|BIO 2006 - The Chicago Convention (2/4/2006)|
BIO 2006: THE CHICAGO CONVENTION
Imagine a cornfield. Now place it inside a convention center.
Bringing the life sciences industry's leading trade show, BIO2006, to the Midwest will highlight the role that biotechnology plays in agriculture and food.
The April 9-12 show will feature the world's largest indoor cornfield--at 1,000 square feet--growing in McCormick Place, along with farmers from six continents who will sing the praises of genetically modified crops.
Dieticians also will describe how biotech foods benefit consumers.
And the Japanese will show off garlic that doesn't reek.
In much of the world, genetically modified crops are welcomed by farmers. Since the first modified soybeans were launched commercially a decade ago biotech crops have seen double digit growth every year. In 2005 an estimated 8.5 million farmers in 21 countries planted biotech crops.
But genetically modified food apparently doesn't sell itself.
Despite its growth, the bio-tech food industry remains a target of critics in the U.S. and abroad who have tagged it with the image of creating "Frankenfoods" that are unsafe and untrustworthy.
Last year's BIO2005 meeting in Philadelphia drew hundreds of anti-biotech demonstrators, many wearing colorful costumes. A street demonstration outside Philadelphia's convention center turned tragic when a police officer suffered a heart attack and died after scuffling with demonstrators.
In Chicago, critics will counter BIO2006 with a series of lectures, films and other events they are calling "BioETHICS 2006: The Voice of Reason." While the trade show expects 20,000 attendees, BioETHICS organizers would be pleased to get a tenth of that number, said Charles Shaw, a Chicago resident who serves as BioETHICS media coordinator.
"We are a coalition of many different groups," said Shaw. "Independent farmers, organic food producers, activists--each of us is concerned this radical new technology is unproven. There's no mandatory testing of this stuff."
Whether protesters will take to the streets of Chicago isn't yet known but the biotech industry is trying hard to repair its early inattention to public misgivings.
The BIO2006 show represents the entire life sciences industry, including medical therapies and diagnostics as well as agricultural and industrial applications of biotechnology. But because this year's show is taking place in the Midwest for the first time, there will be more emphasis on the use of biotech in farming, as well as in industry.
Jim Greenwood, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which sponsors BIO2006, said the Chicago event will stress benefits to consumers and the environment more than previous meetings did.
Greenwood said that reason is on the industry's side.
"People criticize Bt corn," Greenwood said. "The `B' stands for Bacillus and the `t' stands for thuringiensis. That's a bacteria that organic farmers spray on their crops because it perforates the guts of worms that attack the crops. What Monsanto and others did is to identify the gene in the bacteria and insert it into the genetic structure of the corn.
"Without spraying anything, when the worm chomps on a corn root, it dies. Farmers don't need to use pesticide."
Greenwood said that millions of acres are planted with biotech crops and there has never been the slightest evidence of any harm coming to people consuming them, nor even any coherent theory describing how harm might occur.
At the Chicago meeting the industry will aggressively demonstrate its intention to use technology to improve the efficiencies of bio-fuels and to reduce the nation's dependency on petroleum, Greenwood said. It will also stress new environmental benefits.
"We'll have a green kitchen with products--not just foods from biotech crops, but plastics and other materials that are agriculturally based," Greenwood said. "We'll have kitchen counters, carpets and servingware all made from agriculture-based plastics. There'll be a plastic water bottle made from corn that when you finish using it can be thrown in a compost pile to decompose."
Shaw, the Chicago spokesman for the biotech critics, said that he and his colleagues endorse biofuels "so long as they don't use genetically modified crops to do it."
While there are hard-core critics in the U.S., Greenwood said most consumers are open-minded about biotech products, and that politicians generally support the industry. Chicago's central location will enable many governors, legislators and others from around the nation to attend BIO2006, he said.
"When you have so-called environmentalists opposing a technology that's going to help us protect the environment," Greenwood said, "eventually reason overcomes fear. I am confident that's going to happen."
Dozens of countries will host exhibits at BIO2006, and among the products on display will be pickled garlic from Japan engineered to remove the garlicky smell.
Clothes from corn
Among other displays, there also will be a fashion show with models wearing designer clothes made from polylactic acid, a material made from dextrose corn sugar. Researchers tout fabric spun from corn sugar as wrinkle-resistant while maintaining its softness.
And as for the indoor cornfield, it will feature 800 mature, insect-resistant biotech corn plants. The plants are modified through biotechnology to be resistant to European corn borer.
The field also will feature an electronic "ticker" tracking the planting of biotech crops this spring in the Northern Hemisphere, second by second.