WOOD: Yes. That’s actually one of their sponsors. The Pig Improvement Company, Hybrid Turkeys, and others who, like I said, exploit animals and turn them into nothing more than meat machines who live miserable, tortured lives, so they can scrape more meat off their bones.

So we reject this idea that they’re actually improving health or nutrition or feeding the hungry. It’s really about increasing their profits, and I think the sponsorship of this event proves that. And they’re also playing Russian roulette with the building blocks of life. And sooner or later we’re bound to hit the loaded chamber. It’s very dangerous, and that’s what people should be focused on.

AMY GOODMAN: I was just thinking, there could be all sorts of companies. You’ve got the Pig Improvement Company, PIC. Maybe ”HICUP,” which would be the “Human Improvement Company — UP,” just to improve us all. Peter Wood, how powerful is this organization that held this major international meeting in Minneapolis?

PETER WOOD: They seem to be extremely powerful. They have major corporate sponsorship. They have the support of the federal government, the United States Department of Agriculture. They have the support of universities, such as the University of Minnesota. They have a lot of power and a lot of money and, you know, will do anything to increase their profits, again, including turning animals into sort of foreign creatures that are going to suffer.

And what we’re saying is that instead of meddling with the building blocks of life, we need to focus on improving existing living conditions; halt pollution that’s pouring into our oceans; clean up the saturated fat- and cholesterol-laden diet that leads to cancer, heart disease, and stroke; and grow food locally so tomatoes don’t need animal genes to prolong shelf life. It’s absurd unnatural time span. There’s answers out there, but it’s not genetic engineering.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Olivia Kramer, what was the reaction of the residents of Minneapolis and the local press to the protests and to the idea that Seattle-type confrontations have come to their city?

OLIVIA KRAMER: Well, obviously the press sensationalized the entire thing, and actually they really served the police in a lot of ways by repeating misinformation that the police had been putting out, and actually one story went international about supposed —- the finding of cyanide canisters, which is a completely bunk story, I’d like to say. And there’s absolutely no substantiation -—

AMY GOODMAN: We read about this in the news, that at a local McDonald’s they found cyanide canisters and that the police were attributing them to the protesters.

OLIVIA KRAMER: What it seems like happened was stink bombs. And they have attempted to say that it was cyanide canisters that harmed people, and yet the only injuries, supposedly, that happened was some people who were overcome by the fumes. And also, apparently, the canisters were actually found to contain lower levels of cyanide than apple seeds, and that the existence of cyanide in this fluid was just totally exacerbated, and in fact we’re hearing rumors now that it was actually rotten tamari. And, you know, cyanide is a naturally occurring chemical, and actually some public health official here in Minneapolis yesterday announced that the liquid that was found is deemed to not pose — “to not have posed a public health threat, but if it had been in larger quantities, it may have.” That’s what the quote was.

AMY GOODMAN: So we’re talking about the American Kennel Club, the Canine Health Foundation, the Ralston Purina Company, Hybrid Turkeys, PE Celera, AgGen, Pig Improvement Company, University of Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station. We are going to be joined — we were hoping to be joined by the organizer of this conference, but he won’t be able to join us right now. It’s called the International Conference on Animal Genetics. If people want to get in touch, Peter Wood, with PETA, where do they call or go on the web?

PETER WOOD: They can go to our website at, or they can call (757) 622-7382.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Olivia Kramer, the person whose house got raided, what happened?

OLIVIA KRAMER: Well, essentially, it’s a house that was known to be where a lot of the organizing was coming out of, and Monday night we were all sitting here talking about the protest and writing things up about it, and all of a sudden about ten police officers stormed into the house with shields, pushed everyone on the ground, were calling us names, essentially, being very verbally violent and physically violent. They kicked one of the residents of the house in the head, like full-on in the face, when he was on the floor, and proceeded to search the house.

There was — the FBI was present, the DEA, and a Minneapolis gang strike task force was present. And they had come under the auspices of — with a search warrant for drug trafficking, which they found absolutely no substantiation of. They left with a minor possession charge for somebody.

