Inside the global dome

As Sacramento rolls out the red carpet for a ‘global food security’ summit, protesters from around the country are laying plans of their own

On June 23, ministers of trade, agriculture and health from more than 100 countries will descend on the Sacramento Convention Center for the first-ever international Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology.

Much will be at stake, both for the assembled policymakers—whose decisions could affect the health of generations and the expenditure of trillions of dollars—and for the many protesters who are expected to converge on the city for the first World Trade Organization-related meeting in North America since 1999’s confrontational Seattle Ministerial Conference. (That event resulted in hundreds of protester arrests, clashes in which police used tear gas and rubber bullets, and ultimately a curfew that shut down the city.)

The stated purpose of this three-day event is “to support the United States’ commitment to global food security” or, as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture (and former secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture) Ann Veneman said when announcing the event last June, “to focus on the needs of developing countries in adopting new food and agricultural technologies.”

Sounds noble. But it’s complicated, and some of its potential ramifications are downright scary, from approving the widespread use of irradiated foods to promoting Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).

Outside the Sacramento Convention Center, protesters from Sacramento and all around the country who answer calls to action e-mailed by leading activist groups will converge to oppose ministerial recommendations the activists believe will be approved on behalf of corporations seeking support for irradiation and GMO programs during the invitation-only, high-security meetings.

Protesters’ primary concern: Leaders at the event will rubber-stamp flawed and expensive U.S.-boosted biotech and agribusiness policies—and trillions in annual subsidies that support them—while ignoring proven alternatives that support small farmers and sustainable agriculture.

The only thing the two sides agree on is that the meeting is of pivotal importance.

“This is historic, something we’ve never done,” said Christian Foster, conference coordinator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which is sponsoring the event with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Department of State at a cost of $3 million.

“Ministers will be able to meet others here and go home and prioritize their own policies—set up public-private partnerships. The dialogue that will occur here, the information that can be gleaned, will allow countries to learn from the experiences of others—maybe leapfrog some tech evolution thanks to gains made by others. The key point is that we’re committed to eliminating famine and helping everyone lead healthier lives thanks to these new technologies.”

But Raj Patel, policy director for the nonprofit group Food First, insists the conference’s potential benefits are undermined by a predetermined outcome.

“The sponsors’ motives are transparent,” said Patel, noting that the conference coincides with a Bush-administration lawsuit against the city of Brussels and the European Union for refusing to import American-grown biotech crops because of what the administration calls “unfounded, unscientific fears.” The president also used the lawsuit announcement to accuse European leaders of perpetrating world hunger.

Patel pointed out that the ministerial conference’s featured speakers include invited reps from BASF, Cargill Dow, Coca-Cola, Dow AgroSciences, Kraft, Monsanto (for whom Veneman previously worked as an attorney), SureBeam Corp. and the World Bank.

“This meeting is corporation-driven,” he said. “There’s no democracy allowed, no one can present alternative views. Only agribusiness interests are acceptable; only the people who support GMOs are allowed to decide what we should eat. Meanwhile, people outside on the streets of Sacramento are hungry. That’s both the irony of and the evidence against this ministerial. The U.S. is pushing a model on the world that doesn’t even work here at home. We pay $1.3 trillion a year in agribusiness subsidies, but 35 million households are still food-insecure. That’s what this conference should address, but it’s designed to support policies that doom its stated goals.”

Heidi McLean of the Sacramento Coalition for Sustainable Agriculture agrees.

“This will be a nonviolent, educational three days,” she said, “but we’ll get the message out that this is a U.S.-sponsored summit, that the subsidies the government promises don’t reach the farmer and that the rest of the world’s skepticism about American policy says a lot. It’s a conscious choice by the USDA that any scientists who are worried about the consequences of GMOs and are supportive of sustainable ag are excluded from the process.”

