Agriculture ministers from more than 100 nations
convene in Sacramento today for what U.S. officials call a good-faith gathering to show off high- tech farming advances that they say could reduce hunger in developing countries.
But critics contend that the three-day Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agriculture Science and Technology sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture is merely a cover for the United States to strong-arm smaller nations into lowering trade barriers to genetically modified products made by American biotechnology interests. The big winners, critics say, would be large corporate farmers.
That belief is drawing thousands of activists to Sacramento, a coalition that includes family farmers, consumer advocates, anti-globalization demonstrators, and high-end restaurateurs like Alice Waters of Berkeley's Chez Panisse.
The activists will shadow the conference with a schedule of counter-events such as eco-farm tours. On Sunday, hundreds of protesters marched through the streets surrounding the downtown Sacramento Convention Center where the conference is being held.
While the conference is loaded with highly technical seminars, its subtext is filled with international political disputes, contentious scientific debate and -- in a nod to San Francisco foodies heading there -- the desire for juicy tomatoes.
According to some critics of genetically modified foods, the lobbying done in Sacramento will grease the pan for the World Trade Organization conference to be held in September, in Cancun, Mexico, where farm trade will be a hot topic.
The Sacramento meeting is "more of a brainwashing and arm-twisting conference than anything," said Peter Rosset, co-director of The Institute for Food and Development Policy, a 28-year-old Oakland think tank better known as Food First.
Citing the $3 million that three federal agencies paid to host the conference, Rosset said, "It's basically a taxpayer-supported conference for the biotechnology industry, which is hurting now."
Helping Poor Countries
But U.S. officials say activists are misrepresenting the conference because nothing binding will be decided there, and it has nothing to do with the Cancun event.
Besides, say U.S. officials, delegates will hear about many crop-enhancing technologies, like water resource management, that could help poor countries. They point to Uganda, where improved technologies helped boost maize yields 46 percent between 1996 and 2001.
"It's hard for me to understand how activists and protesters can be against something that can provide people with more food," said J.B. Penn, undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "There are 800 million people in the world who don't have enough to eat. This is a good-faith effort to address that. It isn't about strong-arming."
In Northern California, one of the nation's hubs of organic agriculture, many organic and small farmers will trek to Sacramento, along with Waters, their patron saint. They're worried because of a trade dispute between the U.S and the European Union. U.S. officials filed a complaint at the WTO last month to force Europe to loosen its restrictions on genetically-modified organisms, or GMOs. The U.S. and European Union failed to resolve the dispute, and the Bush administration last week pledged to press ahead with a legal challenge.
Many small farmers are uneasy at the prospect of the U.S. government taking action that they believe would favor large corporate farms as the expense of smaller enterprises.
Some developing nations with starving populations are conflicted over accepting GMO products. Last August, the Zambian government refused U.S. food aid because it included GMO corn.
"(The U.S.) seems to be pushing biotechnology on the developing world when the American public hasn't totally accepted it yet," said Kristin Rosenow, executive director of Watsonville's 24-year-old Ecological Farming Association.
According to a 2002 poll by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, once Americans learn more about agricultural biotechnology products, they are equally divided on whether they hurt or help the environment.
And then there's the taste question. If the U.S. adopts policies favoring corporate farms, restaurateurs like San Francisco's Larry Bain fear that the dwindling number of farmers would eventually narrow the variety on the market.
"You'd have about three kinds of tomatoes, and they'd all taste really bland," said Bain, director of operations at upscale San Francisco restaurants Jardiniere and the Acme Chophouse.
Lost Trade and Labels
Even though European officials say they lifted a restriction on GMO food last year, their U.S. counterparts say a de facto ban remains, costing American farmers $300 million in lost corn exports annually.
"To me, this (conference) is nothing more than an expansion of free trade," said Russ van Loben Sels,a fourth-generation pear and corn farmer who lives in Courtland (Sacramento County). "And that is only going to benefit the large farmers."
Noting recent events like mad-cow disease that ravaged the European beef industry, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman attributed European's distaste for GMOs to their mistrust of their food safety system.
"We're saying you can't use unscientific reasons for precluding products from entering the marketplace," Veneman said last week.
While European officials are divided about accepting GMO food, they are nearly united in wanting it labeled as such -- a move the U.S. opposes because, as Penn said, the labels "frighten consumers for no reason."
"What are we supposed to say to our consumers?" asked Gerry Kiely, the European Union's counselor of agriculture. " 'You're going to eat the bloody food whether you like it or not?' "