SAN DIEGO — Launching a week’s worth of protests tied to a biotechnology convention, activists entered a supermarket Thursday and slapped warning labels on shelves they say were filled with foods made with genetically-engineered crops.
“People don’t know they are eating this stuff,” said Ama Marston, 26, of San Francisco, before placing a yellow warning label below boxes of Frosted Flakes. The label warned fans of Tony the Tiger: “Genetically Engineered Food – Hazardous for kids, health and the environment.”
Across town, San Diego Mayor Dick Murphy joined a number biotech executives to praise an industry that saves lives – kicking off the BIO 2001 convention, which officially begins Sunday.
“Biotechnology is a big word for hope,” said BIO President Carl Feldbaum.
The two events about an hour apart amounted to a long-distance debate over an industry taking center stage next week when 15,000 people and thousands of protesters are expected to converge on the San Diego Convention Center.
The convention will be a showcase for an industry that claims to benefit humanity with new cures for diseases and medicines that ease the suffering of millions. Outside, thousands of protesters are planning marches, demonstrations and other colorful, telegenic actions to drive home the message that biotech firms are introducing potentially harmful, genetically engineered products into homes and farms, placing profits above people.
Police plan a major presence throughout downtown.
There have been mounting fears that the protests may turn violent, but Thursday’s half-hour event at the Albertson’s supermarket was peaceful. The dozen or so activists were careful to avoid defacing merchandise, labeling only the shelves. They left the store moments before police arrived.
No arrests were made. Supermarket employees told police they would not press charges.
Montie Robinson happened to be shopping with his mother for his favorite cereal, Frosted Flakes at the moment the Greenpeace activists were busy attaching labels, with a gaggle of reporters watching.
“I don’t know what’s in all our food,” he said. “No one is telling me whether I should eat it.”
At the mayor’s conference, four people with life-threatening diseases stepped forward to say that treatments pioneered by the biotech industry helped save their lives.
Larry Kincaid, an attorney from East San Diego County, said he is living with a rare form of non-Hodgkins lymphoma with the help of a drug produced by Ligand Pharmaceutical Co.
“A year ago I was planning my funeral. Now, I’m looking forward to retiring and spending time with my grandchildren,” Kincaid said.
“This kind of technology gives us a future. It gives our children a future.”
The three others were an AIDS survivor taking a drug discovered by a pharmaceutical company, a man with lupus who is participating in a clinical trial and a breast cancer survivor who showed her support for firms pioneering new cancer therapies.
“They are why this conference is important – not just to San Diegans but to people around the world,” Murphy said.
Protesters are holding their own convention, called Beyond Biodevastation 2001, beginning Friday. Organizers have issued pledges promising all events will follow a strict code of non-violence.
Police, however, aren’t taken any chances. Officers have been training for months to deal with protesters who plan on being disruptive or violent. The biggest concerns are the so-called “black blocs” of masked anarchists who brought mayhem to the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle and other areas.
“There will be the heaviest presence of blue uniforms in downtown San Diego that this city has seen in some time,” said police spokesman David Cohen. He declined to provide specifics on weapons or tactics.
As many as 4,000 demonstrators, many from the West Coast, converged on the industry’s conference last year in Boston. San Diego police expect the crowd to be much larger this year.
Officers will move quickly to arrest any demonstrators who block intersections and violate laws and get them off the streets for the duration of the convention, which ends Wednesday.
“We will be very aggressive,” Cohen said. “Our goal is to not let it become a Seattle.”