This past October representatives from around the world met in Des Moines, Iowa to discuss the challenges of food security and malnutrition. Protesters opposed to biotechnology being used as a tool in this fight were on the scene. Screaming about “Monsanto” the Union of Concerned Scientists circled in a truck, while the Center for Food Safety delivered a petition.
Another group led by a “Reverend Billy” also made an appearance. With the World Food Prize having a permit for the capitol, protesters were not permitted on the property for the private event. Refusing to leave the property when instructed by police, “Reverend Billy” was arrested and charged with trespassing. Forbes reported that:
The protest began in the designated protest area, across the street from the capitol ground. Talen and Cordaro later crossed the street to stand on a public sidewalk some 250 feet from the capitol grounds. Iowa State Troopers asked them to leave. When they did not comply, the two protesters were handcuffed and arrested for trespassing, a misdemeanor. The State of Iowa subsequently filed a motion asking for a ban on any First Amendment defense.
Forbes went on to insinuate that not allowing the first amendment to be used in a protest case was uncharted territory. This, however, is not a protest case. This is a trespassing case. The question is not whether or not they had a right to protest, it is whether or not they were on the capitol grounds during a private event when they did it.
Many anti-GMO organizations have picked up the story and are spinning it as Monsanto having him arrested and taking away his first amendment rights. There is no evidence that Monsanto was even aware of the arrest, let alone had communication with the police.
Hypocritically, many people running with this story are connected with anti-GMO groups that stopped a pro-biotechnology protest from taking place on public land. On October 19, 2015 several large anti-GMO groups (with sponsorship from Joseph Mercola) received a permit for a World Food Day event of their own on the west lawn of the US Capitol for a “Food Justice” rally. A small group of protesters (including the author of this piece) came to protest their rally.
After complaints to the police from the rally organizers, the pro-biotech protesters were instructed to put their signs away and refrain from using their megaphone. As the Capitol grounds were open at the time for tourists they were allowed to remain, but they could not appear as an organized protest. They would have to leave the grounds and protest across the street. As the rally was quite small, and the Capitol grounds quite large, the protest would not be visible across the street. No arrests took place simply because the small group complied with the officers.
The Iowa State Capitol grounds were not open for tourists at the time of “Reverend Billy’s” protest.
It is also important to note that the reverend is not actually a reverend. William Talen is in fact an actor that has been arrested more than 50 times for similar stunts. The reverend persona is a character he created for these performances.
This isn’t the first time the World Food Prize has faced criticism from the anti-GMO groups. The conference attached to the prize, known as the Borlaug Dialogs, is generally very willing to allow critics of the technology to attend. Last year Moms Across America founder, Zen Honeycutt, wrote about her experience there:
I got to speak to Erostus Nsubuga, chairman of the Uganda Biotechnology and Biosafety Consortium, from Uganda. His main defense of GMOs was not that GMOs and related chemicals are safe, but that they have been trying for 20 years to grow bananas naturally and they have not been successful, implying that they need GMOs. He never indicated that Uganda might be a better place to grow other types of crops besides bananas.
This “let them eat cake” attitude prompted a quick response from Patricia Nanteza, a Cornell fellow from Uganda that works on the banana project:
Honeycutt clearly has no idea that Uganda has been growing bananas for over 300 years, and we have been doing so “naturally.” She has no idea what bananas mean to us as a country (we have over 30 varieties for cooking, roasting, and eating as desert), and therefore she has the audacity to suggest, to a Ugandan, that we should grow something else, instead of trying to save our staple food crop using available tools such as genetic engineering.
Honeycutt, like William Talen and Forbes, appears to assume that because Monsanto pitched in for the event that it was all about promoting biotechnology. Yet 2016 winners of the award included individuals who used selective breeding to add vitamin A to sweet potatoes. At least one sponsor of the event on the same donation level as Monsanto, Howard Buffett, has even been mentioned by anti-GMO groups as being critical of both Monsanto and genetic engineering.
Bill Gates was quoted at the event saying that he “met a more diverse array of people at the World Food Prize in Des Moines than at any other conference they had attended anywhere in the world.” CEOs were certainly present, which appears to be one of the points of the event. According to the awards web page:
“The Prize calls attention to what has been done to improve global food security and to what can be accomplished in the future.”
To do that the World Food Program calls for public and private partnerships. The days of colonial powers dictating how and what the developing world should grow are over. Today public and private institutions are offering their help in building self sufficiency. Biotechnology is just one of many tools being offered.
Iowa shouldn’t be relied on to feed the world.