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The "First Grassroots Gathering on Biodevastation: Genetic Engineering" was held July 17-19, 1998 at Fontbonne College in St. Louis, Missouri. The gathering brought together 250 farmers, environmentalists, scientists, journalists and Green Party members. It marked the beginning of a citizen-led, organized resistance to biodevastation, genetically engineered foods and corporate control of the world food supply. Three days of panel discussions and workshops focused on all aspects of these critical issues and included the following topics: ethical and legal issues, the right to know, media censorship, genetic discrimination, patent issues, threats to biodiversity, bioprospecting and citizen organizing.
Attendees came from across the United States and from several other countries including Canada, Great Britain, Ireland, Uruguay, Mexico, India and Japan. The Japanese delegation was particularly impressive. They sent more than 20 representatives to the conference and their group included two interpreters who provided simultaneous translation between English and Japanese.
One of the highlights of the event was an electrifying speech by the Indian physicist, Vandana Shiva, author of Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge. Shiva rejects the idea of patents on life forms. She compared this idea to claims by European colonizers that the "undiscovered" lands of the New World were "empty." She also pointed out that the devastation wrought on the agricultural areas of India has led to the suicides of over 3,000 farmers in the past year. Hundreds of tractors from bankrupt Indian farms are sitting abandoned, waiting to be scrapped and recycled, while consumers are paying twice as much for food and farmers are paying twice as much for agricultural inputs. She advised that Monsanto and companies who engage in biopiracy should be taken off ethical investment lists.
Shiva pointed out that 60-70% of the world's food is still grown on small farms by women. A 10,000-year-old system of traditional agriculture has been targeted for destruction by giant corporate agribusiness. This is "biodevastation." Shiva stated, "The phenomenon that had not been named, has been named, and having been named, it becomes that much easier for people to relate to."
Another highlight of the weekend gathering was a lively demonstration at Monsanto World Headquarters in suburban St. Louis County. Conference participants clad with anti-Monsanto posters were not the only demonstrators who weathered the sultry 95-degree heat. Two 12-foot tall farmer puppets, a 7-foot genetically altered tomato-fish and several street-theater performers also accompanied the group. Many passing motorists indicated their solidarity of spirit by honking and waving their approval.
A number of the conference delegates have been ridiculed or dismissed by their employers for their refusal to compromise their ethical beliefs regarding genetically engineered foods. Journalists, scientists and educators have been fired, blacklisted or otherwise banned from their chosen professions. Journalists Steve Wilson and Jane Akre were fired after refusing an offer of $200,000 from Fox Television which was intended to buy their silence around the issue of injecting cattle with bovine growth hormone for increased milk production.
The task before these activists in the United States is monumental. Ronnie Cummins, Director of the Pure Food Campaign, announced his goal of organizing 5,000 anti-GE activists in each of the 435 congressional districts in the nation.
US citizens are late in coming to this battle. Bovine growth hormone has already been banned in most of Europe. 1.2 million Austrians voted against genetically engineered foods. Farmers and consumers in Ireland and Great Britain have repeatedly destroyed GE crops and some have been arrested. Vandana Shiva echoed the frustration of the world community in her words: "I've been waiting for years for some kind of organized response from this country. We all have been waiting."
Archived conference announcement on the web: