Countering Biotech and “Free Trade” in Sacramento



By Brian Tokar and Doyle Canning, Institute for Social Ecology Biotechnology Project

For Z Magazine, September, 2003

Last winter, US Agriculture Secretary Anne Veneman announced plans for an international conference on agricultural technology just three months prior to the upcoming WTO Ministerial Conference in Cancun, Mexico. Veneman, a former board member of Calgene, an early food biotech company later absorbed by Monsanto, would invite agriculture and trade ministers from 180 countries to Sacramento, California to showcase the wonders of US agribusiness and attempt to extract support for US policies on agricultural subsidies, trade, and biotechnology in the months leading up to Cancun. Having failed to make progress in agricultural negotiations at previous WTO Ministerials in Seattle and Doha, Qatar, the timing was crucial. Analysts like Walden Bello of Focus on the Global South, based in the Philippines, were starting to call agriculture “the WTO’s Achilles Heel.”

For grassroots biotech opponents and global justice organizers on both coasts, this was a golden opportunity. Despite major mobilizations in Boston, San Diego, and Toronto in recent years, many global justice activists continued to view biotechnology as a narrow, technical issue dominated by scientists and policy wonks. It couldn’t possibly be as significant or exciting as marching against a war or confronting the core institutions of global capitalism. What would finally be demonstrated in Sacramento was that to confront the imposition of genetically engineered agriculture on an unwilling world is a crucial way to challenge global corporate hegemony. We would show how agribusiness and biotechnology play a far more crucial role in the imperial designs of the US administration and its corporate patrons than many people had realized before. The recent appointment of a former Cargill executive and ‘free trade’ negotiator to a key policy post in Iraq was barely the tip of the iceberg.

The road to Sacramento was by no means free of obstacles. Some Bay Area NGOs were convinced that the only appropriate response to the USDA’s planned ministerial meeting was to reach out to the delegates with an alternative program. They would gather regional organic food advocates to raise $6000 for a booth at the USDA’s Technology Expo and rent a hotel ballroom for an upscale organic dinner catered by Berkeley’s pre-eminent organic chef, Alice Waters. Public demonstrations would only get in the way of this plan. A story was circulated that unnamed ‘activists in the global South’ were opposed to having a demonstration. This was definitively refuted when the international farmer’s movement Via Campesina issued its own call to action in early May: “Through the [Sacramento] Conference and Expo the US government wants to impose its corporate agricultural agenda on the rest of the world, including new technologies such as genetic engineering. . . Via Campesina calls upon its organizations and other social movements to: denounce this event publicly and organize protest; question their parliaments and governments and demand that they denounce this Conference and cancel their participation; participate in protest actions organized by the US social movements and at the international level.”

Also in May, as activists in St. Louis were preparing for the Biodevastation 7 teach-in and protests against Monsanto’s World Agricultural Forum (see July/August Z), the Bush administration announced that it was going forward with a long-threatened intervention at the WTO against European restrictions on imports of genetically engineered (GE) food and the growing of GE crops. The war of words between US and EU officials took on a tone ominously similar to the diplomatic fallout surrounding the continuing war on Iraq. Not only would the US appeal to the WTO to force European countries to lift their de facto moratorium, in effect since early 1999, but a series of presidential pronouncements in the ensuing weeks would tie funding for AIDS relief and other economic aid to African countries to their willingness to accept GE food imports. Last summer’s embarrassing refusal of GE food aid by Zambia and other southern African countries was a debacle the Bush administration and its agribusiness patrons were determined not to repeat.

All these events contributed to bringing the issue of GE agriculture to the center of discussions around the WTO, global justice, and the Bush administration’s aggressive unilateralism in the aftermath of their invasion of Iraq. Further, Sacramento would be the first stop on the administration’s heavily militarized convoy to the WTO ministerial in Cancun. As US officials launched their backroom deal-making on the road to Cancun, Sacramento would be a moment to proclaim the right to food sovereignty, democracy and economic justice, and an ecological future.

Sacramento was an unlikely location for a major activist convergence. As California’s state capital, it has long been viewed as a ‘nowhere land’ of lawyers and lobbyists. When ordinary citizens venture there, it is usually to protest a particular legislative measure for a few hours and jump on the bus or train to return home as soon as possible. A local Sacramento Coalition for Sustainable Agriculture had been working tirelessly to raise consciousness about alternatives in their community for quite some time. As the mobilization approached, they would bring together local farmers, co-op shoppers, antiwar and global justice activists, organized labor and environmentalists. They planned an alternative expo featuring organic produce and fair trade products, and were generally well received by their politically cautious neighbors.