Sustainable-agriculture advocate Heidi McLean plans to get her message out during the summit.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Upping the ante is the fact that ministers from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe will discuss the future of international food, health, environment and technology in anticipation of the World Trade Organization’s September globalization summit in Cancun, Mexico. Decisions made during the series of behind-closed-doors plenary sessions, technical “breakout sessions” and targeted field tours will be the basis for decisions approved by World Trade Organization (WTO) members on several pivotal and far-reaching issues.

The WTO specter hangs heavy over the ministerial conference. Although protest organizers stress that the conference is not directly a WTO-sponsored event and that their goals are education and nonviolence, the conference is the biggest WTO-related meeting on the continent since the Seattle Ministerial Conference.

“The WTO is not coming to town, but we’re seeing WTO-style politics,” said Doyle Canning of the Institute for Social Ecology’s Biotechnology Project. “There’s been a response among West Coat activists unlike anything since Seattle. They’re very excited about being able to speak out against the U.S. taking such a negative lead role on food, health and safety.”

But groups such as the Oakland-based Ruckus Society are planning acts of civil disobedience (see accompanying box for listings of protest events). In anticipation of any possible Seattle-like uprisings—and to protect against any terror attacks, with so many dignitaries being in one location—Sacramento police have worked for a year with more than a dozen law-enforcement agencies, from the FBI and Department of Justice to the California National Guard and state Office of Emergency Services.

“We’ve been preparing for a long time, and, as the state capital, our officers were already familiar with the procedure,” said Sacramento Police Sgt. Justin Risley. “I can’t go into too many details because of the security factor, but we’ll have a one-block safety zone surrounding the convention center, with streets blocked off and identification required to enter that zone. We always plan for a worst-case scenario, and we have seen some new faces in town already. But we hope that if people choose to protest, they do so responsibly and within the law. If not, they will face severe consequences.”

Potential WTO-inspired clashes aside, this is an important event for organizers working in the American protest movement; it’s the first big test of their mobilization strategies following the huge anti-Iraq-war demonstrations.

Can organizers overcome “protest fatigue” and get people out this time? Can they convey their message on an issue that’s much more complicated than “No Blood for Oil”?

McLean, of the Sacramento Coalition for Sustainable Agriculture, said response thus far has been more than reassuring: “I’ve been working on trade issues since [the North American Free Trade Agreement], and what’s interesting about the people who’ve joined this coalition is that, when I get there, I don’t know maybe 80 percent of them. We’ve seen church groups for the first time, suburban moms, students. This issue seems to resonate in different ways than others, and I think a lot has to do with it being so fundamental. We’re talking about what you eat and what your kids eat.”

So, the stage is set for a Sacramento showdown over what some see as opportunity and what others see as opportunity corrupted.

In June 2002 at the World Food Summit in Rome, Secretary of Agriculture Veneman announced that the United States would host a ministerial event focusing on an agenda that, in partnership with corporate sponsors and developing countries, would reduce hunger by increasing agricultural productivity, ending famine and improving global nutrition. She invited representatives from all 180 WTO countries, with the conference designed to “broaden participants’ knowledge and understanding of relevant science and technology, including biotechnology, and enhance access to new technologies through public-private partnerships.”

Next week, Veneman will open the conference with an address on the theme “How science and technology, in a supportive policy environment, can drive agricultural productivity increases and economic growth to alleviate world hunger and poverty.”

Proponents see promise; opponents see peril.

The menu of sessions ministers may attend includes:

• Public-Private Partnerships to Improve Market Infrastructure and Agribusiness Linkages

• Science-Based Solutions for Increasing Agricultural Productivity

University of California, Davis, professors Judith Kjelstrom and Dan Sumner are optimistic about the ministerial conference.

Photo By Larry Dalton

• Fighting Hunger and Increasing Incomes with Biotechnology

• Technologies to Improve Food Safety and Nutrition

• Enhancing the Competitiveness of Horticultural Crops and Products

• Technologies to Advance Animal Health and Livestock Product Safety

Those sound pretty tech-ominous, and critics contend that conference organizers have been deceptive and have downplayed threats posed by controversial processes, such as using GMOs and irradiating food, that are being pushed on foreign ministers.

