USA: Over 2,500 Challenge Biotech Industry To Debate

Despite fears of violence in the streets, an estimated 2,500 chanting, costumed demonstrators kept their promise to march peacefully through the Back Bay yesterday as they voiced their opposition to the spread of biotechnology.

Police reported no arrests. Protesters dressed as mutant creatures and macabre vegetables marched along five blocks of Boylston Street. The demonstration capped three days of a counter-conference staged in the shadow of Bio2000, a biotechnology convention at the Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center.

Organizers of ''Biodevastation 2000'' yesterday said the march, and the three-hour rally in Copley Square that preceded it, offered proof that the fledgling movement is catching up with those in Europe, where protesters have forced governments to rethink the sale of genetically modified foods.

''This went about as well as we could have possibly hoped,'' said Jessica Hayes, one of the rally's organizers, who noted that about 400 protesters greeted members of the biotechnology industry when they met last May in Seattle.

But if the ranks of the opponents of biotechnology are swelling, they are well behind the sustained growth the industry itself is enjoying. Bio2000, which runs through Thursday, has drawn nearly 8,000 scientists, researchers, and executives from around the world to discuss the latest innovations in gene-splicing and cross-species transplants. The industry last year had $18.6 billion in revenues.

While the protesters chanted, danced, and drummed, convention delegates peered down from windows in the Hynes, many wondering what the fuss was about.

''I thought it was a festive, colorful gathering, and I'm glad that it's been peaceful so far. However, their message was muddled, and they had so much misinformation,'' said Carl B. Feldbaum, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which is sponsoring the conference.

One industry leader was not so charitable in his assessment.

''It's just garbage, unreal garbage,'' said David Dennis, president of Performance Plants of Kingston, Ontario, moments after he engaged one of Biodevastation 2000's leaders in a spontaneous debate. ''These are the most tested products in history. These people have no idea what they are talking about.''

Hayes and other leaders of Biodevastation 2000 yesterday challenged those at Bio2000 to a public debate on the scientific, moral, and economic basis for their work.

Such a discussion is not likely to occur, however, since industry representatives said they had requested a private forum to set the ground rules of a public debate, something the protesters rejected, according to Janice Bourque, executive director of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council.

''As we move forward, we could hopefully have a chance to talk about our viewpoints; that's still our goal,'' Bourque said. ''Unfortunately, the timing is such that it's not practical to organize something like this.''

The rally began as people dressed as freakish half-tomato, half-fish mutants, among other creatures, arrived at Copley Square. They were met by squads of police on foot, on horseback, on motorcycles, and in cruisers. Officers also kept an eye on the day's events from a helicopter and from the rooftops of several buildings.

Under brilliant blue skies and warm temperatures, those who planned on taking part in the protest - which had a permit for 1,000 people - were soon joined by numerous bystanders taken up by the cause.

''I took some of their literature to find out what all this is about,'' said Johnny Durant, 50, of Dorchester. ''It's real interesting, so I'm going to walk with them.''

Biodevastation 2000 organizers were upset when a group calling itself the Church of Euthanasia from Somerville arrived with placards and signs advocating positions far from their own. A few shoving matches broke out, as well as several arguments. In the end, the group relocated to the periphery of Copley Square.

Police officials said they were grateful to the rally's organizers for keeping their promise to stage a peaceful protest. But they said they would remain vigilant, monitoring other planned protests, including one scheduled for last night at the Museum of Fine Arts, where a Bio2000 reception was planned.

Ellen Barry of the Globe Staff and Globe correspondent Scott W. Helman contributed to this report.

AMP Section Name:Food and Agriculture
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