GMOs: Devil or angel?

A biology lesson mutated into a heated debate at an April 20 panel held at Chico State University to discuss genetically modified organisms (GMOs). A committee is gathering petitions in the hopes of placing a measure on the Nov. 4 ballot that would prohibit growing GMOs in Butte County.

Proponents of the measure argue that no one’s sure GMOs are safe, and using them here could hurt local farmers’ standing in the global market. The keynote speaker was Els Cooperrider, who last year led a similar, successful campaign in Mendocino County.

“We’d rather be safe than sorry,” she said. “We have no idea what they could unleash on the world.”

John Nishio, an adjunct professor of biology at Chico State, lobbed barbs from the audience of about 40 people. “I am not an industrial supporter,” he said. But he believes good things come from GMOs.

He said that, while it’s important to keep close watch over what traits society chooses to select for, altering DNA to create “better” plants is a technology that humans have used for thousands of years. Nishio gave the examples of small, sweet corn kernels, large strawberries and short, high-yield wheat crops. Today, he said, scientists can select for pesticide-resistant and water-efficient plants in a time when development is eating up agricultural land.

But Cooperrider said GMOs don’t result in better crops; the corporations just sell that story to unwitting farmers. “It’s to make profit. It’s not for the public good.”

Also speaking were two authors of the Butte ballot measure, Scott Wolf and Leslie Johnson. Wolf said citizens can’t trust the Food and Drug Administration to protect them or to make sure genetically modified plants don’t contaminate neighboring crops.

Cooperrider advised the petitioners to beware of attempts by corporations such as Monsanto to influence voters, including recruiting pro-GMO representatives from the UC Cooperative Extension, the Farm Bureau and even the university.

“Why should a handful of billion-dollar, multinational corporations control our food supply?” she asked.

Phil LaRocca, who owns an organic winery, said he’ll support the measure. "Science is wrong on a lot of things. This is a case where you need more investigation," he said. "If I get cross-contamination, [it’s] going to ruin my consumer base [and] ruin my democratic right to farm the way I want to farm."