SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) -- Hundreds of protesters descended on city streets Sunday as agriculture officials from around the world prepared for a meeting where United States government officials will pitch advances in genetically engineered food and farming.
Chanting, banging drums and carrying signs that read, "No Frankenfood" and "We Don't Want to Eat Their Corporate Creations," protesters swarmed the streets around the state Capitol and nearby conference center.
Demonstrators blocked traffic and overturned a trash bin near a hotel where agriculture ministers were staying. Police said they made at least 11 arrests. Arrested demonstrators were charged with unlawful assembly, vandalism and possessing weapons, including a switchblade and other sharp objects, police said.
Agriculture officials from more than 100 nations are expected to attend the three-day Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology, which starts Monday and is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Department officials say the conference is designed to help developing countries reduce hunger and improve nutrition using advanced technology. They say biotechnology in particular can help reduce pesticide use and yield better harvests than conventional crops, helping preserve the environment and improving health.
But activists argue that biotechnology is not the antidote to the complex food problems facing developing nations. Instead, they fear the conference is an attempt by corporate farming and biotech interests to push into new markets.
"The policies they are talking about do not benefit poor people in the world, they benefit large agriculture companies," said protester Eddy Jara, a 30-year old nutritionist from Berkeley. "The policies encourage and pressure companies to release trade restrictions and make it easier to extract natural resources from these countries."
The Bush administration "is trying to force dangerous and untested food on poor countries," said Patrick Reinsborough of the Mobilization for the Food and Sovereignty, Democracy and Justice, the umbrella group organizing the protest.
Biotech giants Monsanto Co. and DowAgro Sciences along with Coca-Cola Co. are major corporate sponsors of the event.
"They're trying to put the interest of giant U.S. agribusiness ahead of the interests of small farmers and local democratic decision making," Reinsborough said.
The mobilization group, which includes organic farmers and their consumers, and other activists argue the long-term health and environmental risks of biotechnology haven't been properly studied.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman said the conference will also highlight farming methods and pest management to help developing countries cut world hunger by 2015, a goal set by agriculture secretaries at the World Food Summit last year. More than 800 million people face chronic hunger or malnutrition, she said.
"What we're talking about is increasing food productivity in areas of the world where people are both hungry and poor," she said. "Many developing countries get 90 percent of their food from local production and there isn't any infrastructure."
Sacramento city, state and federal officials say they are prepared to prevent the violence that plagued World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle three years ago.
Downtown Seattle was shut down after tens of thousands smashed windows and vandalized cars. Police fought back with rubber bullets and tear gas.
"Obviously, people have the right to express their concerns," said police spokesman Justin Risley. "We're obviously concerned about people who want to endanger the lives of other people or damage property. But everyone is in agreement that they want a nonviolent and safe environment for everyone."
The Agriculture Department has also closed the conference to the public and certain events to the media. The press did not receive an agenda until the day before the conference. Department officials cited security reasons.
The conference convenes at a time when the debate over genetically modified foods has reached a fever pitch. The United States is demanding that the World Trade Organization force the European Union to ends its ban on genetically modified food. In the process, opposition to biotechnology is galvanizing outside the United States, and the protesters say inside the country as well.
On the Net:
Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology:
Protest information: Sacramento Coalition for Sustainable Agriculture: http://sacmobilization.org