The controversy over food irradiation has been the most publicized, since the first “X-ray irradiator” in Hilo, Hawaii, was used to “ensure microbiological safety” of fruit. Since then, more than 70 irradiation facilities nationwide have placed products on the shelves of 3,000 supermarkets in the United States (including chains such as Safeway and Albertsons), and more than 20 countries currently allow the sale of irradiated meats and produce. On May 30, the USDA lifted its prohibition against schools serving irradiated hamburgers.

“Protecting the public from food-borne illness is a priority,” said Elsa Murano, the USDA’s undersecretary for food safety, who confirmed that the federal government has contracted to buy 132 million pounds of ground beef for school lunch programs this year, making it the largest potential distributor of irradiated food in the world. “Irradiation technology is another tool to enhance food safety.”

But critics worry about the health ramifications for the 27 million students enrolled in the national school lunch program whose schools will have the option of ordering meat decontaminated with gamma rays, X-rays or electrons as early as next January. The USDA is leaving it up to schools to determine whether and how to inform parents and students of the type of meat served in school lunches.

“There has been no group of people who has consumed irradiated food over a long period of time,” said Arthur Jaeger, associate director of the Consumer Federation of America. “We have said all along that we don’t think school kids are the place to start serving irradiated ground beef.”

The conference nonetheless supports food irradiation and the sale of food enhanced with GMOs, which are the result of moving genes within or between species. Critics contend that manipulated animals, vegetables and grains pose long-term health and environmental threats that greatly outweigh any productivity advantages or the increased profits that genetic shortcuts provide corporate farmers.

GMO proponents charge that environmental groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are standing in the way of scientific advances that could help meet the food needs of 1.3 billion people who live on less than a dollar a day.

“It’s what’s putting the brakes on further development of the technology in developing countries,” said C.S. Prakash, director of the Center for Plant Biotechnology Research at Tuskegee University in Alabama. “This is a protest industry whose main product is fear.”

But critics of GMOs point to a lack of long-term research and testing and say GMO-developed food was rushed to shelves with the support of a USDA that favors agribusiness over consumer health.

Such critics note that countries such as the world’s No. 1 rice-exporting nation, Thailand, have banned GMOs because of safety concerns and that a Royal Society of Canada report found that current global governmental-approval procedures for GMOs are “totally inadequate to guarantee health and environmental safety.”

Critics say the USDA’s pro-GMO priorities are reflected in the conference’s agenda, which they claim is stacked to support corporate bottom lines. They point to the fact that conference organizers have largely excluded esteemed institutions such as the University of California, Davis, a cutting-edge world leader in agricultural research and technology. Organizers originally invoked the university’s reputation to justify bringing the conference to Sacramento, but they’ve largely snubbed the university since. Only one professor, Davis-based director of the University of California’s system-wide Biotechnology Research and Education Program, Martina Newell-McGloughlin, was invited to be a panel moderator.

UC Davis’ Janet Broome says people want to know what they’re eating.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Since then, most UC Davis professors have worked hard to conceal disappointment about not being more prominently utilized.

Judith Kjelstrom is acting director of UC Davis’ biotechnology program. When asked what her thoughts about the conference’s agenda were, she initially said, “I can’t tell you a lot because there’s not a lot of open discussion about it.” She later said, “to be able to share exciting research, to build lasting partnerships, to realize it’s not best to say, ‘We have all the answers; take them’—that’s what I’m looking forward to.” Kjelstrom added that her department has bought space in the expo in order to be part of the event.