Official Sacramento embraced its usual role as the capital of US agribusiness. There were the usual scare stories on the media about demonstrators threatening violence and vandalism with reruns of the same Seattle Starbucks window breaking over and over again. The police were equipped with guns that fire rubber bullets, as well as exploding pellets of pepper spray, electric prods and a host of other new “less lethal” weapons. And it was not at all clear that activists from the Bay Area, much less other areas of the country, would even venture there after the flurry of antiwar activity that had consumed the movement for the entire first half of this year.

The week before the mobilization kicked off, organizers became aware that the local janitors’ union was reaching a stalemate in contract negotiations. The Sacramento Justice for Janitors Campaign was demanding a minimal raise and health benefits for janitors’ families. Expressions of solidarity and common struggle were shared between mobilization and union organizers, as well as behind-the-scenes knowledge of downtown Sacramento. “My janitors — you want to talk about globalization — they know globalization. They are globalization,” explained a union organizer. Global justice and anti-biotech organizers joined picket lines and helped gather petition signatures. Sacramento suddenly seemed like a political volcano — with a possible citywide shutdown by janitors, uniting with seasoned direct action organizers from around the country. With a thousand or more delegates about to arrive from around the world, and potentially thousands of protestors, commercial interests in Sacramento saw the potential for disaster on the horizon and agreed to an early settlement. Clearly, surprising changes in the local political climate were in the offing.

Converging in Sacramento

Activists began to arrive in Sacramento on Friday, June 20th and checked in at the Welcome Center. The former Mexican restaurant provided free food, housing information, maps, literature, puppet making, and work stations at the Independent Media Center. A pirate radio station was set up for web streaming and local broadcast with frequent call-ins from the streets. A local neighborhood center housed a clinic, a healing space, a busy kitchen, and trainings in nonviolent direct action, street health and safety, Indymedia making and more. The Green Bloc from Mendocino County gave workshops at both spaces on organic gardening and permaculture techniques, transforming long neglected parking lot medians into earth-friendly edible landscapes.

These trainings were a chance to showcase alternatives to genetic engineering and industrial agriculture, and also to prepare for guerrilla gardening actions to come later in the convergence. On Friday afternoon, activists made a couple of hundred “seed balls”—small mud balls filled with organic vegetable seeds—and left them out to dry in the sun on a tarp out side the Welcome Center. Very early Saturday morning, police arrived on the scene to confiscate the seed balls. They claimed they could be used as “weapons” and held them at the police station. The evening news showed footage of stodgy police throwing the seed balls at a wall, explaining that they were dangerous projectiles. Activists responded that Monsanto and the cohort of biotech companies inside the ministerial were so frightened of the organic seeds that they had them arrested—a mirror of the global takeover of seed stocks by the biotech giants.

The Sacramento Mobilization exceeded organizers’ expectations for the size, scope and sheer energy of the events. It began with a tightly-messaged protest at the local retail outlet for International Paper. The world’s largest forest products company, IP had recently been selected as the focus of a new corporate campaign aimed at preventing the commercialization of genetically engineered trees. A broad nationwide coalition, including the Rainforest Action Network and Vermont’s Action for Social and Ecological Justice, had chosen to launch its corporate campaign in Sacramento and a caravan of forest activists from northern California, Oregon and Washington joined people from the Bay Area and around the country to picket—and briefly enter—IP’s retail store, Xpedx, on the outskirts of Sacramento early Saturday morning, June 21st.

Saturday’s day-long teach-in at the local California State University campus had standing-room-only at nearly every session. Speakers from Food First and the Institute for Social Ecology highlighted the issues linking Sacramento to Cancun and the war in Iraq, and guests from Zambia, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Mexico and the Philippines exposed the myth that US agribusiness has anything to offer the world’s hungry. Drinah Nyirenda of Zambia’s Program Against Malnutrition pointed out that her country had a surplus of grain this year, following last summer’s refusal of GE corn shipments from the US Representatives of Public Citizen and the Pesticide Action Network highlighted issues of corporate power, war profiteering and the hazards of agricultural chemicals and food irradiation.

