The Fight to Keep Genetically Engineered Crops in Their Place
Like many organic farmers, one of Jeff Fiorovich’s biggest fears is that the apples, pumpkins and other crops he grows in Watsonville one day might be contaminated by genetically engineered varieties from a neighboring farm.
If that happens, "you can’t be certified as organic," he said. "It destroys your business."
But if Fiorovich’s Crystal Bay Farm was contaminated by wind, birds or people accidentally spreading the altered seeds or pollen, his ability to learn the source and seek legal damages would be severely limited. City, county and state authorities in California typically aren’t told the specific locations of genetically manipulated plants.
Only the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service gathers such data, and it usually doesn’t share it with state officials because farmers say that would compromise their confidential business information.
The federal agency also generally doesn’t track where such crops are grown, only where farmers conduct initial tests of such crops in their fields. And even then, it often fails to determine the specific locations of such tests, according to a December 2005 report by the U.S. Inspector General.
Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, has introduced a bill, AB 541, that would require farmers to notify local county agricultural commissioners within 30 days of planting or testing genetically altered crops. It also would declare gene-manipulated plant contaminations that cause more than $3,500 in losses to be a nuisance, making it easier for organic farmers and others to sue.
That makes sense to the 44-year-old Fiorovich, who primarily makes his living building homes but runs the five-acre farm as a hobby with his wife, Lori, also 44.
"It doesn’t seem fair, from my perspective, that we don’t know where it’s grown," he said. But the measure faces opposition from growers who rely on genetic engineering.
Cynthia Cory, director of environmental affairs for the California Farm Bureau Federation, said she is willing to work with Huffman to soften the bill’s provisions. But as it is worded now, she fears, it might force farmers to reveal competitive businesses information and spend too much time filling out forms.
John De Vincenzo of San Luis Obispo, who acknowledged last year to county officials that he grows corn genetically modified to resist a destructive worm, has another concern.
He believes his crops wouldn’t cause permanent genetic harm, even if their pollen was accidentally spread to his neighbors’ corn, because he said corn farmers generally replant every year with new seed. Even so, he said he received a barrage of e-mails this month demanding he halt the practice. And he’s afraid vandals might target him.
"I don’t have time to be hassled by anti-GE people," De Vincenzo said. "And I don’t have time for them to be tromping over my property and my crops."
The first genetically engineered plant, the Flavr Savr tomato, was marketed by Calgene of Davis in 1994. Today, federal authorities estimate, about 100 million acres of biologically altered crops are grown each year in this country.
Only about 600,000 of those acres – mostly devoted to corn, cotton and alfalfa – are in California, according to state farm bureau estimates. But that is likely to increase. Agriculture experts say farmers in the state are testing genetically altered lettuce, grapes, apples, strawberries, peppers and squash, among other produce.
By inserting genetic material from one organism into another, growers can create crops with specific traits more quickly and easily than they can through traditional plant breeding. The method is used for everything from adding nutrients and causing vegetables to ripen more slowly to making plants insect resistant and bolstering crop yields.
Since 1994, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved more than 50 genetically engineered foods, including corn, papaya, potatoes and squash. The Grocery Manufacturers of America estimates that about 70 percent of all processed foods in grocery stores – from cereal and pizza to hot dogs and soda – may contain genetically engineered ingredients.
Researchers also are trying to make citrus fruits that aren’t bitter, potatoes that soak up less oil when fried and beans that produce less gas when eaten.
Yet genetic engineering remains controversial. Much of the concern centers on its long-term health effects. But there’s also concern such crops could spread and become mixed with those on conventional and organic farms.
On March 5, the U.S. Agriculture Department issued a nationwide alert to stop the planting and distribution of a type of long-grain rice seed, fearing it may contain unapproved genetically engineered material.
That followed an incident in August when the agency said traces of another genetically engineered rice being tested in Louisiana had been found in Arkansas and Missouri commercial rice destined for human consumption. That prompted Europe to cut off rice imports from the United States, sending rice prices plunging and triggering lawsuits by several hundred U.S. rice farmers who claimed they were economically harmed.
None of the genetically engineered rice in those two cases is believed to be present in California. Nonetheless, the incidents prompted the California Rice Commission this month to ask for a moratorium on all field tests of genetically modified rice in the state, noting that "the federal regulatory process is not working."
Rice isn’t the only concern.
On March 12, U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer in San Francisco temporarily halted sales of an alfalfa seed genetically engineered to resist an herbicide. Citing concerns that it might contaminate conventional or organic alfalfa, the judge said the U.S. Department of Agriculture hadn’t adequately assessed the seed’s possible environmental impact.
"A federal action that eliminates a farmer’s choice to grow non-genetically engineered crops, or a consumer’s choice to eat non-genetically engineered food, is an undesirable consequence," the judge declared.
It was the third such ruling in recent months. On Feb. 5, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., determined that the US. Department of Agriculture had prematurely approved tests of a biotech turf grass. And in August, the agency was scolded by a federal judge in Hawaii for allowing tests of genetically engineered corn and sugar cane.
In addition, four of California’s 58 counties – Santa Cruz, Marin, Mendocino and Trinity – have approved bans or other restrictions on genetically engineered crops, although 16 other counties have rejected such measures or passed resolutions supporting such crops.
Santa Clara County Agricultural Commissioner Greg Van Wassenhove hasn’t taken a position on AB 541’s provision requiring him to know the locations of genetically engineered plantings. But San Luis Obispo County Agriculture Commissioner Robert Lilley favors the idea.
"It’s easy to have contamination if you’re not paying attention," Lilley said.
Greg Beccio of Happy Boy Farms in Freedom in Santa Cruz County agreed, given the increasing use of genetically engineered crops and the potential threat he believes they pose to organic farmers like him.
"It’s not so much of an issue here yet, but it’s going to be," Beccio predicted. "I see it coming. We are the heart of the food source for the country. There is going to be a big battle fought."