Farmers Defend Engineered Crops

Times Staff Writer

Like gigantic lawnmowers, three agricultural combines cut the final swaths through Ryan Schohr’s rice fields the other day. The harvest was complete. It was time to take a breath and set aside perennial concerns over pests and weeds and weather.

But as the Nov. 2 election approaches, folks in Butte County’s sprawling farm industry are fretting over a ballot measure that aims to ban genetically modified crops in this corner of the California breadbasket.

Butte is one of four counties -- Marin, Humboldt and San Luis Obispo are the others -- trying to follow Mendocino County, which in March approved the nation’s first ban on cultivation of bioengineered crops.

The electoral assault -- dubbed Measure D in Butte -- worries farmers like Schohr.

Never mind that nothing he plants is genetically engineered. Never mind that Butte County has virtually no crops borne of DNA spliced in the biotechnology lab. His worries are long term -- about staying competitive, about being shut out of agriculture’s next big thing, whenever it rolls down the gravelly farm roads.


“There’s benefits on the horizon from biotech,” Schohr said, peering out of his mud-splattered pickup truck. “We don’t want to be excluded.”

A different sort of future worries bioengineering foes.

They say genetically engineered food could harm the environment and blow on the winds to contaminate organic crops. As for the potential health impacts, nothing short of the fate of the world’s food supply is at stake, they contend.

“Without their consent, consumers are being forced to participate in the largest uncontrolled biological experiment in the history of humankind,” said Scott Wolf, a leader of Citizens for a GE-Free Butte.

First introduced to the world’s farm fields in the mid-1990s, agricultural bioengineering is still in its infancy. But genetically altered crops have found a significant place on America’s grocery shelves.

The biggest foray has been into four major crops -- corn, soybeans, rapeseed and cottonseed -- that have been engineered to resist pests or withstand potent commercial weed killers. With soy and corn a staple in myriad products, as much as 70% of the nation’s processed foods contain bioengineered ingredients.

Opponents say government has shirked its duty to test and regulate the rising tide of genetically altered foods.

Opposition in Europe

Overseas, genetically altered crops have faced widespread opposition in Europe and Africa, where critics say the long-term risks are unknown. By patenting new-breed crops, they say, multinational companies stand to reap an economic windfall while farmers in the U.S., Europe and the Third World struggle.Now, in the U.S., opponents are attempting to mount a blockade of their own, one county at a time.

Aside from the four measures on the Nov. 2 ballot, others are hot on their heels. Foes of genetically engineered crops in half a dozen other regions, from Sonoma to Santa Barbara, are laying plans for ballot campaigns next year. So are activists in other states, such as Hawaii and Vermont.

The effort looks to have its best shot in Marin County, where supervisors endorsed the ban. In San Luis Obispo County, backers of a ban face a tough fight against a coalition of farmers and business leaders.

Humboldt County’s proposal features the toughest penalties of the lot -- jail time for growers who step over the bioengineering line. But criminalizing farming proved the measure’s undoing.

This month, the Humboldt County district attorney concluded that the ban violated constitutional rights of due process because there was no provision for a jury trial. Backers are now asking voters to reject the measure so they can come back next year with a retooled version.

The biggest stakes may be in Butte, a county of 211,000 where agriculture is king.

Head up U.S. Highway 99 north of Sacramento and the dominance of farming is as undeniable as the rice fields and almond orchards spreading in all directions. Agriculture is a $350-million-a-year industry in Butte County, and farmers are among the county’s movers and shakers. The supervisor representing Gridley is a rice farmer. So is the state assemblyman.

Local farmers have opened their wallets to block Measure D. Unlike the battle in Mendocino, where the biotech industry outspent opponents 7 to 1 and still got beat, Butte’s opposition has been mostly homegrown.

The county’s farm bureau has raised more than $100,000 to put up scads of signs along rural highways, staff phone banks and send speakers out to warn about the risk to Butte’s dominant industry. The state farm bureau and California Cattlemen’s Assn. have also chipped in money and manpower.

“This has united folks who normally wouldn’t share a cup of coffee,” said Jamie Johansson, an olive grower in Oroville and opposition leader.

Like many of his peers, Johansson sees genetic engineering as agriculture’s brave new face, with a host of potential benefits -- increased crop production, less pesticide use, reductions in tillage, diesel use and air pollution. For now, about the only genetically engineered crops in the county, folks say, are a few herbicide-tolerant cornfield mazes.

As for the potential pitfalls to human and environmental health, farmers here are mostly dubious. The ban, they say, is being fed by hysteria.

“They like to use Hollywood themes by calling it Frankenfood or killer tomatoes,” Johansson said. “They want to scare people. But none of the fears have been proven.”

But in its campaign against Measure D, the farm industry hasn’t shied away from whipping up its own brand of fear.

The industry says the ban is so broadly written that it could unintentionally block traditional types of rice that are the offspring of genetic mutations produced in the lab during the 1970s. They’ve cautioned that “outside extremists” are trying to whip up trouble, citing the money and manpower that has flowed to Measure D from the Bay Area and other liberal enclaves.

Approve the ban, they warn, and Butte County would be turning its back on the future of its biggest industry.

Look no further than the Rice Experiment Station.

Sitting on 500 acres near the tiny town of Biggs, the industry-funded facility has for the last 92 years conducted research into new types of rice, producing roughly 90% of the varietals growing in the region. Though no tests on recombinant DNA are being conducted at the station, its scientists don’t want to foreclose that possibility.

“We’ve never had anyone come in and declare we can’t do research,” said Kent McKenzie, the station’s director. “But that’s just what Measure D is saying.”

Backers of Measure D say such concerns are overblown.

Wolf pointed out that the measure allows DNA research by universities, meaning the Butte County research facility could tap into its long history of cooperation with UC Davis to explore genetic engineering. The measure likewise would do nothing to ban current brands of rice, he insisted. “It’s a complete scare tactic.”

As for their own dire talk, supporters of the crop bioengineering ban say it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Lou Ann Choss, 51, grew up in Indiana corn country. She has seen the farming industry evolve from small family units to industrialized behemoths. The biotech effort is the latest step in what she considers an unhealthy trend.

Safety Concerns

“Instead of the highest and best good for all, it’s all about finding the highest and best profit for multinationals and stockholders,” said Choss, a leading proponent of the ban.

Despite the conservative bent of Butte County, the movement had no trouble attracting more than 100 volunteers, who quickly gathered the required 7,000 signatures last spring. Since then, they’ve hit Chamber of Commerce meetings, radio programs and other venues to make their pitch to keep the biogenetic genie in the bottle.

A victory in the heart of California’s farm belt could give the movement critical momentum in what has become a geopolitical battle pitting multinational corporations against Third World farmers, scientists against environmentalists.

Environmentalists warn that modified genes in bioengineered crops threaten to spread to wild plants or organic-grown crops, undercutting their marketability and virtually ensuring a DNA-altered future for the food supply.

In California, genetic engineering has pushed mostly into a few corn crops and many of the vast cotton fields of San Joaquin Valley.

But a bigger future isn’t far away. Firms are forging ahead with new strains of rice featuring better pest and herbicide resistance, imbued with vitamins or acting as virtual factories for pharmaceuticals.