Organized labor was represented at the teach-in by Clarence Thomas, of the Bay Area Longshore Workers local and the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, who reminded participants in the workshop on militarism and colonialism of the old union adage that “an injury to one is an injury to all.” There were strong links to local struggles around hunger — California’s Central Valley has more malnourished people per capita than most of the country — homelessness, water privatization, and a planned biowarfare research center proposed for the nearby University of California campus in Davis. There was a focus on alternatives, from urban agriculture and organics to community organizing and international solidarity, on struggles of farmers and farmworkers in North America and around the world, and on the threat to forests and fisheries posed by global trade agreements and genetic engineering. A Spanish language workshop session featured the besieged Berkeley biochemist Ignacio Chapela—who is fighting for his academic life after exposing the contamination of indigenous Mexican corn varieties by GMO corn pollen—researcher and anti-biopiracy advocate Silvia Ribeiro from the Mexican office of the ETC Group (formerly RAFI), and several others.

On Sunday the focus was direct action — filling the streets of Sacramento as delegates were arriving for the USDA’s ministerial meeting and technology expo. Affinity groups divided into four clusters, representing Earth, Air, Fire and Water, and kept police occupied for many hours in all the streets surrounding the downtown Sacramento Convention Center. The excess of police armaments was in full view throughout the day, and surprise ‘snatch squads’ grabbed protestors who were masked or were perceived to be getting too close to the delegates. But the threat of mass arrests never materialized, and police violence was somewhat subdued by post-9/11 standards. Following the pre-emptive arrest of more than 30 protestors around the biotech protest in St. Louis a month earlier, activist lawyers wrote to city officials threatening legal consequences if this was attempted here; this proactive legal intervention on behalf of the activists’ free speech rights appeared to make a real difference.

As the standoff continued, people learned that there was a lockdown at a midtown community garden, the Mandella Garden, which had been shut down by the city several months earlier, and designated as the site of a new upscale housing development. For over 30 years, Mandella was the city’s only organic garden, a rare green space within reach of smoggy downtown Sacramento. The garden had been a site of community struggle for over a decade; after exhausting every legal avenue to save their garden, residents decided it was time to take direct action, and that during the USDA ministerial would be the opportune moment.

Amidst fig and plum trees, and overgrown vegetable beds that had not been available for cultivation this season, about a dozen local activists locked down around a large apricot tree, refusing to move until they were able to reclaim their garden. Others had taken down a section of fence and begun cultivating and mulching the recently abandoned vegetable beds. The aim was to highlight local alternatives to genetically engineered agribusiness as forcefully as demonstrators confronted the inequities of capitalist agribusiness. Activists marched from the convention center to the garden site, gathered there briefly, and for the most part headed back downtown for further confrontations with the police and official delegates. “The WTO is downtown; what the fuck are we doing here?” a black bloc couple cried out. However the standoff around the garden continued late into the night and was a focus of local news coverage as the activists were sawed out of their lock boxes surrounded by hundreds of riot police, and a crowd of supporters continued chanting and drumming well past midnight.

Festival of Resistance

Monday’s rally and parade was a true festival of resistance to biotechnology, industrial agriculture, globalization and empire. There were billowing felt tomato costumes, foam rubber trees, chefs wielding giant cooking utensils and UC Davis students’ “Beneficial Bug Brigade.” The San Francisco Bay Area contributed its renowned Brass Liberation Orchestra to the entire weekend’s events, and the Pagan Cluster brought its Living River, a feature of many protests around the country over the past year. Banners highlighted the phenomenal diversity of various sectors of the movement that had come to converge in Sacramento. Many focused on the particular threats of GE agriculture to public health, the environment and the survival of family farms, but there was an equal focus on issues of corporate control, unjust trade agreements, the imperious outlook of the Bush administration, and the overarching demand for global justice. Antiwar affinity groups, Central America solidarity campaigners, forest activists and countless others all contributed to a wonderfully festive early afternoon on the streets of Sacramento.

The crowd grew steadily throughout the noontime rally, which featured local music and performance poetry, as well as movement luminaries such as Dolores Huerta of the United Farm Workers, Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser (whose legal defense against Monsanto will be heard next year by the Canadian Supreme Court), and Anuradha Mittal of Food First. Bill Camp, the local Central Labor Council spokesman, proclaimed his solidarity, and several of the international guests who had presented on Saturday told their stories. “We’ve been farming for generations and generations,” explained Vermont organic farmer, biotech organizer, and Central America activist S’ra deSantis. “We can decide what we want to grow, how we want to farm, and what we want to eat. We don’t need multinational companies or capitalism to tell us what to do!” By the time the crowd fanned out on the streets surrounding the state capitol, there were thousands of people present: the San Jose Mercury estimated 4,000 and there could easily have been a thousand or two more than that. The afternoon’s march went on for blocks and blocks, past heavily guarded state buildings and through a residential neighborhood. As soon as it ended, skirmishes with the police resumed where they had left off the previous evening.

