Thanks to Pete Shanks for a great report on his time at the counter events to the big BIO convention in Philadelphia last week.
Some of the events Pete refers to should be available, at least in part, as audio via Philly Inde Media - phillyimc.org. *BUT* this particular site seems to be down for the moment - details of audio available at these urls:
Philadelphia, June 18 21
A personal account by Pete Shanks
Pete Shanks is the author of Human Genetic Engineering: A Guide for Activists, Skeptics, and the Very Perplexed (Nation Books, 2005; http://www.wordsontheweb.com). In Philadelphia he also represented the Center for Genetics and Society (CGS; http://www.genetics-and-society.org/) for whom he often does contract work, but nothing in this report should be construed as representing the views of CGS. It's edited from an even longer, and more unruly, account, which he'll send to anyone who asks nicely.
This was essentially a three-day Teach-In, held at two locations in Philadelphia to counterbalance the (much larger) annual convention of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO). It was preceded by a Festival in a Park and followed by a public demonstration and march, which unfortunately drew national headlines only because a policeman suffered a heart attack.
I attended almost the whole thing, arriving the night before it started and leaving during the final demonstration. The panels and workshops were of very high quality -- many of the speakers stayed for the whole weekend, which helped -- and the discussions were excellent. What follows is mostly a heavily annotated version of the program (see http://www.biodev.org/ for more details, speaker bios, etc) with notes of varying quality for the events I attended. There were almost always several things happening at once, so inevitably I missed many, aside from the few instances where I, ah, networked off-site...
As a counterbalance to BIO, it has to be said that it was not as effective as one would like. The city was full of signs welcoming BIO "with every molecule in our state," not to mention that the railroad station had a huge poster from a law firm promising that your intellectual property was safe with them. The Philadelphia Inquirer seemed to think that BIO 2005 was big news, with its 18,000 delegates from all over the world, and the demonstrators were not really, unless of course they planned on holding the city to ransom by blocking the streets. Oh dear.
As an inspiration, however, I found the Teach-In wonderful. I learned a little science, a fair amount about the Latin American experience, and above all networked widely with a lot of lovely people. The principal locations were Clark Park (Saturday daytime), the Friends Center (Saturday and Sunday) and the Ethical Society (Sunday and Monday), not forgetting the streets (principally on Sunday and Tuesday).
Saturday, June 18th 10 AM 2 PM
Reclaim the Commons Festival/Farmers Speak Out in Clark Park, featuring Green Circus, displays, kids' activities, etc.
Scheduled speakers included: Percy Schmeiser (Canadian farmer)”¨Ignacio Chapela (University of California)”¨Shepherd Ogden (Rodale Research Institute)”¨Nelson Carrasquillo (Comite de Apoyo de Trabajadores Agricultures)”¨Lisa Mosca (Pennypack Farm CSA).
The event was as you might expect -- fun, varied, a pleasant day in the park. I caught the second half of Ignacio's improvised speech, which focused on the amount that biotech companies have lost (an estimated $40 billion of about $200 billion invested so far) and the extent that this is public money being thrown down a private drain (my metaphor).
Saturday afternoon at the Friends Center
2 - 3:45 PM Communities resisting GMOs
3 - 5 PM The Health Care Crisis and the Pharmaceutical Industry
4 - 6 PM Sustainable agriculture roundtable
Saturday afternoon workshops:
2 - 3:30 pm :: Playing God With Genes? Interfaith Perspectives on Biotechnology included Rabbi Larry Troster and Sha'ifa Ma
Rabbi Troster stressed both holiness and environmental justice, and expressed concern about corporate control of such a sacred activity as eating. He was quite exercised about the concept of "dominion" and insisted that this modern (i.e. 17th-century) interpretation of the Bible was incorrect and had been shown to be wrong many times over the last thirty years.
Shai'fa Ma, who cited and may come from a West African tradition (I am not sure) exuded calm and tended to speak in generalities. When asked about communicating with pro-biotech folks, she talked about sharing their heart. I acknowledged the politics of consciousness, but expressed concern that if we do not act we may be too late. Rabbi Troster strongly agreed -- he seemed deliberately to contradict Ma -- and called for "prophetic voices" which might actually be a point of contact between the two of them.
Buddhist, Muslim and other traditions were mentioned but not exhaustively discussed. Several pagans were present and expressed general identification with the Earth and deep distrust about interventions on a genetic level.