And they got all of our phone books. They took our computer. They were sitting here on the computer for an hour going through all of our email. I mean, they tried to question us. Obviously nobody would talk to them. They arrested everyone in the house for disorderly house, and then kept a couple people on suspicion of narcotics trafficking, which they dropped.

And, you know, they basically — in my opinion, they were trying to retaliate against us for what happened in the streets on Monday, which was essentially people standing up for themselves and people really refusing to back down to the police and taking our rights to march seriously. And so, I think that after all this buildup — I mean, they spent a million dollars mobilizing for this conference, There was 200 protesters. And, you know, they really thought there was going to be —- it was going to be like Seattle, and so -—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to break for stations to identify themselves. We have been just told that the organizer of the conference is joining us, so we’re going to continue this segment for a minute after the break, and then we’ll go to the two reporters, one of the only reporters in the country — two of the only reporters in the country suing their news organization, saying that they were interfering with the content of their news story. We’ll be talking with Jane Akre and Steve Wilson, who tried to do a series on Monsanto for Fox in Florida. You’re listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! Back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, here with Juan Gonzalez. In addition to the activists Olivia Kramer and Peter Wood, who have been involved with the protests against the major international conference on animal genetics that has taken place this week in Minneapolis, we’ve been joined by Larry Schook, who’s the director of the Food Animal Biotechnology Center at the University of Minnesota.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, welcome to Democracy Now! Mr. Schook. Could you tell us what the purpose of the conference was, and if you’ve been hearing some of what the opponents have been saying, what your reaction to their opposition is?

LARRY SCHOOK: Let me start by saying that I appreciate having a chance to join the program. I just joined; I haven’t had a chance to hear the previous comments, but this is the twenty-seventh meeting of the congress. It’s every two years, and it’s held to — with two points: one, to exchange information and ideas, and to bring scientists from all over the world to gather, from poor and rich countries, to share in advances in technology.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what about the protesters outside? Do you see any legitimate concern in some of the issues that they were raising about the concern that many have about where genetic engineering is going?

LARRY SCHOOK: Well, I think the points that were brought out are points for discussion. And clearly, this Society, I should add, is represented by fifty-one different countries. We had members from forty-eight countries that were at the congress. As you can appreciate, each of these people come from countries that have very diverse and different regulations, and so even within the Society there’s active discussions about, you know, issues and impact of policy on science.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us, for the ISAG scientists — that’s the International [Society] on Animal Genetics — what their goals are in mapping the genomes of common livestock and animals, determining — what are they trying to determine?

LARRY SCHOOK: Well, if I could just maybe expand that a little bit. The Society has three areas, I would say, that it focuses on. One is looking at genetic diseases in companion animals. These would include horses and dogs, where — so the research is focused on how we could eliminate genetic diseases in our companion animals. Another area — in fact, we had a workshop that was funded by the United Nations Food Agricultural organization — was to look at how we can use genetic analyses to look and determine populations of local breeds of animals that may be at risk, so how we can use new genetic tools to solve biodiversity issues. And the third area is how we can use genetic information to increase food production. I should add that, of the 650 participants, only two of the presentations had to do with genetic engineering.

AMY GOODMAN: Olivia Kramer, do you have one question for Larry Schook? Olivia Kramer with the Minneapolis group GRAIN RAGE, Resistance Against Genetic Engineering.

OLIVIA KRAMER: Well, I guess the one thing that I would ask is, I don’t understand why scientists feel that they are operating in a bubble, that they should be unaccountable to public inquiry, and that it seems like the only defense that they use is that, “We’re doing the research; it’s up to public policy to determine how it’s used.” And yet, if the research weren’t being done, and these advances — so-called advances — weren’t being made, maybe people’s resources and time would be better spent on preventing diseases, preventing agricultural disasters, that have caused these crises in biodiversity that now you’re trying to say that you’re — that genetic research is going to solve. I mean, don’t you believe in conservation biology and in ecological sciences?