While USDA secretary Anne Veneman was hosting the official opening session inside the convention center, a group of farmers held a ribbon-cutting ceremony of their own and dumped a bag of genetically engineered corn seed outside one of the local hotels. Iowa farmer George Naylor of the National Family Farm Coalition highlighted the ways that the USDA and industry-fronted “farmer” organizations claim to speak for farmers, but in reality only represent their corporate sponsors. He and others exposed the lie behind Veneman and Bush’s claims that they are promoting GMOs and challenging the European Union at the WTO in order to protect the interests of US farmers.

On Tuesday, while street actions continued around the Sacramento Convention Center and the Organic Consumers Association rallied around a local Safeway supermarket, forest activists traveled to the UC campus in Davis. The Davis-based “Dendrome” project seeks to map the genetics of major commercial tree species, setting the stage for more aggressive research on tree genetic engineering. Three experienced climbers from the Pacific Northwest entered the campus Life Sciences building and suspended themselves by ropes from a two-story-high DNA sculpture in the building’s lobby. They stayed there for several hours while reporters snapped photos and several dozen supporters gathered outside, demanding an end to GE tree research—and all corporate-funded biotech research—at the University of California. Meanwhile, police in Sacramento, anxious after 3 days to test some of their new toys, started using electric ‘tasers’ to force protestors away from the Convention Center.

Framing the Debate

Predictably, the official response to the protests was to deny that the Sacramento ministerial conference had anything to do with the WTO or genetic engineering. Anne Veneman and others insisted that their event had a very broad focus on improving agricultural methods, including such benign techniques as crop rotation and improved water management. When reporters asked about the WTO dispute with the EU, Veneman would insist with some chagrin that the timing of the Ministerial had nothing to do with it. But every time the press ventured in to cover the proceedings, the focus was on biotechnology. European delegates were almost entirely absent, and many delegates from the global South skipped out on some of the proceedings to tour local organic and sustainable agriculture efforts. A Monday night debate in a downtown movie theater featured speakers from both sides, though the crowd appeared to largely consist of people who had come to Sacramento to take part in the protests.

While the California press treated Sacramento mostly as a genetic engineering protest, many of the overarching issues came through in the media coverage. Front page stories in papers throughout the state explained—many for the first time—that people in Africa and around the world simply don’t accept the myth that technology will ‘solve’ hunger, which instead is largely a problem of poverty, maldistribution and corporate control. Sacramento confirmed what some biotech activists have been saying for some time—that opposing genetic engineering is fundamentally a global justice issue, and that biotechnology is the means by which global corporations and the institutions of ‘free trade’ are imposing their control over our food and our health, two of the most basic human needs.

The Sacramento mobilization was a tremendous success in many ways—biotech and global justice activists were united with the UFW and other unions, local co-ops, students, antiwar activists, and the 130 organizations who endorsed the mobilization effort. Coalitions were built. Links were forged. And for the first time in recent memory, a major mobilization effort targeted a summit that was less hyped and claimed the political space to reframe the story. The organizers, not the officials, named this summit as part of the WTO, FTAA, and CAFTA (Central America Free Trade Agreement) processes. We revealed it as a corporate tradeshow, sponsored by the feds to build support for the WTO Agreement on Agriculture and their trade dispute over biotech, and placed it as a key domino on the push toward toppling Empire. Sacramento set a hopeful tone for the resurgence of global justice activism on the road to Cancun, and to the next Summit of the Americas, scheduled for Miami this November. In California, various groups are already discussing plans for next June, when the Biotechnology Industry Organization is bringing its annual convention to San Francisco; organizers are confident that Sacramento helped set the stage for the biotech executives to receive a very loud and public welcome.
Brian Tokar is the editor of Redesigning Life The Worldwide Challenge to Genetic Engineering (Zed Books 2001), and he and Doyle Canning coordinate the Institute for Social Ecology’s Biotechnology Project (