November 2000 - VOLUME 21 - NUMBER 11
T H E F R O N T
The Prague Protests
Prague- The Convergence Center, an activist staging ground and clearinghouse, was electric with anticipation on the eve of protests at the World Bank/International Monetary Fund (IMF) annual meeting, held here at the end of September. As night fell, hundreds of activists from throughout Europe milled around the center located in a warehouse under Prague's Libensky Bridge. Volunteers from a Dutch soup kitchen doled out low cost lentils and rice to hungry protesters. Activists passed out maps of the march route, while members of a Spanish contingent made instruments. Logistical information was repeated in Italian, English, German, Spanish and French. Each "affinity group" - as the sub-groups of friends and colleagues were known - was to have a legal and medical team, a media spokesperson and three runners to pass information to those with cell phones.
On the surface, it seemed as if things were running remarkably smoothly. But 24 hours later, protesters were dispersed throughout the city, the Convergence Center was closed by police, and activists were desperately trying to get information on about 1,000 of their colleagues who had been arrested, amid reports that some were being beaten in jail.
In between, however, the Initiative Against Economic Globalization (INPEG), the international umbrella coalition that organized the protests, managed to stage a demonstration that was more colorful than violent. Nevertheless, a couple of hundred demonstrators did clash with police, throwing paving stones and Molotov cocktails, upstaging more peaceful events in the international news media.
Strategic rifts among local Czech groups around the issue of violence and whether to engage Bank officials in dialogue, reverberated in the international coalitions that traveled to Prague for the protests. But when the World Bank and IMF cut their meeting a day short, amid implausible denials that the protests had anything to do with their decision, most activists agreed that despite dramatic strategic differences, their actions had been effective.
"This is the first action like this after 10 years [since the collapse of Communism]. It's good that it happened here in Eastern Europe," says INPEG's Alice Dvorska. She points out that dissidents who spoke out against Communism are now wholeheartedly embracing globalization and inviting foreign investment, making organizing difficult in the Czech Republic.
Standoff On The Bridge
During the march, a small brass band entertained the crowd with Spanish Civil War and Italian protest songs. A man, naked except for a fanny pack, a dollar bill taped to his privates and anti-IMF slogans painted across his body, strutted through the crowd. Two elderly Czech women waved balloons bearing "Liquidate the Bank" slogans.
The parade split into three marches, each headed to a strategic intersection in an effort to encircle the Congress Center. The groups were identifiable by color: yellow, pink and blue, and were headed up by protesters in color-coded costumes. Their goal was to prevent delegates from leaving the conference center.
A group of about 3,000 marchers from the "yellow" and "pink" groups reached the North entrance to the Nuselsky Bridge leading to the Congress Center. They were met by more than 100 police in riot gear, four armored cars and two water cannons. Organizers, shouting over a loud speaker, reminded protesters, in five languages, that they were there to put their bodies on the line, not provoke police. The plan was to try to push through the police lines in a carefully measured confrontation.
About 60 protesters, many from the Italian group "Ya Basta," formed the front lines. They were well protected in improvised gear made out of painters' jumpsuits padded with foam rubber and cardboard. One woman wrapped a doormat around her waist for protection, while others wore motorcycle helmets or hard hats. These demonstrators positioned themselves immediately in front of the riot gear-clad police. No one, on either side of the police lines, was sure what to expect.
Demonstrators tried four times to push through police lines. Police responded with batons, while protesters used inner tubes to shield themselves from the blows. Some demonstrators also wielded sticks. There were no apparent injuries.
The standoff lasted more than three hours. There were tense moments, when police appeared poised to break up the crowd with force. The protesters, apparently sensing there might not be anything to be gained by drawing out the confrontation, decided to declare victory for having stood their ground. They retreated to a park about a mile away to regroup.
On the other side of the bridge, a relatively small faction of the "blue" group entered into violent confrontations with police, who responded with tear gas, concussion grenades and water cannons. These were the images that endured in the public mind.
Muddling the Issue
"We live in a world scarred by inequality. Something is wrong when the richest 20 percent of the global population receives more than 80 percent of the global income," Wolfensohn said in his opening address to the Bank's annual meeting.
Wolfensohn's statements were met with skepticism from veteran activists.
"The World Bank has developed its public relations, but its projects have changed very little," observed Budapest-based Jozsef Feiler, of the Central and Eastern European Bankwatch Network.
Other activists agree that the Bank and the IMF will not be moved by reason alone. "The protests give us the opportunity to back up our demands and show our seriousness," explained Nobel Wadzah of Friends of the Earth Ghana. "That," he hopes, "should be enough to wake the World Bank from its slumber."
Mt. Olive in a Pickle
North Carolina's Mt. Olive Pickle Company may be on its way to becoming a household name.
The second largest pickle producer in the United States and by far the largest in the South, Mt. Olive is planning on expanding its sales beyond its traditional market and moving into new territory in the Northeast and Midwestern states. This decision means that consumers throughout the United States will become more familiar with the Mt. Olive Pickle Company, its products and its corporate practices.