3:40 - 5 pm :: A Silent Forest: The Threat of Genetically Engineered Trees ”¨Anne Peterman and Orin Langelle (Global Justice Ecology Project)”¨Ricarda Steinbrecher (EcoNexus, UK)
There were 28 present, when I counted at 4:15. I missed the opening, which was a shame. Anne (whose presentation I basically missed) seemed very competent. Orin was that, and also amusing: Brian Tokar "made me write a chapter for his book" so he called someone and was told "Congratulations! You are now one of the five people in the world concerned about this issue." Ricarda stressed that multi-generational testing for trees takes a long, long time, and they are not waiting.
GM trees are rapidly coming to Chile and Brazil, and China is the biggest immediate concern. In their case, it is not exactly dollars that are behind it, more the techno-fix approach to the problem of desertification; it's also the case that global warming is being used as an excuse for GM trees, which may (therefore) get World Bank subsidy. In fact Orin ended the workshop with a superb rant that connected Wolfowitz, big oil, Iraq, and pretty much everything that is wrong with the world, all in one great ball.
Patrick Moore (he co-founded Greenpeace, you know) was there, and put in his two cents, first saying we all ought to be at the BIO Biotech 101 Introduction going on simultaneously, then that he thought GM crops had promise but he had his doubts about GM trees. He tried to "correct" some statements about lignin and Kyoto etc, but Ricarda cut him down to size very sweetly.
Saturday evening (Friends Center)
7 - 9:30 PM The Future of Food
Special film showing with filmmaker Deborah Koons Garcia, and”¨Ignacio Chapela, Percy Schmeiser
According to Deborah, she has already sold 15,000 copies! DVDs are $20, or $15 for quantity &/or activists. It has already been shown all over the world, or at least in many countries, and is just opening in New York City. (I guess that means that New Yorkers will now admit its existence.)
”¨Sunday morning events
10 AM - 2 PM:”¨Code Pink Training with Medea Benjamin
11 AM - 1 PM:”¨Genetic Engineering Action Network organizing meeting
”¨Sunday afternoon June 19th at the Friends Center
2 - 3:45 PM Medical biotechnology: Cure or catastrophe?
George Annas (Global Lawyers & Physicians, Council for Responsible Genetics)”¨Evelyne Shuster (University of Pennsylvania)”¨Pete Shanks (Center for Genetics & Society)”¨Michael Susko (Citizens for Responsible Care and Research) Rajani Bhatia (Committee on Women, Population, and the Environment
I focused on the tendency of biotech enthusiasts to ridicule or minimize critical commentary, and to stress the rosy future rather than the depressing present. I introduced the concept of biomedical exceptionalism, and tied this in with gene therapy (Michael) and indeed fertility treatments and the sale of related things (Evelyne & Rajani) and also the hopes invested in ESCs, which led us neatly to George.
George's title was "Democracy and the Need for Global Regulation of Embryonic Stem Cell Research" (he's in favor of both). He was clear, coherent, and made an interesting point about the UN vote earlier this year, that the majority in favor of banning all cloning actually represented only one-third of the global population, though the majority to ban reproductive cloning was and is overwhelming.
Evelyne's title was "Toxic Ethics and the World of Medically Assisted Reproduction." I billed her as a philosopher (amongst other things) and that's basically how she was, calm, quiet, rational. Rajani extended Evelyne's analysis into the practical realm of "the consumerization of reproduction and existing pressures to perfect and commodify our children," including sex selection.
Mike focused on patients rights, adverse-event reporting etc, noting that in some ways human research subjects can have less protection than animals do. He mentioned the Gelsinger tragedy, relatively briefly. (Ricarda, from the floor, by my invitation, said a bit more about the science of gene therapy in response to a question.) He also managed to end with a call for democratic oversight that, as I noted, directly paralleled George's opening, which was rather neat since he had not been there for the opening.
The most significant thing in the Q&A, I thought, was a strong reaction to my description of Lee Silver's genetic aristocracy/speciation pitch. There was a definite sense of jaws dropping, and specific applause to the idea that when they say this is an extrapolation of current trends I rather agree but my conclusion is that we'd better change current society. (I was delighted to hear George muttering "that's right" as I said this.)
4 - 6 PM Biotechnology in the Global South (Worship Room)
Anuradha Mittal (Oakland Institute)”¨Javiera Rulli (Grupo ReflexiÃ³n Rural, Argentina).
