Fooling Mother Nature

Supporters hope a ballot measure can save Butte County from genetically altered crops. But is it too late to put the gene genie back into the bottle?

The Chico State University Farm has posted a number of signs warning visitors of its bio-technology program.

The Chico State University Farm has posted a number of signs warning visitors of its bio-technology program.

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

For thousands of years humans have practiced genetic modification by breeding microbes, plants and animals for medicine, agriculture and industry. Through the use of selective breeding we’ve developed everything from penicillin to cherry tomatoes to cocker spaniels. And most would agree this manipulation of nature has greatly improved the human condition.

But in 1983 the practice took a quantum leap when scientists learned how to take DNA from any species—bacteria, viruses, plants, insects or animals, including humans—and engineer it into any other organism. This is a far cry from selective breeding.

The vast majority of genetically engineered organisms (GEOs)—also sometimes called genetically modified organisms (GMOs)—in use today are food crops manipulated to withstand herbicides or to increase their tolerance of insects.

Luke Anderson is an activist, author and researcher with the United Kingdom-based Genetic Engineering Network. He gave a talk in Chico this week and provided two extreme examples of genetic engineering.

A biotech company called Nexia has wired a goat with a spider gene, allowing it to produce milk laced with the protein that creates spider webs, thereby creating a string with unusual tensile strength. And he mentioned a company called Epicyte that has taken human genes with antibodies that attack sperm and inserted them into corn to create a plant-gel contraceptive that kills the sperm on contact.

Right now a company in Sacramento called Ventria Bioscience is splicing a human gene from mothers’ milk into rice plants to grow a drug designed to treat diarrhea. Possible benefits aside, crossing pharmaceutical rice with commercial rice could be devastating to California’s $4 billion rice industry, if the engineered rice ever escaped into the state’s rice fields.

Currently Ventria is growing its pharmaceutical rice in 10 Southern California counties, allowing for a 300-mile buffer between its rice and the rice grown in Northern California for human consumption.

Last month local opponents of GEOs, Citizens for GE-Free Butte County, qualified a ballot measure that if passed in November would ban the growing and raising of genetically engineered crops and animals here. Members of the group say the new life forms were not sufficiently studied for their potential long-term impacts on health and the environment before they were unleashed from the laboratory onto the world, and those that are out there are not being properly contained.

Already there are reports of a “superweed” proliferating across Canada, where as much as 70 percent of the canola grown is a product of Monsanto, one of the leaders in GEO production.

The Monsanto seeds produce a crop, whether it be corn, canola or soybeans (the company recently abandoned efforts at gene-altered wheat), engineered to survive spraying with the company’s widely used herbicide Roundup. This “Roundup Ready” idea is brilliant in its marketing approach but, to many people, alarming in its application. The herbicide kills unwanted weeds but not the desired crop. And the farmer, who’s contracted with the company, agrees not to harvest seeds at the end of each year, but rather purchase new ones from Monsanto. The farmers must also agree to use only Roundup brand herbicide. And if the Monsanto seeds should accidentally drift or be transported by bird or insect to a neighboring farm and the crop is detected growing there, that unwitting farmer must pay Monsanto for use of its product. The St. Louis-based global company regularly employs gene detectives in the field to root out these unwary farmers.

GEO supporters and the biotech industry say the fears and criticism are unfounded. Genetic engineering is simply a new twist on an old science, an aid to nature that in the long run will eliminate human starvation worldwide through greater crop yields and nutritional value and help the environment by diminishing the need for pesticide spraying.

Locally, organic farmers such as Forest Ranch vintner Phil LaRocca and Bryce Lundberg, of the Lundberg family rice farmers in Richvale, say they fear genetically engineered grapes and rice could eventually contaminate their crops, effectively ruining their markets. They say efforts to contain the GEOs are too few and indeed may be too late in coming.

Lundberg speaks slowly when talking about GEOs, searching for just the right words, the right imagery before he talks. That caution is a reflection of the general attitude of his family’s farm. They are conservative, careful and quite successful. They’ve taken their time coming out with an endorsement of the GE-free measure. Lundberg said for all intents and purposes the farm does support the ban and hopes it works to send a message to the state Legislature to write state-wide legislation.

“It is very clear that we are supportive of regulating GMOs,” Lundberg said, “even to the point of banning them. If the measure is as straightforward as it seems, then it’s a tool or mechanism for the state to become more active in regulation across the state rather than relying on county by county. The next necessary step is gaining statewide protection.”

Lundberg said the farm will release an official statement of endorsement within the next few weeks.

“Once [GEOs] get approved [by the U.S. Department of Agriculture],” said Lundberg, “they’re on their way. Is there any technology to contain them? If you ask me, I say no.”

