Biotech Conference Sees Few Protesters

Genetically altered food, a highly contentious issue, kicked off the biggest annual biotech conference today, but so far protests have been lighter than expected.

Just a handful of demonstrators protested outside the convention in downtown San Diego today, outnumbered by police and reporters perhaps 10 to one. Concrete barricades and chain-link fences blocked access to the convention center.

On Sunday, 500 to 1,000 people marched through downtown, playing music, holding protest signs and dressing up as gene-altered plants and animals to protest what they derided as "frankenfood." Organizers of the conference said protests have been peaceful.

Authorities had expected as many as 8,000 demonstrators to show up.

Eight people were arrested over the weekend, accused of carrying daggers, vandalism and carrying signs outside designated areas, The Associated Press reported.

Frankenfood or Science Marvel?

Besides being alarmed by what they believe are health uncertainties about the food, protesters say they want better labeling of food products that contain genetically modified products.

Shannon Service, 26, of Boulder, Colo. — dressed up as a Monarch butterfly — accused the biotech industry of conducting "a real-time experiment with our biosphere."

"This is about having clean and healthy food for our families," she told ABC affiliate KGTV in San Diego.

"This is about having clean and healthy food for our children," she added. "This is about not letting corporations put fish genes in our tomatoes for profit. This is about not letting corporations kill monarch butterflies to create corn that is unhealthy for humans and untested. They have done no long range testing on the food that they give to the American public."

But proponents say the genetically modified food is safe, and in fact reduces other hazards that have been the target of protests.

"The same people who are marching against biotechnology are the same people who marched against pesticides several years ago," Gene Grabowski, spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, told The Associated Press.

A panel discussing "golden rice," was the first planned for today. The rice, which has a yellow hue, is infused with Vitamin A. It is hoped that developing nations will use the rice to stave off malnutrition.

Other topics on the agenda for the participants at the annual conference included embryonic stem cell research and the use of animal organs and cells to treat human illnesses.

Police Prepared for Protests

San Diego Police Capt. Ron Newman said police went through months of training for the conference, adding that authorities have learned from mistakes made in Seattle during riots in 1999, when demonstrators caused more than $2 million in damage during a meeting of the World Trade Organization.

That's welcome news to Teresa McTighe, who represents 350 downtown businesses as head of the Gaslamp Quarter Association. "I don't think anyone plans to close," she added. "I think that everyone plans to be open and accommodate the 15,000 to 20,000 people that are going to be here to see San Diego."

ABCNEWS' Steffan Tubbs contributed to this report.

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