The growing battle over genetically engineered plants is slowly taking root in California, most recently with a proposed Assembly bill that would allow farmers to sue bio-crop manufacturers for cross-contamination of organic and traditionally grown plants, which could hurt their marketability.
Freshman Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) introduced AB 541 in February, saying it would establish the state’s only law related to genetically altered plants, or bio-crops.
The Assembly Judiciary Committee will discuss the bill, also known as the Food and Farm Protection Act, at its meeting today.
“There’s a lot of organic farmers in my district that worry about what potential damage genetically engineered crops could do to their fields,” Huffman said.
With few regulatory laws on the books in the United States, California’s attempts to enter the fray over bio-crops could hold major implications for the state’s agricultural industry -- the nation’s largest with $27 billion in annual revenue.
Nearly 30 years since the introduction of genetically altered plants, growers are increasingly facing a backlash from local and regional governments worried about the plants’ unknown environmental and health risks.
Marin, Mendocino, Santa Cruz and Trinity counties in the last three years have each passed outright bans on growing genetically altered plants. And the city of Santa Monica recently went so far as to adopt an ordinance to keep the crops out of its half-acre community garden.
At the same time, genetically engineered plants are more popular than ever across the country and around the world.
Between 1996 and 2006, the amount of land cultivated worldwide with genetically engineered plants increased from 4.2 million acres to 250 million acres, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report. More than half of those acres were in the United States.
Proponents say genetically engineered plants can provide longer-lasting crops, are resistant to adverse conditions, herbicides and insects, and can be used for pharmaceutical purposes or as edible vaccines for diseases such as hepatitis B and AIDS.
“The benefits are even more profound for developing nations as it could lead to genetically enhanced crops with higher iron content and longer-lasting shelf life,” said Brian Hyps, a spokesman for the Maryland-based American Society of Plant Biologists. “If anything, the acceptance of bio-crops has become widespread, as it’s hard to make it through the grocery store without encountering one.”
In 2005, 52% of corn, 87% of soybeans and 79% of cotton planted in the United States was genetically engineered, according to a 2006 USDA report.
Farmers said bio-crops have led to less pesticide use and longer-lasting crops with no visible adverse effects on their environment, the report found.
Encouraged about the future of bio-crops, Butte, Humboldt, San Luis Obispo and Sonoma counties all defeated ballot measures in recent years aimed at banning their growth.
Bio-crops were primarily developed in the 1980s as plant biologists and farmers sought to make stronger crops. The plants are created by taking desired genetic material, or DNA, from one organism and injecting it into a plant’s DNA.
While cross-breeding similar plants and crops is common, genetically engineered plants are altered using DNA not just from plants but any living organism, possibly even mammals, said Michael F. Thomashow, a Michigan State University plant biologist and professor.
For example, altering the DNA of squash can result in the grown plant fending off viruses, making it last longer, Thomashow said.
Nicknames critics use, such as “Frankenfood” and “super weeds,” only breed misconceptions about the plants, which are still in the minority of most U.S. agriculture, Thomashow said.
The USDA reported last year that only 6% of the nation’s agriculture was bio-crops.
“It’s like anything that’s new,” said Thomashow, who has studied bio-crops since 1980. “It will take time for understanding the issues and becoming comfortable with this new technology.”
Since the USDA started monitoring genetically engineered plants 21 years ago, the agency has approved 1,311 separate permits for experiments throughout California. It’s against federal law to conduct a bio-crop experiment outside of a controlled setting, such as an indoor lab, without USDA approval.
Skeptics say genetically engineered plants may contaminate the soil and general food supply and produce weeds resistant to environmentally safe herbicides.
Last August, federal authorities said the U.S. food supply had been “cross-contaminated” by an unapproved variety of genetically engineered rice after it was found in Southern U.S. shipping bins, mills and fields.
Believed to have been grown in small field trials in 2001 at Louisiana State University, the rice developed by Bayer CropScience led to 40 farmers suing the company.
Japan and various European markets temporarily banned U.S. rice, leading to a $150-million market price drop.
“It’s situations like that we’re trying to avoid,” Huffman said.
Huffman’s bill would allow anyone whose property annually incurs $3,500 or more in damages from cross-contamination to sue the bio-crop manufacturer responsible, but not necessarily the farmer planting the bio-crops.
“There is no ban in this bill,” said Huffman, who said he does not oppose bio-crop research. “The fact is that genetic engineering is with us and will be for a long time.
“There needs to be some regulation.”
AB 541, which Huffman said could come up for a vote later this year, is the latest example of attempts by government to adopt some controls.
In March 2004, Mendocino County’s voters elected to ban genetically engineered plants, the first measure of its kind in the country, said Dave Bengston, the county’s agricultural commissioner.
“It was just a preventative measure for our organic growing community,” he said.
Marin, Santa Cruz and Trinity counties all followed with similar ordinances.
Last December, Santa Monica’s City Council unanimously approved a ban of genetically altered plants in its tiny community garden.
“I don’t think it was a radical step,” said Kevin McKeown, the councilman who backed the ban as a precautionary measure. “It’s an indication of Santa Monica having a heightened awareness for environmental issues.”
But UCLA biology professor Ann Hirsch disagrees, saying the City Council’s logic contradicts their high-profile “progressive” approach on many other issues.
“Instead of accepting that we need more research to see what are the potential benefits, they are just banning it outright,” said Hirsch, who is also a Santa Monica resident. “But there is a lot of hype around the ‘unknown’ and an underlying hate of big business associated with these plant growers.”
Santa Monica community gardener Hugh Browning agreed with Hirsch that the ban is more political than scientific.
“There’s a paternalistic attitude the city takes around some issues,” Browning, 73, said on a recent morning as he trimmed pink jasmine adorning his plot of 20 years.
“The ban sounds nice,” he said, “but it seems more like in the spirit of apple pie and motherhood.”
Thomashow said the scientific and political debate surrounding genetically engineered plants would only increase until the federal government decides which regulatory approach is best. “There should be regulatory hurdles,” he said, “but not roadblocks to progress.”