Ironically, the California rice industry is protected to a certain extent because of legislation written, at the request of the industry, by former state Assemblyman Dick Dickerson, R-Redding, that went into effect in 2001.

The law is designed to protect the purity of the many varieties of rice grown in the state. Lundberg Farms grows 13 separate types, each with a specific market, including Japan, where consumers are picky about their rice. Those markets could disappear if the rice became contaminated even by conventional cross-pollination.

Genetic contamination would be even worse, as consumers in Europe and Japan have consistently rejected GE foods.

The Butte County movement to outlaw GEOs is not unique. Last fall voters in Mendocino County overwhelmingly passed Measure H, an ordinance to ban GE crops. It is the first such law in the state—and possibly the country. Monsanto and other GEO industries poured three-quarters of a million dollars into a failed campaign to defeat the measure at the polls.

As mentioned, Butte County voters will consider a similar measure this November. The county may not see that kind of money spent in opposition, however, because observers expect the industry will begin to focus efforts on passing state legislation that would trump the county measures.

The Butte ballot measure reads, “It is unlawful for any person to propagate, cultivate, raise, or grow genetically engineered organisms in Butte County. …”

Phil LaRocca

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

However, it also says the ordinance does not prohibit “a fully accredited college or university [from engaging] in scientific research or education using genetically engineered organisms under secure, enclosed laboratory conditions, taking precautions to prevent contamination of the outside environment. …”

In fact, the Chico State University farm is currently growing several acres of Roundup-ready corn.

It’s probably the only GE crop in the county, says Richard Price, the Butte County agriculture commissioner, but he can’t be sure. “I wouldn’t know anyway,” he said. “The state might know, but there is no requirement for farmers to register [genetically altered] crops with the county commission. It’s a regional and statewide issue.”

But, in fact, the state Department of Food and Agriculture provides virtually no oversight of GEO crops. It relies instead on regulations imposed by three federal agencies: the USDA, which does field testing; the Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates plants that contain pesticides; and the Food and Drug Administration, which is responsible for food safety. In other words, no single government agency is charged with overseeing the implementation and monitoring of genetically altered crops.

Price said he questions the effectiveness of a local GEO ban. If someone has a huge GEO rice crop growing on the edge of Glenn County, he said, there is nothing he can do to keep its pollen from drifting across the county line.

“I’m not anti-GMO, but there are no regulatory requirements. But [if the measure passes], I’m going to have to go out there and sample crops, and you get a lot of false positives with the testing. I’m in the middle here.”

He wonders how the program would be funded, saying his budget is tight right now without the added duties. And with the state in dire financial straits of its own, Price said he doesn’t expect to see any additional funding come his way anytime soon.

For its part, the Butte County Farm Bureau officially opposes the ballot measure.

“We don’t want to preclude farmers from having that option,” said Tod Kimmelshue, former president of the bureau.

He cautioned, however, that the bureau is not in favor of having genetically modified rice, almonds, walnuts or any of the major existing crops grown in Butte County—anything that might upset the Asian markets.

He added that the bureau has no problem with crops like Roundup Ready corn being grown in Butte County. Kimmelshue initially said the ban would negatively impact the university’s ability to conduct research, unaware that the ballot measure exempts the school.

“We’re not wild about this, we think it calls for slow, deliberate research, but let’s not completely ban them,” Kimmelshue said. “That sends the wrong message.”

Is there a legitimate reason to fear GEOs? Has H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau become a work of nonfiction? Or is the resistance to genetic engineering just another knee-jerk reaction born of ignorance and an unfounded mistrust of science? As with most controversies, the answers depend on whom you ask.

According to a report from the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), six nations (Argentina, Brazil, Canada, China, South Africa and the United States) growing four crops (corn, soybeans, canola and cotton) engineered with two traits, insect resistance and herbicide tolerance, account for 99 percent of the world’s GEOs planted last year.

Currently, GEO crops are growing on about 70 million acres in this country. Other GE crops approved by the USDA include papayas, radicchio, potatoes, squash and tomatoes. Unlike in many other nations, there is no requirement here for labeling GEO foods on our grocery shelves.

Four years ago former state Sen. Tom Hayden, D-Santa Monica, tried but failed to pass legislation requiring that genetically altered foods be labeled in California. His goal, he said, was to give consumers a choice on whether to consume GE foods.

The FAO report says scientific evidence on the environmental and health impacts of genetic engineering is still emerging.

“Scientists generally agree that the transgenic crops currently being grown and the foods derived from them are safe to eat, although little is known about their long-term effects,” wrote FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf.

“There is less scientific agreement on the environmental impacts of transgenic crops,” Diouf noted. “The legitimate concerns for the safety of each transgenic product must be addressed prior to its release. Careful monitoring of the post-release effects of these products is essential.

