Published on Saturday, March 25, 2000 in the Boston Globe
BioDevastation 2000 Underway In Boston; Conference addresses anti-biotechnology issues
by Raphael Lewis

Hundreds of academics, activists, and consumers arrived at Northeastern University yesterday for a three-day conference on the potential perils of biotechnology, one day before industry leaders arrive in Boston for their own convention.

Called Biodevastation 2000, the conference was billed as the largest gathering of its kind in the United States and activists say it signals that the movement against biotechnology is catching fire in America, well after Europe, where genetically altered foods have met with widespread protest.

''The public debate in this country is lacking, and science is running away like mad without anyone really understanding the ramifications,'' said Dr. Ricarda Steinbrecher, a British researcher who quit her job to speak out against biotechnology. ''I'm quite amazed the people here don't even know what's in their food.''

The fourth conference of its kind, Biodevastation was timed to coincide with BIO2000, the annual trade meeting of biotechnology professionals taking place tomorrow through Thursday at the Hynes Convention Center.

While 7,000 to 8,000 delegates are expected to show up for BIO2000, about 500 people attended panel discussions and lectures at Biodevastation yesterday, organizers said. They estimate that perhaps 1,000 will attend a rally tomorrow that begins in Copley Square and will end near the Hynes Convention Center.

Organizers of the counter-conference, which includes specialists on science, agriculture, and labor rights as well as journalists, hope to steal the BIO2000 spotlight.

Last year, 1,600 biotech companies - many based in the Boston area, which some call ''Genetown'' - generated $18.6 billion in revenues, according to the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which is sponsoring BIO2000.

Alarmed by the industry's rapid growth, opponents hope to call attention to what they say is the industry's untested, and environmentally harmful and immoral research. They are calling for a ban on genetically altered foods, stronger oversight of the industry, strict labeling laws of genetically modified foods and for the government to stop issuing patents for seeds, plants, animals, organs, and genes.

Yesterday's opening of Biodevastation was civil and academic, but city and police leaders have expressed concerns that violence will erupt in the streets when Biodevastation 2000 moves to Copley Square for a rally tomorrow. Police leaders have spent weeks training officers, who have been told to come to work prepared to don riot gear.

Some of their fears stem from the fact that several Biodevastation participants, including several of its organizers, took part in the massive protests at the World Trade Organization's meeting in Seattle in November, police said. Those protests, which succeeded in shutting down the WTO summit, ended with garbage cans, rubber bullets and tear gas flying through the streets. All told, $30 million in property damage resulted, as well as the resignation of Seattle's police chief.

But if images of violence grabbed the nation's attention, it was the surprisingly large, diverse group of protesters in Seattle that helped galvanize many who arrived in Boston yesterday.

''What happened in Seattle was really amazing. I don't know if it will last, but we're trying,'' said Simon Harris, who came to Biodevastation from San Francisco.

Violence would merely impede the movement, organizers said yesterday. One of the main goals is to recreate the image of their opposition campaign from one based on violence to one based on science.

''We want to protest the biotech industry with a two-pronged attack, first by defeating them with sound science, then by showing that many of us in America care,'' said Heather Albert-Knopp, 23, who is from Vermont and is one of Biodevastion's organizers. ''We don't feel that shutting down BIO2000 is the best tactic. Our goal now is to show we are a legitimate group of people with concerns that are not only legitimate, but fundamental to the welfare of ordinary Americans.''

Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company