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Protesters target California conference on GM crops

Date Posted: 6/25/2003 (Wednesday, June 25, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- San Jose Mercury News, 06/24/03 --SACRAMENTO, Calif.--As President Bush scolded European nations for blocking the import of genetically engineered foods, thousands of demonstrators poured into the streets of Sacramento on Monday to denounce this country's campaign to force other nations to accept the controversial crops.

Chanting "food for people, not for profit," nearly 4,000 activists converged on California's capital while more than 400 delegates from around the globe gathered for the opening day of a conference to promote biotechnology as a solution for world hunger.

As demonstrators massed for the rally, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman downplayed the protests and said activists were missing the point.

"This is not a political debate," she said as she prepared to open the meeting. "It's about science and feeding hungry people." Delegates from more than 120 nations are attending the three-day conference meant to spotlight advances in science and technology that can be used to wipe out famine.

The event, sponsored by the Bush administration, is also the latest target of anti-globalization organizers who view the gathering not as a step toward ending hunger but as a chance for huge corporations to peddle their products to world leaders in a secretive forum.

Nearly 50 activists were arrested around Sacramento on Sunday for blocking traffic and occupying a closed community garden that is to be turned into new apartments.

Thousands of demonstrators rallied Monday at the state Capitol and then flowed into the streets for a short march that came within one block of the conference.

In the wake of anti-globalization protests around the world that have turned violent, hundreds of heavily armed police in riot gear cordoned off parts of downtown Sacramento and established an intense presence on the streets. Officers on foot, bicycles, horseback, motorcycles and in armored vehicles lined the protest route and occasionally shoved demonstrators back into the streets to keep them in line.

Although police were prepared for the worst, Monday's march ended without serious confrontations. Dozens of marchers wore pink signs reading: "No violence to people, property or nature." In Washington, Bush ratcheted up pressure on Europe to open its markets to America's genetically engineered crops.

The United States is challenging the European Union's ban on such products before the World Trade Organization, and Bush chastised the member nations for refusing to accept genetically engineered foods based on "unfounded, unscientific fears." Bush told a group of biotechnology leaders gathered in Washington for their annual convention that the ban was also preventing African nations from using the technology out of fear that they won't be able to sell their produce overseas.

"For the sake of a continent threatened by famine I urge the European governments to end their opposition to biotechnology," Bush said.

Three thousand miles away in California, activists challenged the Bush administration's aggressive stance and warned that the United States was running roughshod over small farmers, developing nations and its European allies.

Demonstrators said that biotechnology is controlled by big business and is forcing small farmers into bankruptcy.

"Farmers are the protectors of biodiversity, not corporations," said S'Ra Desantis, an organic farmer from Vermont. 'We're here to fight for the small farmer." Inside the hall, officials from some developing nations expressed sympathy for the concerns raised by demonstrators but said they were here to learn more about a variety of scientific advances that can help them combat poverty.

"We are emerging from 40 years of war," said Joaquim David, Angola's minister of industry. "What we want are the basics in terms of equipment and technology to restart our economy."

Mercury News Staff Writer Heather Fleming Phillips contributed to this report from Washington.

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