”¨Sunday afternoon workshops at the Friends Center
2 - 3:30 :: GMOs in Latin America”¨Ignacio Chapela (University of California)”¨Carmelo Ruiz (Puerto Rican journalist)”¨Javiera Rulli (Grupo ReflexiÃ³n Rural, Argentina)
2 - 3:30 :: Biotech basics: What is genetic engineering and why should you care”¨Ellen Kittredge (Center for Food Safety)
3:40 - 5 :: Corporate Lawsuits vs. Farmers ”¨Percy Schmeiser,”¨Ellen Kittredge (Center for Food Safety)
3:40 - 5 :: Alternative Medicine and the Politics of Healthcare ”¨Eliot Tokar (Tibetan medicine practitioner, New York City)
I dined before heading off to the 6 o'clock demo being held to welcome BIO delegates to their pre-convention gala, which was held about ten blocks away, on the other side of the convention center. It was a lot of fun, except for the tedious detail that I was, cough, cough, the, how to say this, almost certainly the only person present born before 1950. Hell, there probably weren't many of us born before 1980. There were many cops, valiantly holding the line with bicycles. Protestors were not allowed to take bikes onto the grass. "My bikes are OK," said a cop, "Yours aren't. Got it?" But he was chuckling.
There were toxic tomatoes, killing volunteers on contact. There was lots of chanting -- "Global Health Not Corporate Wealth" -- and banging of drums. It was all fairly good humored, and at least the delegates have to have noticed. With luck they felt a little like first-class passengers on the Titanic.
7 - 9 PM Bioweapons, US Militarism, and the Myths of 'Biodefense' at the Friends Center
Medea Benjamin (Global Exchange)”¨Inga Olson (Tri-Valley CARES)”¨Laura Kahn (Princeton University)”¨Susan Hammond (Fund for Reconciliation & Development)”¨Susan Gracey (Women's International League for Peace and Freedom)”¨Barry Kissin (Frederick Progressive Action Coalition)
A little bigger crowd, maybe 100. I missed Medea and Inga. I think Susan H was the one talking about the third-generation effects of dioxin in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Barry was a very dramatic attorney, who stressed that in Vietnam we had killed (bold, capitals, large font) three million people (or did he say four?). He was all about how lousy our government still and always is, which is hard to dispute.
”¨9 PM: East coast premiere of A Silent Forest, video on GE trees, featuring David Suzuki (At the Ethical Society Building)
Notable for the fact that Suzuki definitely seemed mad at the prospect.
”¨Monday, June 20th at the Ethical Society Building
Workshops and films 11 AM 6:45 PM (see below), including Green & Black Urban Gathering offerings.
There were not enough rooms. Several workshops occurred in pairs, in the same room, which was hard. I sat through two and then my ears hurt and I had to go out to the street (!) to recover, and in fact had a lovely Caesar salad and double Americano and read the EcoNexus report Genome Scrambling -- Myth or Reality? (Answer: the latter) and came back refreshed.
11 AM - 12:15 PM :: ”¨Scientific Controversies in Genetic Engineering (Ricarda Steinbrecher, EcoNexus, and Michael Hansen, Consumer Policy Institute) ”¨
Got up to about 30 people. Relatively technical but very interesting. Ricarda noted that unexpected mutations were not usually looked for or therefore noticed. Michael stressed the complexities involved in the use of exotic promoters, and also explained in some detail the Codex Alimentarius. and much more. Fascinating stuff.
Corporations and Militarism
12:30 PM - 1 :45 :: ”¨
World Bank/IMF and GMOs
Fallacies of Genetic Reductionism and Risk Assessment (Sheldon Krimsky)
A very clear and coherent presentation by an excellent teacher who listens.
2 - 3:15 :: ”¨Biotech Corporations and Global Trade (Ricarda Steinbrecher, Brian Tokar, Institute for Social Ecology, and Lucy Sharratt, Ban Terminator Campaign)”¨Biofuels (Mike Ewall, Energy Justice Network)
I didn't take many notes this time, and actually was late getting there and missed Brian (I heard his speech the following morning, which was superb -- a great combination of facts and emotion). I did get to hear Lucy talking about the Terminator campaign, supported by Ricarda who objected to the "techno-fix" approach.
Javiera Rulli, from the audience but by invitation, spoke some about the problems in Argentina with clear-cutting in order to plant soy. There was also discussion of Iraq and Bremer's order (number 86?) making it illegal to save seeds; Brian used a question about that to stress how important agribusiness is in the application of US foreign policy -- it may not be why we are in Iraq, but once we are there it will have an influence.