“Where crops have not been cleared through biosafety risk assessments, a greater risk of harmful environmental consequences exists,” he continued. “Unauthorized varieties may not provide farmers with the expected level of pest control, leading to continued need for chemical pesticides and a greater risk of the development of pest resistance.”

Charles Crabb, dean of the College of Agriculture at Chico State University, supports GEOs and in fact includes them whenever he refers to “conventional farming,” as opposed to organic farming.

Crabb is a compact, owlish man with a tendency to lecture on subjects that interest him. With his white hair, white beard and silver-rimmed glasses around eyes that shine brightly when he talks, Crabb looks like a college professor. He is friendly, engaging and suffers with grace the ignorance of a reporter’s questions.

He immediately wanted to clear the air about the university’s relationship with the genetic industry.

Charles Crabb

Courtesy Of WSU Winter Wheat Lab

“The one thing that really needs to be understood,” he said, “is the perception of conflict of interest. I’ve heard this in some public venues that the university is not to be trusted on this issue because we’re in cahoots with the large companies like Monsanto. I can’t speak for other universities because I don’t know where they get their funding or what kind of research they are doing; but we do not have research from those companies.”

The CSU College of Agriculture, Crabb said, works exclusively in applied research.

“This is very different than the research at other universities, and I stress the word ‘applied.’ We’re working on the interface between emerging technologies and application in production agriculture.”

In other words, other schools do the laboratory experiments, are the “gene jockeys,” as Crabb calls them. Chico State applies their results to the field.

“Often what we’re doing is ready-for-production agriculture, but it needs to be localized,” Crabb explained. “We’re really looking at helping the early adopters—the agriculturalists—understand what’s happening. We have a long history of field days and other activities meant to help move information to the grower community in a faster manner.”

Crabb says that genetic engineering is not much different from what humans have been doing ever since they began farming.

“From the beginning they selected the crops that had the characteristics they wanted and they’ve planted those seeds back in the ground. In fact, the genetic material already exists. It’s a matter of finding how to get it to express itself as a phenotypic characteristic.”

Genetic engineering, of course, could not happen in nature—animals and plants don’t exchange genes outside the laboratory. But Crabb said he believes this is where humans can step in and improve on nature.

“We know you have one particular variety of processing tomatoes that are particularly resistant to certain diseases but may not yield as well or have as high of solids, which is what the factory wants,” Crabb said. “And you may have another tomato that is more susceptible to the disease but maybe has higher solid levels. So you work to cross those and get a variety in between. That is genetic engineering.

“Then you go that next step, where you are pulling genetic materials from animals and putting them on plants, or from bacteria to plants. We’ve learned more about the genetics of plants and animals. The similarity in our gene make-up is phenomenal. There are a lot more similarities than differences. That realization is relatively new.”

The University Farm off Hegan Lane in southwest Chico has a number of red signs posted throughout the property warning, “Bio-secure area, no entry,” and “To maintain bio-security all visitors are required to check in at the farm office.”

The farm, Crabb said, has been growing Roundup Ready corn used in cattle feed for two seasons. Indeed, in the fields on the west side of the farm are acres of neat rows of corn plants growing in virtually weed-free furrows.

“It is a choice we made because it provided us with some tools to manage weed problems in the field that we couldn’t manage otherwise,” he explained.

He said it also allows students to get experience “working with the different crops.”

Crabb said the university corn does not pose a threat to local farmers and that genetically altered crops can co-exist with conventional and organic crops.

There have been stories, however, of GEOs contaminating organic and non-altered crops. Nature magazine a few years back published the results of a study commissioned by the Mexican government and conducted by the University of California.

The report said Mexican maize—the very crop Native Americans purportedly introduced to the Pilgrims to keep them from starving in the New World—was found to be contaminated by the genetically altered variation, which is banned in Mexico.

Crabb said that report did indeed come out but was later refuted.

In fact the magazine did not refute the report but did run commentaries cricizing it after receiving pressure from the biotech industry.

“We know that we have to adhere to a buffer system, as we do with organic crops and traditional crops, to ensure there is no cross-contamination,” Crabb said. “The seed company that is buying back the seed we produce wants it to be a certain quality, so the issues of contamination have already been sorted out and are addressed. The mechanisms are in place to do this.”

Crabb said that even though the ballot measure would most likely not affect the University Farm, it could alter some practices there.

“We have to be good neighbors, and so we would have to look at what it is we are doing and whether it had the potential of impacting people off-site. If we were growing something that could get away from us and create some exposure, we probably wouldn’t do it.

