Pesticide Action Network Updates Service (PANUPS)
Mass Protests Against Industrial Ag in Sacramento
This week, people dressed as corn and killer tomatoes faced off against riot police on the streets of Sacramento, California. Meanwhile, in the air conditioned Sacramento Convention Center, agricultural ministers and delegations from 115 nations around the world attended the U.S. government-sponsored Ministerial Convention and Expo on Agricultural Technology from June 23-25. The public was not invited to the Ministerial, but from the look of the news headlines, they crashed the party.
The convergence of protestors, a broad coalition of local and international organizations and direct action activists concerned about food and agriculture, attracted swarms of media to hear their critique of genetically engineered (GE) crops, pesticides and other aspects of the corporate food system, and new free trade and investor rights agreements that further the industrial model of food.
The aim of the meeting, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), was to apply new agricultural technologies–particularly GE crops–to the problem of world hunger. Mass protests outside the meeting, however, suggest that many saw it as an attempt to further the corporate food agenda and to lobby ministers regarding trade issues.
The Sacramento Bee summarized, on the front page, “Protestors contend the meeting is not about ending hunger, but rather is a stage for the United States to push its agenda on other countries, an agenda that promotes big-business interests and technology, specifically the genetic engineering of crops.”
Educational events began before the ministerial officially started with a teach-in at California State University Sacramento, attracting overflow crowds to hear speakers from the Third World and other analysts of food, trade and corporate power. During the event, PANNA released a call for protest in Sacramento from more than 150 Third World organizations, representing hundreds of thousands of people. The statement read, “This summit will promote industrial models of agriculture that enrich transnational agribusiness interests while undermining the food security, and food sovereignty of peoples of the global south.” The teach-in was organized by the Institute for Social Ecology, Public Citizen, PANNA and others.
On Monday, June 23, 2003 a permitted rally and march convened on the steps of the Capitol. More than 3000 people marched through the leafy streets of Sacramento, led by a contingent of labor organizations. Drums rattled, “Killer Tomatoes” chanted in unison, and a chef from the world class Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse waved a giant whisk and threatened, “We’re here to whip the lies of big agribusiness.”
A series of rolling street blockades and other non-violent civil disobedience erupted on Sacramento streets throughout the days of the Ministerial. Whimsical street actions attracted attention, such as a “dump” of genetically engineered corn at a press conference held by the National Family Farm Coalition and a “Dr. Monsanto genetically altered vs. organic dog food taste test” hosted by the Organic Consumers Association. The city of Sacramento estimates US$750,000 was spent on policing the Ministerial; the figure spent by the California Highway Patrol tops one million dollars. In all, approximately 40 people were arrested.
A debate organized by PANNA and Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy drew about 1000 attendees, despite a phalanx of police lining the street outside the venue. Panel members from developing countries faced off with a USDA official, the director general of Crop Life International and a pro-biotech spokeswoman from the University of California. One biotech proponent said, “The real issue is not biotechnology; the real issue is starvation.” Earlier, Timothy Byakola from PAN Africa, had responded to that argument with an example from Uganda. “The problem in Uganda isn’t production, it’s distribution. Western Uganda is very fertile and very wet and produces a tremendous surplus of crops. But our roads are horrible; we have no infrastructure, so we can’t move that food around.”
George Naylor, from the National Family Farm Coalition asked the USDA representative why farmers growing GE crops weren’t required by the government to leave buffer zones. Naylor complained that he has lost 65% of his fields to buffers protecting his crop from Bt corn.
The protests and educational events highlighted the trend of diverse groups focusing on issues such as food safety and sovereignty, sustainable farming, pesticide reform, labor rights, public participation, globalization and corporate power, to join forces to contest exclusionary international meetings and institutions. Their message is bound to be repeated this September during the World Trade Organization Ministerial meeting in Cancun and beyond. These groups argue that the growing international framework of new trade and investment rules affects everyone. As one marcher said to the legions of police lining the march, “Get off your horses and join us. Its your food too.”
Sources: Massive Protest Roils Downtown, Sacramento Bee June 23, 2003; Expo a Crossroad of Ideas, 1000 Pack Theater for Public Debate on Biotechnology, Sacramento Bee, June 24, 2003; Ag Conference Leaves Sacramento with Tab, Editorial, Sacramento Bee, June 27, 2003; Biotech Meeting Takes Aim at Hunger, San Francisco Chronicle, June 25, 2003; Agriculture Secretary Pushes New Crops, San Francisco Chronicle, June 24, 2003; PANNA Press Release, June 20, 2003.
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