Report from Toronto, June 2002


Biojustice events raise new issues, strategies, alliances

Over 2500 people gathered in Toronto’s Grange Park on Sunday, June 9th in the climax of this year’s bioJUSTICE/bioDIVERSITY events protesting the annual convention of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO). Sunday’s festive bioDIVERSITY picnic featured an appearance by author and TV host David Suzuki, along with many other local and international speakers and performers, as well as exhibits by over 50 community groups, NGOs and natural food companies. Toronto’s Big Carrot, the first large urban natural food store in North America to adopt a fully non-GMO policy, served a free organic lunch to over 1500 people.

The picnic followed a 2-day teach-in in Toronto, where international and local guests spoke to packed houses at the downtown St. Lawrence Centre and the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE). The event was hosted by the Polaris Institute, Council of Canadians, BIOdevastation Toronto Coalition and the Vermont-based Institute for Social Ecology. Friday evening’s keynote event featured physicist, author and activist Vandana Shiva from India, Debra Harry of the indigenous Paiute nation, disability activist and biochemist Gregor Wolbring of Calgary, and Nancy Olivieri of Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. Dr. Olivieri made headlines across Canada when the pharmaceutical company Apotex tried to have her fired for disclosing side effects of an experimental thalassemia drug to her patients.

This past weekend’s events-the sixth in a series of international grassroots gatherings on genetic engineering and the fourth to coincide with the annual BIO convention-significantly broadened the scope of activist critiques of biotechnology. One of Saturday’s 13 workshops at OISE featured Dr. Olivieri, Colleen Fuller of the Society for Diabetic Rights, and former Health Canada physician Michelle Brill-Edwards of the Alliance for Public Accountability. Fuller has been in the forefront of exposing the truth about Eli Lilly and Novo Nordisk’s genetically engineered “human insulin,” which is produced by GE bacteria and has largely replaced animal derived insulin despite an increased incidence of serious side effects.

Dr. Brill-Edwards, who quit Health Canada to protest corporate influence over drug approvals, explained the biotech industry’s increasing dominance over medical research agendas, saying, “You can’t become a successful researcher anywhere in the world unless you are acceptable to this industry.” She suggested that for every case like Dr. Olivieri’s, there may easily be 1000 cases where physicians give in to drug company pressure.

Other workshops addressed issues of disability and the “tyranny of normal” heightened by new human genetic technologies; campaign strategies against GE foods; public policy, ethics, animal rights, farm issues, and the links to struggles against corporate globalism, among other topics.

Saturday evening’s panel introduced the growing concerns over the biotechnology industry’s involvement in preparations for biological warfare, particularly in the United States. Jan van Aken of the international Sushine Project described the history and current reality of U.S. involvement in offensive, as well as defensive, biowarfare research. Prof. Mark Wheelis of the University of California explained how recent innovations in genomics, proteonomics and new technologies of drug identification are dramatically expanding the scope of potential biowarfare agents, far beyond what can be defended against by technological means. Brian Tokar of the Institute for Social Ecology in Vermont described the roots of chemical agriculture in warfare and demonstrated how wartime research was responsible for the rise of each of today’s leading agrochemical/food biotech companies.

In his presentation at Sunday’s picnic, David Suzuki acknowledged the tremendous power of today’s biotechnology-based research methods, but warned that it is “far too soon” for new discoveries to be commercialized as food or medicines. Uncertainty is at the core of meaningful science, he explained, and in a fast-moving field like molecular biology, today’s accepted paradigms will inevitably become tomorrow’s embarrassments. Thus, the aura of precision and predictability claimed by biotech advocates is completely at odds with honest, scientific practice. The day’s speakers also included Canadian author/activist Brewster Kneen, Debbie Field of Toronto’s Food Share, Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association in the U.S., Brian Tokar and Debra Harry. Music was provided by folksingers Sara Marlowe and David Rovics, the Jeff Woods Band and the renowned reggae ensemble Woman ah Run Tings, among others.

The involvement of a wide array of Toronto area community groups, such as Food Share and Low Income Families Together marked a new stage in the development of the Biojustice movement in Canada and across North America. At Monday’s meeting of the Canadian Gene Allies network, participants from international NGOs, the natural food industry and local community groups agreed upon a comprehensive new approach to pressuring both government and industry to halt the expansion of genetically engineered agriculture in Canada, work with food companies to expand the availability of GE-free products, and develop a more cohesive and unified international activist network.

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