They may soon become familiar as well with a boycott of the company spearheaded by the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC). FLOC called the boycott last year, to protest low wages and poor working conditions for the migrant farmworkers who pick the cucumbers used to make Mt. Olive's pickles. More than 2,000 farm workers who harvest for Mt. Olive have signed union cards, but Mt. Olive President Bill Bryan has refused to meet with FLOC for two years.
As a union that already represents migrant farmworkers in the Midwest, FLOC is no stranger to this strategy. In 1978, after negotiators had failed to reach an agreement, FLOC workers voted to strike all Campbell's tomato field operations in Ohio, and then launched a national boycott. A 1983 550-mile farmworker march from Toledo, Ohio to Campbell's Soup's corporate headquarters in Camden, New Jersey helped to bring nation-wide attention to this issue. Finally, in 1986, Campbell's Soup, and Campbell's tomato growers in Ohio and its Vlasic pickle growers in Michigan, signed a three-year labor contract covering 800 workers. This contract, which has been repeatedly renewed, led to similar agreements with Heinz, Green Bay and the Aunt Jane Co., and their growers in Ohio and Michigan.
Today, FLOC represents over 7,000 migrant farmworkers in the Midwest.
Repeating the union's Campbell's success with Mt. Olive will not be easy, however. Like many food processing companies, Mt. Olive argues that, because the farmworkers are employed by the growers who harvest its pickles and not by Mt. Olive directly, Mt. Olive has no control over the wages the farmworkers receive or the conditions in which they work.
"We believe that union representation is an issue to be decided by the farmers and the farmworkers," says Mt. Olive's Bill Bryan. "It's just not a decision which Mt. Olive, as a third party customer, should be involved in."
FLOC's position is that while Mt. Olive may not directly employ the farmworkers, the company exercises controlling influence over the production process, since it effectively determines crop prices and even dictates seed types to the farmers.
"FLOC wants to negotiate with Mt. Olive because the money comes from Mt. Olive," explains Matt Emmick, national boycott organizer for FLOC. "A contract solely between small farmers and the farmworkers who work for them just will not work because big companies like Mt. Olive control the prices paid for the crops, and this relationship puts a great deal of pressure on the farmers to keep costs low."
FLOC has developed what it describes as a three-way contract, which involves bargaining by the farmworkers, farm owners and food processors. Under three-way bargaining, the farm owners and farm workers have often allied to demand a higher crop price from the food processor, with the increased revenue split among the farmers and workers.
The migrant farmworkers who work picking cucumbers for Mt. Olive Pickles currently toil in difficult and dangerous conditions, for little pay. "North Carolina's growing agricultural profits have been achieved at high human costs for the states predominantly Spanish-speaking farm laborers," notes a recent study by the Durham, North Carolina-based Institute for Southern Studies. Mt. Olive farmworkers receive no more than $2.40 per 100 pounds of a typical mix of pickles, while FLOC contracts in Ohio and Michigan require workers be paid $6.10. Under FLOC's proposed contract, any increase in the price Mt. Olive pays for cucumbers will be split equally between farm owners and workers, and workers would be paid for pre-harvest work now done for free. FLOC also proposes new worker protections against pesticides.
Mt. Olive denies that poor working conditions and pay have fueled the union-organizing drive. "Mt. Olive has not been targeted because of the company's business practices," says Bryan, "but because it has a well-known name and reputation."
FLOC President Baldemar Velasquez dismisses Bryan's protestations. The workers' grievances are genuine, he says, and they are determined to win a contract. "Mr. Bryan can negotiate a contract now, or he can negotiate a contract after a crippling boycott," says Velasquez. "But he will bargain a contract. We will always have more time than the company has money."
The discovery that millions of pounds of corn in the United States have been contaminated by being mixed with genetically altered corn not approved for human consumption has thrown the biotech industry into a tizzy.
Genetically Engineered Food Alert, a coalition of health, consumer and environmental groups, announced on September 18 that testing the coalition had commissioned of Taco Bell brand taco shells showed that the tacos contained Cry9C corn, marketed by the French biotechnology company Aventis under the name StarLink. Taco Bell brand taco shells sold in grocery stores are made by Kraft, a subsidiary of Philip Morris.
Since the September 18 announcement, Genetically Engineered Food Alert has identified other taco brands that contain StarLink corn, including tacos sold by Safeway and Western Family.
Various food companies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to remove contaminated corn from the food supply.
StarLink corn is spliced with a protein that kills insect pests. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved StarLink in 1998 for use in animal feed or non-food industrial purposes only. It withheld approval for introduction into the food supply on the grounds that it did not have satisfactory data to show it would not trigger allergic reactions.
The EPA's approval of StarLink was conditioned on Aventis notifying farmers of the critical importance of keeping StarLink corn separate from their other corn crops and of maintaining a buffer zone between acreage planted with StarLink and land planted with other corn.
