Wandering from a teach-in on bio-justice to a monster gathering of the biotech industry last weekend was like changing universes.It wasn't just that the big-biz affair happened at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre and the other at OISE, or that the one was peopled by suits and rife with investment opportunities while the other featured dressed-down activists sporting cause buttons and plotting anti-GE campaigns.
The really astounding difference was the way the two groups parsed the meaning of technology and its uses for the common good.
On the industry side, the BIO 2002 conference drew 15,000 for an industry showcase of more than 1,000 companies from 45 countries. The three days of workshops mainly pumped investment growth potential, but surprisingly spun off onto ethical issues and religious views and how to counter activist tactics. Security was tighter than at a rock concert. Badges were checked at every escalator, and groups of city police stood around like teens waiting for a bus. The paranoia became palpable at a workshop on understanding the animal liberation enemy. "If they succeed,' one participant opined, "it will be the end of research as we know it.'
Two uniformed Toronto police stood at attention at the back while four private security guards flanked the doors. At the end of the session, as I approached the panel to get business cards, an officer and security guard insisted I leave and proceeded to escort me out, ignoring both my protests and my press credentials.
Did I mention that I was the only person not wearing a suit?
Organized as a way to counter industry propaganda, the Biojustice/Biodiversity teach-in on Saturday, June 8, featured food analyst Brewster Kneen, scientist Michelle Brill-Edwards and hundreds of participants who showed their mettle by surviving three-hour marathon sessions over three days on such themes as bio-piracy, cruelty to animals and the genetic destruction of the world's eats. "We have been involved in a massive experiment for the last five years, and we never gave them our consent,' David Suzuki told a GMO-free picnic in Grange Park.
Who won the faceoff?
Whether you like it or not, big and glitzy always beats out small and sincere. And the smug arrogance of the biotech industry is not without cause: the Canadian government is a major cheerleader, as can be seen by its attendance at the BIO conference and recent injection of $200 million for venture capital funding.
To win public support you need positive media. Sealed in the lower recesses of the Toronto Convention Centre, journalists covering the industry showcase had a desperate time finding the other side of the story, and often swarmed the one or two demonstrators who actually came to the event.
Until activist groups set up booths inside events like BIO to challenge the powers that be on their own terms in the science-based language they demand -- and, yes, even dress in the suits that for some reason denote legitimacy -- they will remain on the fringe.
I like mutant puppet shows, falafels and reggae music -- all part of the activist organic food picnic -- but they cannot stop the momentum of a multi-billion-dollar industry with far stronger legs than any dot-com craze.