A bill currently before the California legislature would promote a consistent statewide agricultural policy by preventing individual counties from banning the growing of genetically modified crops.
Democrat Takes Initiative
The bill, introduced June 29, is being led through the state Senate by Dean Florez, a Democrat who represents parts of Kern, Tulare, and Fresno counties. Those three are among California’s top six counties for agricultural production, according to the Measure of California Agriculture 2000, produced by the University of California Agricultural Issues Center.
In 2004, six California counties voted on whether to ban the growing of genetically modified foods. Voters in Mendocino passed the ban in March 2004, while voters in Marin and Trinity passed bans in November 2004. The Florez bill would overturn those votes. Voters in Butte, San Luis Obispo, and Humboldt counties rejected similar bans.
Sonoma County is set to vote on a similar measure this fall.
No Effect Felt Yet
“There is no impact at this time from California counties banning genetically modified foods, because those counties have little or no genetically modified agriculture,” said Alex Avery, director of research at the Center for Global Food Issues.
“Where real agriculture is practiced, as in Humboldt, San Luis Obispo, and Butte Counties in California, these proposed bans have been voted down overwhelmingly,” noted Gregory Conko, director of food safety policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
“The areas that have enacted bans, including Marin and Mendocino counties, are ones where no real agriculture takes place, as in Marin, or where the agriculture that does take place is a highly specialized boutique industry that at least for the next few years would not benefit from using biotech crops, such as Mendocino’s wine production, since there are no commercially approved biotech grape varieties available,” continued Conko.
“Thus, in the near term, the bans are functionally just symbolic and largely meaningless,” Conko said. “Nevertheless, they are a matter of concern, if for no other reason than their symbolic message that some Americans can be as reactionary and Luddite as the Europeans have been.”
Farmers Support Florez Bill
The Florez bill has garnered broad support from agriculture groups, including the Farm Bureau, California Association of Winegrape Growers, and California Cattlemen’s Association. Farm groups say the bans would create a competitive disadvantage with other parts of the world.
“The impact could be huge in the future,” said Avery, “because a ban in one county could lend credibility to the bans and provide an impetus for other counties.
“They’re trying the domino effect,” Avery said. “It’s a definite strategy by anti-biotech forces.”
Local Option Wanted
Those who oppose the Florez bill want to have the local option to ban biotech crops. Dan Solnit of GE-Free Sonoma County was quoted in the July 3 Sacramento Bee as saying because the state has failed to ban genetically engineered foods, counties must do it.
Avery contends local officials do not have sufficient staff or expertise to make such decisions.
“The Florez bill is necessary because it is all too easy for left-wing anti-biotech activists to hoodwink local councils into thinking biotech crops are risky or dangerous,” said Avery. “The problem is that the county-level commissioners do not have the expertise to judge these matters on the scientific merits.”
Biotech Environmental Benefits Noted
Henry Miller, research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, says California’s environmentalists may be unintentionally promoting the use of conventional pesticides. “California boasts a strong environmental movement,” Miller noted, “but by outlawing the cultivation of insect-resistant crops developed with the assistance of biotechnology, voters would ensure the increased use of chemical pesticides and persistence of these chemicals in the area’s ground and surface water.
“Biotechnology’s potential is not just theoretical,” Miller added. “By inserting a single gene into squash, sweet potatoes, and other crops, scientists have made them virus-resistant. Gene-spliced papaya varieties have resurrected Hawaii’s $64 million-a-year industry, which was moribund a decade ago because of the predations of papaya ringspot virus.
“In addition,” Miller said, “because of the way that gene-splicing enhances the resistance of plants to pests and disease, the natural environment already has been spared the use of scores of millions of pounds of chemical pesticides.”
Avery said genetically engineered agriculture does not threaten organic farms.
“Not a single organic crop has lost certification because of biotech ‘contamination,'” stated Avery. “The organic standards have nothing about unintentional ‘contamination.'” Avery noted the certification of organic foods is concerned primarily with process, and a farmer will not be decertified unless he knowingly plants biotech crops.
“Activists are relentless in promoting The Big Lie about gene-splicing–namely, that it is unproven, untested, and unregulated,” said Miller. “After more than 20 years, none of the hypothetical concerns about safety has been substantiated.
“For more than a decade,” Miller said, “farmers have cultivated gene-spliced plants on more than 100 million acres annually, in at least 18 countries, and not a single ecosystem has been disrupted, or person injured, by any gene-spliced product.”
Michael Coulter ([email protected]) teaches political science at Grove City College.
For more information …
Nearly two dozen documents on biotech crops and related legislation are available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database. Point your Web browser to http://www.heartland.org, click on the PolicyBot™ button, and select the topic/subtopic combination Environment/Biotechnology.
See also “Anti-Biotech Ballot Initiatives Fail in California,” Environment & Climate News, January 2005, http://heartland.org/Article.cfm?artId=16192
“The Only Book You’ll Need on Plant Biotech” (a review of Mendel in the Kitchen), Environment & Climate News, July 2005, http://heartland.org/Article.cfm?artId=17358
“Anti-Biotech Bills Find Little Traction in State Legislatures,” Environment & Climate News, August 2004, http://heartland.org/Article.cfm?artId=15436