Taking it to the Streets: Challenging Biotech PR




– For GeneWatch, Spring ‘07

Since 1999, activists across North America have created comprehensive educational events, colorful parades, and determined oppositional media campaigns in response to the annual conventions of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO). BIO is the world’s largest biotech lobbying organization. Their annual conventions have grown in recent years to bring nearly 20,000 biotech executives to major cities across the continent, and have featured high profile speakers from Presidents Clinton and Bush, to Hollywood celebrities, such as the late Christopher Reeve and Parkinson’s sufferer Michael J. Fox. These conventions are a huge public relations extravaganza for the industry, and aim to saturate the host city’s media with stories about the purported ‘wonders’ of biotechnology.

This year, both the convention and the counter-events returned to Boston, site of the largest gathering in this series, Biodevastation 2000.  That response to BIO in March of 2000 included a 3-day teach-in featuring Vandana Shiva, Ralph Nader and Barry Commoner, among many others, as well as a colorful parade of more than 3000 people from Copley Square to the old Hynes Convention Center. Today, major Boston conventions are housed in a new fortress-sized facility on the edge of South Boston, and the activist climate just isn’t what it was in early 2000, when the dramatic events surrounding the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Seattle ministerial meeting had recently invigorated a worldwide movement for global justice. This year’s plans were considerably more modest, but the goal of significantly challenging the industry’s PR image remained a central focus.

The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) is clearly the world’s most powerful voice for the biotechnology industry, with an annual budget in the vicinity of $50 million. Its leading officials, including its president, former Pennsylvania congressman James Greenwood, spend millions every year trying to paint their conventioneers as an altruistic and scientifically-minded group, seeking cures to human disease and solutions to feed the world’s hungry. But the BIO conventions are vastly different from typical scientific meetings. Less than ten percent of registrants have historically listed themselves as scientists, and the entrance fees range from $1000 to over $2000. Sessions on business development, intellectual property and finance far outweigh the conspicuously out-of-place presentations that are grouped together under the generic heading, ‘Science.’

Companies pay up to $300,000 to become top-tier (‘Double Helix’) sponsors of the BIO convention. For 2007, these first-level sponsors include Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca and Novo Nordisk. Several Boston area companies such as Amgen (headquartered on both coasts), Biogen Idec and Genzyme (pioneer in the development of genetically engineered animals) are also in this first tier category. Other major sponsors (over $100,000) include well-known companies such as Bristol-Myers Squibb, Merck, Genentech, the investment firm Ernst & Young, and GE food giants Monsanto, Bayer, and Dow Agrosciences.

The annual counter-events trace their history to the first “Biodevastation” conference, organized by the Gateway Green Alliance in St. Louis in 1998. This event did not coincide with a BIO convention, but was perhaps the first large gathering on biotech issues in the US that focused mainly on popular education and grassroots mobilization. Participants from at least three continents assembled on the last day for a lively gathering just outside Monsanto’s headquarters in the suburbs of St. Louis. Vandana Shiva, a keynote speaker in St. Louis, invited several organizers to a followup conference in India early the following year, and it was there that activists crystallized plans for an event to counter BIO’s convention in Seattle in May of 1999. The Seattle event, hosted by Beth Burrows’ Edmonds Institute, made national headlines when, on the last day of both ‘Biodevastation 3’ and the BIO convention, scientists at Cornell University announced their dramatic finding that Bt corn pollen was lethal to monarch butterfly larvae. BIO announced that their next convention would take place in Boston early in 2000 and the rest, as they say, is history.

Panelists and workshop leaders in Boston in March of 2000 included scientists, farmers and activists from India, the Philippines, England, South Africa, Canada, Uruguay and all over the United States. Vermont’s world renowned Bread and Puppet Theater led the colorful and lively parade from the rally and street theater festival in Copley Square to the Hynes Convention Center.

Subsequent years saw lively gatherings, under various names—Biojustice, Biodiversity, Biodemocracy, etc.—countering BIO’s conventions in San Diego, Toronto, San Francisco, and Philadelphia.  There was also a second event in St. Louis in 2003 that coincided with the first World Agricultural Forum, a creation of a former top Monsanto executive. Another very large event happened later that year in Sacramento, as the USDA hosted an international conference aimed at lobbying the world’s agriculture ministries in the lead-up to the Cancún ministerial meeting of the WTO.

The 2004 gathering in San Francisco took up the theme of “Reclaim the Commons,” with a focus on highlighting movements for ecological renewal in many Bay Area neighborhoods. The Philadelphia event in 2005 was the first to prominently feature a broad, three-part focus—implicit in several prior events—on GE agriculture; health-care, human genetics and the pharmaceutical industry; and the growing US bioweapons establishment. Three marches, each highlighting one of these themes, converged with nearly perfect timing right in front of Philadelphia’s historic City Hall.

The Boston “Biojustice” events in 2007 aimed to significantly replicate this triple focus. An opening session at Old South Church featured representatives of international farmers’ movements from Bangladesh, Latin America and the US southwest, along with Berkeley professor Ignacio Chapela and author Anna Lappé. A panel on Biotechnology, Medicine, and Human Rights included Our Bodies Ourselves co-founder and director Judy Norsigian, Boston University bioethicist George Annas, activist physicians and nurses, and Sonia Shah, author of a new book exposing drug company testing programs around the world. An entire day was devoted to events in support of local opposition to Boston University’s planned Level 4 biolab, planned for one of Boston’s densest neighborhoods and widely seen as a new center for US biowarfare research. Local activists in Boston planned a full week of parades, rallies, workshops, music, a free health care clinic and free daily non-GMO meals, aimed to dramatize popular resistance to the biotech agenda and highlight a broad scope of community-based alternatives.

Another important focus of recent events has been the biotech industry’s largely empty promises of bringing economic development and new jobs to cities across the continent. Officials of cities hoping to court biotech companies are always prominent among the convention’s sponsors and featured speakers. But neither the Boston area, nor San Francisco, acknowledged as the industry’s two leading centers, can list a single biotech firm among the area’s top 25 employers. “[I]t is unlikely,” reported the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council several years ago, that the industry “will ever be a dominant contributor to the employment pool such as the computer industry has been over the past two decades;” biotech companies in the Boston area now average around 100 employees. The biotech sector has already lived through numerous boom and bust cycles, and according to a 2005 report by Ernst & Young, is responsible for an historic net loss to investors of more than $45 billion.  Only a handful of biotech companies have ever been profitable, and most of those have relied on subcontracting research and development services to larger companies, mainly in the pharmaceutical industry.

The combination of focused popular resistance and an industry awash in red ink has finally led to more skeptical media coverage of BIO’s conventions in recent years. The mainstream press in various cities has finally begin to consider that biotechnology might not feed the world, instantly cure our most intractable diseases, or keep us safe from terrorism. The latest move is to paint biotech as  the key to addressing global warming, through the creation of genetically engineered plants and microbes to facilitate the production of alternative fuels from crops, grasses and trees. In response, Biojustice 2007 featured a traveling road show from the climate justice group Rising Tide, and a showing of the recent film, A Silent Forest, highlighting the threat of genetically engineered trees. This will surely become an increasingly important theme as biotech critics continue to refine their message in the coming years.

Brian Tokar is the editor of Redesigning Life? and Gene Traders, among other books, and directs the Biotechnology Project at Vermont’s Institute for Social Ecology (