“But if at the same time we felt that it was important for the instructional program and we knew we had the security level in place to ensure it didn’t get away, I think we could do it. We wouldn’t be constrained by the initiative.

CORN ROWSThe only known GE crop growing in Butte Countyis this Roundup Ready corn located at the ChicoState University Farm in southwest Chico.

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

“We have too long of a history for being a catalyst for positive things in agriculture in the Northstate to do something that would change that perspective.”

If the measure passes and “people really believe it’s that dangerous,” he continued, “then we would need to look at that and ask ourselves if we would want to jeopardize our relationship with the locals.”

Fears of genetically altered crops, he said, are for the most part misplaced.

“I think we all have limits at which we are willing to accept the ability to manipulate the genetics,” Crabb said. “When we start getting into higher animals and doing things with humans, it raises ethical issues that each of us has a different level of concern about.

“I think that, with what we are currently doing with plants and what is out on the horizon relative to plant production, the fear is unfounded.”

Phil LaRocca is a former president of California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF). For the past 20 years he’s grown grapes on 90 acres in Forest Ranch and produced 6,000 cases of wine each year. Those include award winners. Just this month LaRocca Vineyards took silver and bronze metals at the Los Angeles County Fair and another silver at the Orange County Fair.

He works out of a cluttered office with loose papers stacked in piles next to desks or in cardboard boxes. On this day, a cool, June afternoon with great white clouds billowing on the pine-tree horizon of the Forest Ranch skies, LaRocca is on the phone, exasperated and trying to locate a missing shipment of wine that is somewhere between here and Michigan.

LaRocca, a stocky, tough-looking man of Sicilian extraction who grew up in San Francisco’s North Beach and was the road manager for Credence Clearwater Revival at the height of its fame, apologizes for the chaos as he sits down at a table to talk about GEOs and how they could affect his company.

“The reason why I’m against it is not so much the science,” he said. “What I’m against is that they are putting this stuff out with no way of containing it. Even the manufacturers will tell you it is not their duty to contain this, which is ridiculous.”

Early on, he said, word was that biotech was going to be a “great thing for the organic industry” because less herbicide would be used. The organic industry, however, wasn’t buying it.

“It was a load of crap.”

LaRocca said that, when he was president of CCOF, Bill Lyons, the state secretary of agriculture under Gov. Gray Davis, appointed him to represent the state at an international conference on genetic engineering in St. Louis.

“The woman who impressed me the most was a medical doctor from Germany with a Ph.D. in genetics,” LaRocca recalled. “She was trying to find a genetic cure for hemophilia patients. She said she had been working in the lab for eight years, and that they had come up with some great results.

“But, she said, they were never able to control what they created. It always mutated out in several directions. To her there is no way, without more science and research, you should release something you need to control into the food chain before you know how you’re going to do it.”

LaRocca said the drive behind genetic engineering is profits, not the relief of human suffering.

“What did [the GE companies] go after first? Soybeans, corn, rice, potatoes, wheat. Those are the five staple foods of the world. If we all decided to grow those crops, they own the seeds, and after a few years you have one or two companies owning all the seed in the world. This isn’t just a lightweight thing here.”

He said he met a woman while he was lobbying in Washington, D.C., who had a 500-acre corn farm in Iowa.

“She was barely surviving, so she gets the idea to go organic. Her grandfather was organic, her father conventional. She and her husband took the farm back to organic. She decides she is going to do organic corn chips, and it takes off pretty well.

“She grows to the point where she is buying organic corn from five or six of the neighboring farms. She hustles a contract with this chain store in England, a whole-foods, gourmet, high-end supermarket.

“They make her sign an exclusive contract, and so she ships her chips over and they’re tested for genetics. Despite what [Prime Minister] Tony Blair says, the English do not want genetic engineering in their diets. They find her chips have genetic-engineered corn residue. They reject the entire load, throwing her into bankruptcy. She couldn’t pay the other farmers. They traced it to a corn grown seven miles away that had polluted the neighbors’ crops. She went to Monsanto, and they said they wanted the corn chips because they had Monsanto DNA in them.”

Mega-companies such as Monsanto aren’t the only ones that have entered the business of genetically engineered agriculture. LaRocca said he used to buy grape plants from a friend in Fresno who is now growing, in a greenhouse, GE plants that are insect-resistant.

“If somebody can do that in their own little plot, OK. But I don’t want to see it being grown six miles away.”

LaRocca said the majority of his market is with the natural-foods industry, and 300,000 natural-foods consumers have already written to the USDA to say they do not want genetically engineered food.

“If they can control it and keep it away from me and show me some positive science, then let’s talk and see where it’s going. But right now they are not controlling it. Anybody in the natural-foods business is jeopardized. The genie is out of the bottle."