LARRY SCHOOK: Well, I do. And actually, as I said, a third of our program dealt with biodiversity and defining biodiversity. I should say that the majority of the people that were here are receiving funding from their governments. We had a number of scientists who come from countries — China and Japan — where they’re actually —- you know, the public directly funds their research, so to say that it’s in a bubble, I think, is not accurate. In fact -—

OLIVIA KRAMER: Those same governments are responsible for all sorts of structural adjustment programs and poverty and agricultural waste. I mean, I don’t think that just because they’re coming from government funding, that it’s somehow benign.

LARRY SCHOOK: I would agree with that. But I think the point that you were making earlier, and what I was going to follow up on, was the idea that it’s being done in a bubble and that there isn’t public discussion.

OLIVIA KRAMER: There isn’t.

LARRY SCHOOK: And here in the United States, clearly there’s been a number of issues of debating public investment into biotechnology, and they will continue.

OLIVIA KRAMER: What about the development of the science itself? I mean, the scientists keep saying that we have no right to oppose the science when we don’t know anything about the technicalities behind it, and yet there’s all these ecological and health risks; there’s ethical questions; there’s the question of corporate control over life itself; the commodification of life on a genetic level. I mean, these are really important questions that the scientists seem absolutely unwilling to even think about.

LARRY SCHOOK: I wouldn’t agree with that point. In fact, the human genome effort, one of the fundamental tenements of that is to include an ethical and social and legal issue. Here at the University of Minnesota, we clearly have, you know, a very active bioethics center, and our Center for Biomedical Genomics has a very, very active program now in education and in ethics, so I don’t think that’s a fair assessment, that scientists are not — and the research agendas are not looking at those social and ethical and legal issues.

OLIVIA KRAMER: Well, what do you think about the ethics behind humans controlling and manipulating animals on a genetic level and turning them into machines for profit-making?


OLIVIA KRAMER: Because that’s one of —- I would say that’s one of -—

LARRY SCHOOK: If raising — if a farmer raising crops or raising cattle or egg-laying chickens is for corporate profit, then I guess I’m for it.

OLIVIA KRAMER: Well, a lot of it is. A lot of it isn’t, and a lot of it is. What you’re doing, what the International Society for Animal Genetics is doing, is advancing agribusiness, is creating new tools for agribusiness to use as weapons against poor people and the environment.

LARRY SCHOOK: Couldn’t disagree with you more, because we had — in fact, the majority of the people that were here — I think you may have an argument, but you picked the wrong, wrong group to present that against.

OLIVIA KRAMER: Right, because you don’t have any accountability.

LARRY SCHOOK: The International Society clearly is a very diverse group that comes from rich, poor [inaudible] countries. In fact, the Society provided funding for thirty scientists to come from some of the poorest countries, so they would have access to the information, so that the point of your point of corporate exploitation couldn’t be further from the truth with this group at this Society.

OLIVIA KRAMER: Just because scientists come from poor countries doesn’t mean that they’re representing the needs of poor people, peasant farmers and people who are suffering under structural adjustment and capitalism.

LARRY SCHOOK: But it also means that they are having access to information. But I think that you’ve — you’re transforming issues that may have occurred because of corporate patenting with the Society that really is a grassroots group, and some of the arguments that you’re presenting are well-founded and I think are really issues that should be addressed, but I think they’re in a — the issues that you’re raising are very consistent with some of the questions that are raised by the Society.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, on this note, we do have to wrap up the discussion, but I want to say that these discussions should be happening at a national and international level, where activists, scientists, academics, policymakers get together and we all make decisions about the future of life on earth.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And clearly, most people around the rest of this country would not have even been involved in this debate, had the protesters not been outside in Minneapolis and made this conference a news issue.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you all for being with us, Olivia Kramer, member of the local Minneapolis group GRAIN RAGE, Resistance Against Genetic Engineering, who was outside as close to a hundred people got arrested, as inside, the International Society of Animal Scientists was taking place. Larry Schook with us, as well, Director of the Food Animal Biotechnology Center at the University of Minnesota.

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