L.A.'s bid to target genetically engineered crops isn't productive

We're not exactly sure why two Los Angeles councilmen are proposing a ban on growing genetically engineered crops or selling the seeds in the city. Maybe that's because they don't seem all that clear on the matter themselves.

So far as anyone knows, there are no plants grown in the city whose DNA was tinkered with in a laboratory, according to spokesmen for the two council members, Paul Koretz and Mitch O'Farrell. Nor does anyone have plans to grow them. Bioengineered seeds are generally sold to large agricultural operations, the type that an urban center doesn't have. So what's the concern?

One spokesman said that small urban farmers have asked for the measure out of fear of lawsuits by the likes of Monsanto if there is seed drift — if engineered genes accidentally make their way into organic or conventional fields. But California passed a law in 2008 that protects farmers from precisely these kinds of lawsuits.

Another explanation given for the ban: Genetically engineered crops are making honeybees disappear in America. This might be a valid argument if there were solid evidence for it (and if there were actually any such crops in Los Angeles). But the reasons for beehive collapse are not fully understood. According to the most recent, far-reaching research, pesticides appear to be one culprit, along with parasites, lack of genetic diversity, even bad nutrition among the bees. It is true that many genetically engineered crops either contain pesticides or are designed to withstand them. But in that case, the problem is the pesticides, not the plants. And some genetically engineered crops have nothing to do with pesticides.A form of rice is under development for people with allergies. Scientists are trying to figure out how to use genetic engineering to save the nation's citrus crops from a ravaging bacterial disease, perhaps by injecting genes from other organisms that have natural immunity.

There are some rational concerns about engineered food. Overuse of pesticides on engineered crops in the Midwest has created resistant weeds and killed much of the milkweed, the host plant for monarch butterflies. Maintaining a variety of seeds is important to our agricultural future. But neither of these is helped by a local ban on crops that don't exist in Los Angeles anyway.

If only the overuse of antibiotics in livestock, which promotes the development of resistant infections, prompted this kind of consumer pushback. Such infections are a more serious threat to public health than genetic modification. Farmers have been modifying crops through cross-breeding for centuries. We look to elected leaders to disseminate facts, set priorities and make evidence-based policy, not add to uninformed public panic.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World