Anti-Biotech Ballot Initiatives Fail in California

Published January 1, 2005

Local initiatives in three of four counties that had put biotechnology bans on the November ballot were defeated, following strong opposition to the measures by the University of California.

“It is the policy of the University of California not to take positions on local initiatives or ballot measures that do not directly affect it,” said an October statement by the University of California Biotechnology Research and Education Program (UCBREP). “However, as a systemwide science research and education program, we consider it within our mandate to provide information to improve knowledge and understanding of the sciences and particularly biotechnology.”

California Counties Carefully Chosen

The measures’ supporters had carefully chosen four California counties that do not currently use biotechnology to grow genetically improved crops. Without that local stake, biotech opponents believed the four counties would give them their best chance to make a symbolic statement against using the new technology

Had the proposed bans passed, no persons, businesses, or corporations in the target counties would have been allowed to grow genetically altered crops. The bans would not have prohibited the importation of genetically improved food items grown elsewhere.

Even so, the initiatives lost handily in three of the four counties, as supporters gained their only victory in liberal Marin county, outside San Francisco.

In Butte County, the measure lost 61 percent to 39 percent; in Humboldt County, it lost 65 percent to 35 percent; and in San Luis Obispo County, it lost 59 percent to 41 percent.

“Farmers can’t be handcuffed with something that is available everywhere but here,” said San Luis Obispo County Farm Bureau President Tom Ikeda, quoted in the November 3 Greenwire.

The Butte County results were particularly significant because Butte County is primarily agricultural, one of the top rice-producing counties in the state.

University Scientists Tout Biotech Benefits

The input of University of California scientists appeared to be an important factor in defeating the proposed bans.

“New technologies have been continuously applied in agriculture and food production as they were developed,” noted the UCBREP statement issued before the election. “Most of these technologies have come into common usage without much controversy or even knowledge by the average consumer. Agriculturalists have been genetically modifying animals and crop plants through cross breeding, mutation selection, and culling those with undesirable characteristics for hundreds of years.”

Keeping that history in mind, the statement continued, “On balance, neither the weight of scientific research nor the great majority of the scientific community support the view that organisms modified using the present day biotechnology pose novel or greater dangers to the environment or human health than organisms developed by other means.

“The consensus of scientific opinion and evidence is that biotechnology-derived foods and feeds present no new or unusual dangers to the environment or human health (Food and Agriculture Organization FAO/WHO, OECD, Seven Academies Report, French Medical Association, Royal Society of London, National Research Council, Society of Toxicology).

“In fact,” added the UCBREP statement, “the scientific panel concluded that growing such crops could have environmental advantages over other crops. Agricultural biotechnology has helped farmers around the world boost their productivity and grow crops in more ecologically healthy fields while allowing much more efficient use of resources. This technology allows reduced tillage, which cuts down on greenhouse gas emissions, water runoff, machinery use, and soil erosion. Increasing yields on existing acreage reduces the pressure to convert forests and protected land into farmland.”

Additional Group of Scientists Agrees

A similar statement of opposition to the proposed ban was issued by the 23-campus California State University system-wide biotechnology program (CSUPERB).

“These initiatives narrowly and selfishly serve the purposes of the anti-biotech community by attempting to prohibit the cultivation of biotech crops that have been proven to be beneficial to agriculture in general, and farmers and the environment in particular,” said the CSUPERB statement.

“The United States has well-established science-based regulatory requirements that assure the food and feed and environmental safety of biotech crops,” the CSUPERB statement continued. “Indeed, extensive safety data have been generated for each specific biotech crop and U.S. and international regulatory agencies have granted regulatory approvals. Most importantly, no case has been documented of harm to humans, animals, or the environment from any of the biotech crops currently being marketed.

“Importantly,” CSUPERB added, “biotech crops that are resistant to certain specific insect pests have allowed farmers to dramatically reduce the use of highly toxic, broad-spectrum insecticides. It has been reported that the adoption of eight current biotech cultivars resulted in a 46 million pound reduction in pesticide use in 2001. Moreover, the use of herbicide tolerant biotech crops has resulted in farmers switching from older generation herbicides–many of which have become water contaminants–to newer, cleaner, more environmentally benign herbicides.”

Agriculture Group Rallies Behind Technology

Before the election, Truth About Trade & Technology Board Member Ted Sheely summarized the scientific and political consensus regarding the desirability of biotechnology. “Activists are trying to ban what Bush and Kerry endorse–a mainstream farming choice utilizing technology that’s accepted by scientists, conservationists, and the majority of men and women who work the land in my state, around the nation, and across the globe.”

Added Sheely, “The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization says biotech foods are safe to eat and farm. So does the National Research Council, here in the United States. So do professors at California’s public universities.”

Deans, Administrators Oppose Bans

In August 2004, the CSUPERB Faculty Consensus Group, which includes 60 representatives from the 23 University of California campuses, met in Los Angeles and passed the following statement:

“Science is the driving force behind innovation and technology advancement and has been a key driver for California’s agricultural success. As deans, administrative heads, and research scientists in the California State University System, we are alarmed by the extent of incomplete information and false statements regarding agricultural biotechnology that are prevalent in California today.

“There is no credible scientific evidence to question the health and environmental safety of approved, commercial biotech crops, yet opponents of agricultural biotechnology routinely challenge their safety.”

James Hoare ([email protected]) is managing attorney at the Syracuse, New York, office of McGivney, Kluger & Gannon.

For more information …

The statement issued by the University of California Biotechnology Research and Education Program (UCBREP) is available online at

The statement issued by the California State University system-wide biotechnology program (CSUPERB) is available online at

More information about the California measures and biotech in general is available on the Web site of Truth About Trade & Technology,