As the environmental effects, health risks and cost effectiveness of genetically engineered crops continue to be debated worldwide, residents of four California counties will vote this November on whether to ban their cultivation.
Activists in Butte, Humboldt, San Luis Obispo and Marin counties are gathering endorsements from local farmers, businesses and residents, recruiting volunteers, and holding community meetings about the dangers of the controversial new agriculture method. If local efforts are successful, activists are hoping to take the ban to the state level. They point to previous successful efforts against genetically engineered food, like a law passed by the California legislature making it illegal to breed genetically altered fish in the waters along the state’s coastline.
Meanwhile, the biotech industry and some local farm bureaus are launching their own campaigns to defend GE crops, which they say are perfectly safe and cost-effective.
Although California farmers produce and export the most crops of any state in the US, only two genetically modified crops are grown commercially in the state: cotton and corn. At last count, nearly 600,000 acres were already producing GE cotton and corn, along with many other small test fields for other crops. Under the proposed measures, all GE crops would be banned, except for those used in laboratories to develop pharmaceuticals and those grown in test fields.
Opponents of GE crops say the biotech industry has not proven that they are safe for either the environment or human consumption, despite being used in up to 70 percent of all packaged foods. “They’re bad for the planet, bad for the people, bad for the animals, bad for the environment and bad for democracy,” said Martha Devine, an anti-GE organizer in Humboldt County.
Although few, if any, comprehensive studies have been done on the human health effects of commercially available GE crops, a study conducted in 1999 by British scientist Dr. Arpad Pusztai showed that GE potatoes caused damage to the immune systems and vital organs of rats. Several studies have also shown that certain methods of genetic modification — like adding Brazil nut genes to soybeans — expose unsuspecting consumers to hidden allergens.
Representatives from Monsanto Company, the chemical and seed giant, declined to comment.
The government agencies in charge of regulating GE crops — the US Department of Food and Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration — require only minimal scientific testing and often rely on the biotech companies’ data rather than performing their own tests or using independent data.
“They have not done the testing to prove that these GE crops are safe,” said Teresa Campbell, an organizer of the San Luis Obispo County initiative. “We are the test.”
Activists also criticize the way farmers become beholden to biotech companies once GE seeds are planted. Farmers are often required, either through contracts or due to the plants’ genetic design, to use certain pesticides or herbicides manufactured by the same biotech companies that produced the seed. In addition, many seeds contain a bio-engineered “terminator” gene, destroying the plant’s natural reproductive system, and forcing farmers to buy new seeds each year.
Genetic engineering proponents argue that using these crops and the accompanying chemicals will reduce the amount of pesticides and herbicides used by farmers each year.
However, a study conducted by the Northwest Science and Environmental Policy Center, a research and environmental advocacy group, found that GE crops have led to the use of 50 million additional pounds of pesticides in the US between 1996 and 2003.
“Monsanto and the other gene giants are only in it for the money, in my opinion,” said Martha Devine, an organizer of the Humboldt County measure. “Their plan is to take over the food chain from seed to table.”
The initiatives’ organizers say that keeping the crops out of these counties will not only protect the locally-produced food supply, but also the agriculture export market, which is worth nearly $30 billion in California.
Since the introduction of commercial GE crops, US farmers have lost millions of dollars as several overseas markets refused to import them. According to the lobbyist organization American Corn Growers Foundation, US corn farmers alone have lost at least $814 million in the last five years due to the rejection of GE crops by foreign markets. Before GE corn was introduced in 1994, US growers accounted for 82 percent of the European corn import market. Now, the market share has slipped to less than one percent, according Dan McGuire, the foundation’s CEO.
While some countries, including the Philippines, China, Argentina, India, and most recently, Thailand, have started growing GE crops, Zambia, Zimbabwe and several other African nations have rejected them. In Europe, consumers and politicians remain skeptical about the safety of GE crops. Many European countries have banned GE crops altogether and still others have imposed strict labeling laws.
Although the European Union ended its five-year moratorium on the importation of GE crops in May of this year when it decided to allow a Swiss biotech company, Syngenta, to market insect-resistant corn, acceptance of GE crops is still not widespread. The EU still does prohibits the growth of GE crops within its borders, and, after resistance from consumers and the business community, Syngenta decided not to import the corn after all.
Despite the EU’s recent reversal, the US, Canada and Argentina are moving forward with a lawsuit filed against the EU last year for the moratorium. Bush administration officials told Euobserver.com that the countries plan to pursue the suit, currently pending before the World Trade Organization, until imports increase.
However, opponents of the California bans argue that they will actually put California farmers at a disadvantage in the marketplace.
“We’re concerned about these initiatives because we feel like any county-wide ban of federally-approved technology takes tools out of the hands of farmers,” said Sara Miller, spokesperson for the Western Plant Health Association, a trade group representing the fertilizer, herbicide and fungicide industry in California, Arizona and Hawaii. She added that these measures would infringe on the individual rights of farmers to grow the crops they think are best for their business.
Activists have turned that argument around. They say that allowing GE crops to be grown will take away the rights of farmers to grow GE-free crops since cross pollination is impossible to control and occurs in a much larger radius than the biotech companies admit. For example, in Mexico, native maize in remote farmland was found to be contaminated with genetically engineered DNA in 2001, despite that country’s ban on planting GE corn. The closest area where GE corn was ever known to have been planted was 60 miles away.
Meanwhile, the California activists say the local battle is just the beginning of a statewide movement against GE crops. “I think [the anti-GE crop movement is] going to be growing over the next six months to a year,” said Simon Harris, outreach coordinator for Californians for GE-Free Agriculture. “It just seems like more and more [anti-GE] groups are popping up.”
Two Northern California counties, Mendocino and Trinity, have already passed laws banning the farming of GE crops. Sonoma County is on track to have a ban on the ballot in March 2005, and more counties are interested, Harris said. In counties throughout the state, volunteers are reaching out to voters by setting up tables at local farmers’ markets and community gatherings, holding debates, advertising in local publications, and hosting events, including the Farmer-to-Farmer Campaign, a group of farmers who travel the country informing other farmers about their experiences growing GE crops.
So far the big biotech companies have “been keeping a very low profile,” Harris said. But they are funding opposition campaigns. Earlier this year, the biotech industry spent more than $500,000 fighting the measure in Mendocino County, according to the Press Democrat, a local paper.
Opposition to the measures has sprung up throughout each of the counties, fostered mostly through local farm bureaus. The California Farm Bureau Federation — a non-governmental, non-partisan networking, lobbying and support organization for farmers — supports biotechnology, but has left it up to each county branch to respond to these measures.
Humboldt County Farm Bureau says it is “neutral” on the initiative there, while San Luis Obispo Farm Bureau has established an official opposition group, according to executive director Jackie Crabb. In Butte County, the farm bureau recently donated $35,000 to a local organization fighting the initiative and has provided representatives to address public forums on the issue.
“We want to have [GE] technology available to the farmers of Butte County so they can use it in the future,” said Jaimee Wood, a spokeswoman for the Farm Bureau.
Speaking from her home in San Luis Obispo County, Campbell, one of the initiative’s organizers, said the ballot measures are not meant to permanently block farmers from growing GE crops, or to limit their options. She just wants farmers to wait until GE crops have been made and proven safe, if they ever are.
“We can repeal a law,” she said, “a lot easier than we can recall a seed bank.”