The corn supply contamination appears to have occurred because uninformed farmers did not maintain the required buffer zone, or perhaps because corn crops were mixed in grain elevators. Aventis claims it properly notified farmers.
Biotech critics say the partial approval of StarLink was doomed from the start, and assured contamination would eventually take place. "The EPA's belief," says Bill Freese of Friends of the Earth, "that limiting the StarLink license to corn for animal feed and industrial use would be sufficient to keep the corn out of the food chain reveals a surprising ignorance of real world conditions on the farm. Bureaucratic barriers cannot stop pollen flow; one cannot rely on a corporation headquartered in France to effectively communicate planting and sales restrictions to farmers in Kentucky, especially when the corporation and its agents are motivated to sell as much seed as possible; and busy grain elevator operators cannot be expected to run DNA tests to segregate shipments of animal feed from food-grade corn."
The Kraft Withdrawal
Three days later, Betsy Holden, president and CEO of Kraft, announced, "Testing has now indicated the presence of StarLink and we are immediately withdrawing all affected products."
"As soon as we learned that there might be an issue in the supply chain we purchased from," she said, "we have been guided by one priority - the safety of our products and their compliance with all regulatory requirements."
Activists applauded the company's move, and particularly Kraft's call for stronger regulation of biotech foods. In announcing its recall, Kraft issued four recommendations, including an end to approval of biotech products for animal but not human consumption and "requiring mandatory review of all plant biotechnology advances by the appropriate government agencies before those advances enter the market."
The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), an ardent biotech supporter, also voiced support for Kraft's move. "Kraft Foods, Inc. has acted in the best interest of its consumers in the decision to voluntarily recall specific taco shell products from grocery stores," said GMA President and CEO C. Manly Molpus.
Molpus said Kraft's regulatory proposals "merit serious consideration" - a somewhat discordant message with GMA's standard view. "In fact, food biotechnology is well regulated by the FDA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency," Gene Grabowski, GMA vice president of communications, had said in July.
"The FDA displayed a troublingly slow response to the news of adulterated food," wrote Joseph Mendelson, legal director of the Campaign for Food Safety, and other environmental and food safety activists in a September 26 letter to President Bill Clinton. "On the same day that Kraft Foods confirmed our report of illegal contamination with their own test results and announced a recall, FDA had just taken the step of writing us to request a portion of the taco shell sample we had tested. The serious breach of consumer confidence that resulted from contaminated corn was only exacerbated, demonstrating inadequate oversight and attention to a serious matter of public health."
More generally, biotech critics say, the fact that it took a citizen's group coalition to discover the biotech contamination shows the regulatory agencies' failure.
"Once again a small group of citizen organizations has done the job that the FDA should be doing," said Philip Clapp, president of National Environmental Trust, after Genetically Engineered Food Alert in October announced the StarLink contamination of Western Family taco shells. "The FDA is failing to warn the American public of genetically contaminated products that should be avoided."
A primary focus of biotech activists has been on demanding that the Food and Drug Administration require for genetically engineered foods the same health and safety testing required of food additives before they be permitted on the market, and that FDA require labeling of food containing genetically altered material.
The FDA has refused to take such steps. It has argued that genetically altered food is "substantially similar" to conventional food, and therefore not in need of special testing.
Regulations expected to be proposed by the FDA would require food makers selling genetically altered products to consult with the FDA, and would permit sellers of non-biotech food to label their products accordingly.
"This proposed policy means the FDA will not require any mandatory testing on genetically engineered foods," says Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety. "Under it, American consumers will still be the guinea pigs testing the safety of these foods."
Critics have also rejected the voluntary labeling scheme, since it places a burden on producers of food that is GE-free (genetically engineered-free) to certify, test and label their foods - a burden many are likely to decline to assume. If manufacturers of GE-free food do not label under the FDA's proposal, then consumers will remain ignorant of whether and when they are ingesting biotech food.
Aventis' New Play
But Aventis has conceded reluctantly to public concern, because it insists that StarLink is safe for human consumption. In late October, it requested the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency give time-limited approval for the presence of the corn in human food.
Critics have claimed the StarLink corn poses allergenic risks, including fever, rashes or diarrhea. They point out that the Cry9C, the genetically engineered protein in the corn, is both heat resistant and resistant to digestion, and fits other criteria for potential allergens. They are sharply critical of the scientific evidence produced by Aventis to dispel the allergenicity concern, with Friends of the Earth's Bill Freese telling the EPA in October that Aventis had submitted "shoddy" science, replete with failures to report important data. The flaws, he charged, "are not minor oversights, but rather serious breaches of basic scientific protocol; a high school biology student would be flunked for less."
Food safety groups say that consumers have reported allergic reactions to them, and consumers in Chicago have filed a lawsuit against Aventis and Azteca, the grain miller that sold the contaminated corn to Kraft and other companies, charging the contaminated corn caused them to suffer from hives, stomachaches and other reactions.