Biotech Battle Moves to San Diego


In dueling media events Thursday, the biotechnology industry was excoriated as dangerous and imperialistic, and then praised as saintly and beneficent.

And so it will go for the next five days or so as San Diego becomes ground zero for a rolling tutorial on a burgeoning industry that--for good or ill--is changing the American food supply and its approach to health and medicine.

An estimated 12,000 to 15,000 people are expected to attend BIO 2001, an international biotechnology convention that will begin Sunday at the waterfront convention center. They will talk of scientific advances and the hunt for funding.

Providing counterpoint are several thousand protesters rallying under a coalition slogan of Biodevastation 2001. They allege thatbioengineered food can be harmful to one's health and that the biotechnology industry is conspiring with agribusiness to snuff out family farms.

In the first "direct action" by protesters, two dozen members of Greenpeace stormed into an Albertsons in the blue-collar neighborhood of North Park, trailed by nearly as many reporters.

The protesters busied themselves slapping stickers--"Genetically Engineered Food--Hazardous"--on food packages, shelves and grocery carts.

Holding a box of Freaky Fruits breakfast cereal, Greenpeace member Brett Doran offered his group's views on canola, corn and soy. "These are the big three of bioengineered foods," he said.

An exasperated store manager demanded that the television and newspaper cameras leave immediately. As the cameras departed, so did the Greenpeace contingent.

Soon there arrived San Diego Police Officer Ronald Weiss, who is roughly the size of an NFL linebacker.

Weiss, talking to protesters milling around the storefront, explained that, personally, he has no views pro or con about biotechnology but that he does believe firmly in not blocking the doors to a supermarket. The Greenpeace protesters moved.

Greenpeace spokeswoman Jeanne Merrill said the tactical withdrawal does not mean the group has ruled out civil disobedience or more assertive conduct later. "We take each event as it comes," she said.

The Albertsons employees had barely finished removing the "hazardous" stickers when Mayor Dick Murphy and several biotech executives held their own media event: a news conference at the convention center.

"This is an industry that does an enormous amount of good in the world," Murphy said.

The San Diego City Council is split on most matters, but biotechnology is not one of them. The council--"in a rare unanimous vote," Murphy said--proclaimed next week Biotechnology Week.

About 250 biotechnology companies and 180 medical device companies are located here, with more than 32,000 employees and a $2-billion annual payroll.

Greenpeace activists, in their Albertsons foray, lectured shoppers that food packages do not provide labels warning when they contain ingredients derived from gene splicing and other bioengineering methods.

"People don't know they are eating this stuff," said Ama Marston, holding a box of Frosted Flakes.

Carl Feldbaum, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which is hosting the convention, countered that protesters seem uninterested in dialogue.

"When you're training to scale buildings and set up barricades," he said, "I'm not sure you're asking for a conversation."

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