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Spooky food

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Trick or treat, what's in what you eat?

In case the combined specters of terrorist violence and anthrax attacks aren't enough to keep you shivering in fear this Halloween, consider this: More and more of the crops we live on are grown with genetically modified organism (GMO) biotechnology. A rising chorus of environmental and food-safety advocates say that the science--and the profit motives--behind such products are scary as hell.

The main concern, critics say, is that no one can predict the effects that biotech will have on the world's food supply. Some of the nightmare scenarios: Companies will patent the genetic codes for essential foodstuffs, in attempt to "own" plants that have fed people for thousands of years. Or: "Terminator seeds," genetically altered to not propagate, will leave populations starving.

Early Monday morning, local environmental activists referenced the holiday of horrors in a protest near the offices of Syngenta, the Swiss-based biotech giant that conducts plant and seed research at its Research Triangle Park branch. With frost still on the grass and thousands of commuters streaming by, 20 protesters, several of them clad in biohazard suits, dropped banners and hoisted giant puppets on the Miami Blvd. overpass above I-40, a half mile from the Syngenta building.

"GET OUT OF MY GENES NOW!" read one banner. Several protesters walked onto the Syngenta grounds and presented company employees with a "biotech basket" of "Frankenfood"--peppers and eggplants fused with fish parts, along with literature explaining the risks of GMOs.

"We're going with the humorous angle," said Katie Banks, an activist from Asheville, "but it's a public education thing.

"The science industry is just out for profit, and there's no rationalizing with them around health and environmental concerns," she adds. "And it's really the same with the government, so we're depending on the public to figure out what's going on."

Two recently formed groups staged the action. One of them, Uwharrie Earth First!, includes members from throughout North Carolina, though most are based in the Triangle. The other, SouthRAGE (Resistance Against Genetic Engineering), is based in Asheville. Their first salvo came last May, when about 50 activists converged on Syngenta's property in Greensboro. As they spray-painted slogans and planted organic corn on the company's lawn, police attacked with pepper spray and arrested three of the trespassers.

The protest registered on local TV news and in the Greensboro News & Record, where the business section featured a front-page article on the new upsurge in anti-biotech activism.

Syngenta and local law enforcement took Monday's protests in stride. "Everyone is entitled to an opinion," Rich Lotstein, chief operating officer at the RTP Syngenta office, said Monday afternoon. "Obviously they have an opinion about biotechnology that differs with ours. We have no problem with that." Foods derived from Syngenta products are safe and subject to sufficient regulation, he added.

There were no arrests, and Durham police were polite and communicative. Anti-biotech protests don't get any smoother than this, and the protesters say that's the way they wanted it, particularly after the trauma of Sept. 11.

Still, they said, what we don't know about GMOs should scare us.

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