3:30 - 4:30 :: ”¨Carlyle Group: Merchants of Death (Jacquelynn Cunliffe, War Resisters League)”¨
I learned a few details about John Major's involvement, brokering a deal between Carlyle and Quinetek, which is a spin-off from the British Ministry of Defence, which of course came under his purview while he was Prime Minister ... oh it makes you sick. It's all legal, she stressed, even Carlucci's regular lunches with Rumsfeld. What a world.
”¨Monday evening (Ethical Society, First Floor):
7 - 9 PM Biotechnology and the Corruption of Science
Sheldon Krimsky (Tufts University)”¨Paul Connett (St. Lawrence University)”¨Ricarda Steinbrecher (EcoNexus, UK)”¨Randy Zauhar (University of the Sciences in Philadelphia)”¨Michael Hansen (Consumer Policy Institute)
Introduced and moderated by Evelyne Shuster, with grace and intelligence. The speakers were all excellent.
Krimsky went first, with a Powerpoint presentation, focusing on, well, Science in the Private Interest (read his book!). He discussed funding, big pharma, biased results (the recent Nature article), the Atlantic "Kept University" article, etc. I took lousy notes, partly because he held my attention.
Zauhar was next, and began with the wonderful tale of his treatment by BIO. He had produced a Poster, as part of a booth set up by his University, but when he arrived to check in was told that his registration had been cancelled! He objected, and finally got a badge but a few minutes after he got to the booth was taken aside by a security guard who told him that this was because he was listed on the program here, warned him that if he did anything out of line he would be expelled and told him he had to give his badge back at the end of the day. His actual speech was mostly on money and its abuse. "Scientists have to have some sense of morality that transcends making a buck." He noted that NIH money tends to go to those who already have access to funding, and that industry likes to out-source research to cheap post-docs trying to make their reputation at universities.
Connett really chewed up the scenery. He gave a fire-breathing rant on "Biotechnology, Wisdom and Scientific Integrity." He stressed the difference between being clever and being wise, quoted E.F. Schumacher (the Small Is Beautiful author, for those who are not yet of a certain age) and twice referred to "foolish arrogance" only the second time he called it "arrogant foolishness."
That histrionic effort gave Steinbrecher quite an act to follow, which she did brilliantly by speaking softly and sincerely about her own experiences. She's a geneticist, who was working on gene therapy in the early 1990s. Because of the "tunnel vision" of science, she had not followed the work with crops and when she heard about it, in the mid-90s, she thought they must have moved ahead -- solved the insertion, promotion and regulation problems that were so intractable in human gene work. So she read the literature, and found no more knowledge, just "less caring" and less of a demand for accuracy. So she decided to put aside here own work and spend a couple of years educating the public ... and ten years later, she is still at it.
She also spoke about the inhibiting effect of patents on scientific discourse, about the breast cancer patent issue, about competition for funding. Scientists, she said, are in service, to the public, to biodiversity, to nature, and need to hold interests above their own, above Nobel Prizes, above money ... but many scientists operate the other way round. And some are even calling for "down-regulating" requirements for safety!
Hansen tried for a larger perspective, and focused on the trend over the last twenty-five years, explicitly encouraged by legislation, towards making money out of science -- Bayh-Dole, The 1985 Federal Technology Transfer Act, and so on. He was good, projecting well and finding a way basically to tie the previous presentations together, which was especially impressive since he was clearly improvising.
There was a Breakfast (catered by Food Not Bombs, naturally) outside "gsk" as they now seem to be known -- Glaxo SmithKline -- before the three marches that began at 11 and converged on Love Park, where a policeman, Officer Paris Williams, had a heart attack.
I had to go to the airport, so I was not part of the marches, but I attended the Breakfast and spoke to a few journalists. One strange detail: The plain-clothes police (including Officer Williams) were all dressed up, generally in light-colored suits and fedoras, with identifying arm-bands, looking for all the world like something out of the 1950s. It was definitely weird to see black cops reminding me of Bull Connor. Another protestor thought to ask them about it -- they were not unfriendly to begin with, as we began to assemble -- and was told that the word had come down from higher up that they were to dress up for the occasion, presumably because of the out-of-town press there for BIO (I saw, and briefly spoke with, journalists from Florida and New York). So the police huddled to come to consensus on what exactly this meant, and that's what they came up with. I immediately dug into my bag, this being the only demo I have ever attended with luggage, and pulled out my battered black felt hat, just to be in keeping.
Now I hear they want to charge a protestor with murder for squirting a cop with water. Since they cannot do that, they are charging him with felonious assault. It's unbelievable.