SAN DIEGO (AP) The biggest annual biotech conference in the world was set to open with a panel on one of the industry's most contentious issues: genetically altered food.
That issue was the focus of protests Sunday, the day before business was to get under way at the three-day BIO2001 Conference.
Some of the 750 to 1,000 demonstrators who marched through San Diego were dressed as ears of corn or genetically engineered tomatoes. They danced, played drums and carried signs with slogans like "Biocide is Homicide."
The protest was much smaller than organizers expected, and largely peaceful.
A panel dealing with "golden rice," a poster child for what critics call "Frankenfood," was the first planned for Monday.
Golden rice, so-called because of its yellow hue, is infused with Vitamin A in the hope that developing nations will take to it to stave off malnutrition. Critics view golden rice and other genetically modified foods as potential health hazards, and argue not enough research has been done to determine whether they are really safe.
"The biotech industry is conducting a real-time experiment with our biosphere," said 26-year-old Shannon Service of Boulder, Colo., who was dressed as a Monarch butterfly Sunday. "They don't know the results, they can't possibly know the results."
But proponents such as the Grocery Manufacturers of America counter that genetically altered crops reduce the amount of water and pesticides needed to grow the nation's food.
"The same people who are marching against biotechnology are the same people who marched against pesticides several years ago," said Gene Grabowski, spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America.
Other hot-button topics on the agenda for the 15,000 participants at the Biotechnology Industry Organization's annual conference included embryonic stem cell research and the use of animal organs and cells to treat human illnesses.
In brief remarks to conference participants Sunday night, Gov. Gray Davis focused mostly on defending his role in the state's ongoing power crisis but also mentioned the importance of his administration's support for biotechnology research.
"The idea is to push back the frontier of knowledge," Davis said. "This, I think, 50 years from now, will be seen as the best thing my administration has done."
San Diego police kept their distance from protesters but maintained a strong presence. They said they were determined to avoid a repeat of the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, which led to more than 600 arrests and caused $2.5 million in downtown property damage.
"The whole downtown of San Diego has been militarized," said Han Shan, spokesman for the Ruckus Society, a group that trains protesters in nonviolent demonstrations. "There are a lot of people out here who feel we're being criminalized for simply expressing concern with biotechnology."
Police said their main concern was the anarchist groups that have disrupted previous anti-globalization protests. The groups typically stand out because members dress in black and wrap their faces in ski masks or bandannas.