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Kernels of contention 

Genetically engineered crops continue to stir up controversy in SLO County

Measure Q the initiative that sought to ban the growing of genetically engineered (GE) crops within San Luis Obispo County may have been defeated nearly two years ago, but the local debate over GE crops rages on.

After Measure Q was narrowly defeated in 2004, proponents of

click to enlarge MODIFIED OR NOT? :  Opponents of genetically engineered crops worry that organic crops could be at risk from cross-pollination. - PHOTO BY JESSE ACOSTA
  • PHOTO BY JESSE ACOSTA
  • MODIFIED OR NOT? : Opponents of genetically engineered crops worry that organic crops could be at risk from cross-pollination.
# the measure asked the County Board of Supervisors to address their concerns.

The board responded by directing the Health Commission and the Agricultural Commissioner to each form a task force, one to examine the health implications of GE food and the other to focus on issues related to the agricultural production of GE crops.

The resulting reports were presented to the board on Aug. 22 of this year, amid allegations that the task forces were heavily weighted with pro-GE members who relied heavily on claims made by the biotech companies who produce GE seeds.

Members of SLO GE Free an all-volunteer group that organized Measure Q renewed their previously voiced complaints that the Health Commission's task force was composed of several members with ties to biotech companies and intentionally devoid of anyone openly opposed to GE crops.

"The public deserves a balanced and accurate perspective," Mike Zelina, a member of SLO GE Free, told the commissioners at a Health Commission meeting.

Lynn Enns, chair of both the commission and the task force, responded that they had "made every effort to be fair without value judgments."

Zelina and Mark Phillips, another member of SLO GE Free, were critical of the task force's conclusion that GE crops are adequately regulated by the federal government. Zelina said that the biotech companies that produce GE seeds are the ones doing the testing and reporting to the FDA.

"The regulations in place are more politics-based than scientifically based," Zelina said.

Phillips added that the federal government doesn't provide safeguards against cross-pollination. He said that buffers aren't required between GE and non-GE crops. Nor is public notification of planting of GE crops. Organic and conventional farmers, he maintained, have no recourse if their crops are cross-pollinated by GE crops.

"The only options left for those of us who are concerned are at a local level," Phillips said.

But those options may soon disappear. The state legislature is considering SB 1056, a seed preemption bill co-authored by Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria) that would prohibit local communities from banning or regulating GE crops.

Opponents of the bill argue that the state has no grounds for preemption.

"It's illogical when the state says 'you have to follow our rules,' when the state has no rules with regard to biotechnology," said Pete Price, a lobbyist who represents a coalition of environmental groups and growers opposed to SB 1056.

Price explained that a more appropriate solution is for California to adopt statewide laws regulating the use of GE crops. But, according to Price, the biotech companies that produce GE seeds prefer the preemption laws.

"Preemption laws relieve them of the burden of rules," he said. "There are no local rules, no state rules, and inadequate federal rules."

While the two most visible backers of SB 1056 are the California Farm Bureau Federation and the California Seed Association, Price said that the biotech companies, which own nearly all the seed companies, have the biggest interest in seeing the bill pass. The idea is to "shove out front the most appealing faces the farmers so it's not seen as the biotechs versus local communities," Price said.

The San Luis Obispo County Farm Bureau has endorsed SB 1056.

"We're trying to avoid a patchwork of regulations," explained Jackie Crabb, executive director of the bureau.

She noted that a number of growers in this county also grow in other counties.

"If we have a ban and Santa Barbara doesn't, it creates a lot of confusion and headaches for our growers," Crabb said. "It would be a nightmare."

Ryan Rich, a local organic farmer and member of the Agricultural Commission's task force, said he's "diabolically opposed" to SB 1056.

"The idea [that the state] would preempt local control but not come up with any regulatory regime to address these issues is absurd," he said.

Rich said that the bureau's endorsement of SB 1056 undermined the goal of the task force, which was to locally address issues that could arise from the growing of GE crops.

The Agricultural Commissioner's task force report focused primarily on the idea of co-existence between GE crops and non-GE crops, a concept that both Rich and Bill Spencer, another organic farmer who served on the task force, oppose.

"There is no potential for co-existence," Spencer told the board. "This stuff is patently dangerous. As soon as it's out in nature, it can't be recalled."

But given that co-existence is already a reality in this county Avila Valley Barn owner John DeVincenzo grows GE corn Rich wants a notification policy.

"Without notification, our organic crops are at serious risk," he told the board.

Organic farmers could lose their certification as well as their livelihood if their crops become contaminated by GE crops.

"Organic farmers have the [onus] of protecting themselves from GE contamination," Rich said. "We have potentially everything to lose."

Robert Lilley, the San Luis Obispo County Agricultural Commissioner, told the board that there was some support for notification among members of the task force but no agreement as to whether it should be mandatory or voluntary. He said that in order for it to be mandatory, the board would have to pass an ordinance. Members of the board noted that if SB 1056 passes, such an ordinance would be prohibited. They passed the issue of notification on to the farm bureau.

Supervisor Jim Patterson suggested that the board write a letter opposing SB 1056.

"I'm making that recommendation because the state is deferring to the feds for uniform regulations, and those don't exist," he said. "If 1056 passes, we have no jurisdiction and therefore no protection."

After considering the motion, the board voted 3-2 against drafting a letter.

Opponents of GE crops are now faced with a bleaker outlook than they were two years ago.

"They willingly gave away local power," said a resigned Zelina.

Send comments or ideas to freelancer Shawna Galassi through the editor at rmiller@new timesslo.com.

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