Dan Sumner, a UC Davis faculty member and former USDA assistant secretary who’s now director of the University of California Agricultural Issues Center, chose his words carefully in praising the ministerial conference’s agenda. “Nothing is more important than battling hunger, and there are so many poor people relying on farming as their livelihood,” he said. “This conference gives us a chance to see what these politicians—and these ministers are politicians, that’s what they are—can do. But I’m very optimistic. If we can get a commitment from governments throughout the world out of this to help rural people, for governments to honestly re-appreciate that importance, it would be great.”

Other UC Davis faculty members have been less guarded in their criticism.

“There needs to be greater respect and less ramming down the throat on these policies, and that includes at the ministerial,” said Janet Broome, associate director of the University of California’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program. “There is a recognition that there’s a need for biotech—it can serve a purpose, be a benefit—but not at the expense of organic farming, not when GMOs are used without regulation, not when they can put food on shelves without warning labels. People want to know what they’re eating, and the agenda of the ministerial doesn’t acknowledge that. It’s about food product that supports corporate profits.”

UC Davis experts weren’t the only ones excluded. Not a single representative from the Environmental Protection Agency was invited, despite the profound and lasting environmental ramifications of policies being discussed. (Calls to the EPA for comment were not returned.)

Conference organizers vehemently defend what they see as the inclusiveness of their event.

“We’re in no way opposed to differing viewpoints. Everyone should be able to express themselves, as long as it’s in a legal way,” said the USDA’s Christian Foster, noting that journalists have been invited to attend. “One issue in bringing people together is that you can only fit so many people in a room. But we’ve made it a big point to allow speakers from non-governmental organizations and anyone else tied in with the theme of science and technology, to be able to buy space in our expo.”

What Foster sees as the expo’s egalitarian opportunities, however, critics see as corporate elitism and, because of financial limitations, another form of de facto exclusion.

The expo will operate within the convention center but outside the actual conference, with companies and organizations able to rent booths to hawk their products, services and political messages—if they can afford it. Despite conference coordinators’ claims to the contrary, the $3,000-plus basic rate prices out most activist groups, smaller companies and non-governmental organizations. Even UC Davis’ ag school—forced to buy a booth to have a voice—had a hard time raising the money.

Government agencies such as the USDA and USAID, of course, have prime expo space. But corporate access doesn’t come cheap if a company wants to sponsor any part of the conference or expo. For $50,000, a corporation can sponsor the opening night’s reception. Other sponsorships include the expo’s center stage for $40,000 and “delegate expo bags” for $25,000. In addition to other privileges, sponsorship ensures that the company’s logo will be displayed prominently throughout the three days.

No estimate of how much farm equipment 50 grand could buy a family in Somalia.

Canning, of the nonprofit Institute for Social Ecology’s Biotechnology Project, stresses that critics of the ministerial conference can turn their frustration into momentum as they prepare for several upcoming international meetings during which their causes will be debated.

“This is a strategic moment for social movements to stop further trade liberalization, the implementation of new trade agreements inside the WTO, the implementation of a new round of trade agreements including the Free Trade Area of the Americas and Central American Free Trade Agreement,” he said. “Most important, the Sacramento ministerial is a key preparation time for both the September WTO in Cancun and November’s Summit of the Americas in Miami.”

Locally, protest organizers have enlisted a little star power of their own on the inside: Berkeley organic-cooking guru Alice Waters of the legendary Chez Panisse will cater a dinner for the ministers.

“But it’s most encouraging that more mainstream people, plain old moms and kids going to school, are turning out,” said McLean, of the Sacramento Coalition for Sustainable Agriculture. She has been touring Sacramento-area schools to talk with students about the hunger crisis and possible solutions.

“I asked what they thought the root cause of the problem was, and they said it was because decisions were being made because of money,” she said. “They understood without me saying a word that subsidies never reach small farmers, and they also questioned the unfairness of the U.S. not allowing countries to import here while we insist we export to them. They get it—that food and hunger right now is all about big politics and money, not health or family or environment. The kids prove every time that we share the same hope. I’d like to think the ministerial folks would be with us.”