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9-Misc: GE crop and food controversy in California



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TITLE:  State farms key in fight over biotech
SOURCE: The Sacramento Bee, USA, by Mike Lee
        http://www.sacbee.com/content/news/story/6815208p-7765566c.html
DATE:   June 8, 2003

------------------ archive: http://www.gene.ch/genet.html ------------------


State farms key in fight over biotech

CHOWCHILLA -- Since Roger Schuh first planted electric-blue, genetically
engineered cotton seeds three years ago, he's spent less fuel, less time
and less money controlling weeds on his ranches.

Like many in California's $870 million cotton industry, the 39-year-old
farmer loves his high-tech crop. Now, rather than using expensive hand
labor and specialized herbicides to kill the range of weeds on his land,
he can just blast the whole area with two applications of Roundup and not
worry about harming his crop.

"GMO cotton is like cotton-growing for dummies," said Schuh, who eagerly
awaits other herbicide-resistant crops such as alfalfa. "It's less stress
and less money."

The seed technology embraced on more than 200,000 acres of cotton in the
Central Valley is about to get a bigger -- and more controversial --
test: major California food crops. As soon as next year, California
farmers may have the chance to grow herbicide-resistant rice. After that,
wheat, lettuce, grapes and strawberries are likely targets for the crops,
known by the acronym GMO, genetically modified organisms.

As such, California -- the nation's largest agricultural producer -- is
poised to take center stage in the ongoing debate over use of biotech
crops. With $28 billion annually in farm products, the state is being
looked to as a bellwether for the future of genetically engineered fruits
and vegetables.

The hotly contested topic will take shape in Sacramento on June 23-25,
when agriculture ministers from more than 100 countries gather for a
U.S.-sponsored conference on using agricultural technologies to reduce
world hunger.

Despite their prevalence in the Midwest, where the majority of the soy
grown is now genetically altered, the safety of biotech foods is
questioned around the world. That's a major consideration for
California's export-dependent farmers, who send more than $6 billion a
year in farm products overseas, including a large chunk to biotech-wary
Europe.

Common consumer worries center on the safety of genetically altered
foods: the unintentional spread of allergens, genetic contamination of
conventional crops, the potential spread of antibiotic-resistant diseases
and the plain old fear of manipulating food at the genetic level. There's
also widespread concern about giving companies control over the food
supply through patents on basic products.

Nevertheless, the Bush administration is pushing genetically engineered
crops as a way to increase farm productivity in developing countries. It
argues biotechnology can improve the quality, quantity and reliability of
food supplies in poor nations.

One of the main groups fighting the spread of altered foods has keyed on
California's emerging significance in the debate. Greenpeace, in
conjunction with several other organizations, plans to unroll a campaign
this summer to convince the state's growers not to take another bite of
biotech.

"The question around genetic engineering moving into other crop sectors
in California very much becomes a question of the role of genetic
engineering in the entire nation," said Renata Brillinger, coordinator of
Californians for GE-Free Agriculture.

California was the birthplace of genetically engineered foods and remains
a major hub of research, hosting more than 1,500 field tests of biotech
crops since the early 1990s. But the state remains virtually free of
commercially produced food crops that have been genetically altered.

Cotton is by far the largest biotech crop in the state, followed by corn
(mostly used for animal feed) and a tiny amount of squash.

Genetic engineering occurs when scientists insert genes with desirable
traits into plants in ways they could not with traditional plant
breeding. Common applications are aimed at increasing resistance to
insects, herbicides and viruses.

A more controversial aspect involves boosting the nutritional value of
food crops, for instance by inserting vitamins or cancer-preventing compounds.

Controversy has not stopped the spread of biotechnology. In 2002, global
plantings of genetically engineered crops increased by more than 10
percent for the sixth year in a row, said a report issued by the
International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications in
Ithaca, N.Y.

Biotech crops topped 145 million acres in 16 countries last year, with
the United States accounting for about two-thirds of the global total.
The largest biotech crop worldwide is soybeans, followed by corn and
cotton. Herbicide resistance is the most common trait.

In 2002, for the first time, more acres worldwide were planted with
genetically altered soybeans than conventional soybeans, the report said.
About 20 percent of the world's cotton also is genetically engineered.

While Californians haven't widely adopted biotech crops, the issue
sprouted here in 1994 when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration made the
Flavr Savr tomato developed by Davis-based Calgene the first biotech food
crop to get agency approval.

Despite being engineered to spoil less quickly after harvest, Flavr Savr
tomatoes lasted only about three years on the market, and Monsanto bought
out the struggling Calgene.

Biotech tomatoes no longer are grown commercially, and major companies
such as Campbell Soup Co. don't see an immediate need. Campbell, a one-
time Calgene collaborator, contracts with 65 growers in California as
well as seed researchers in Davis who are doing fine the old-fashioned
way, according to Campbell spokesman John Faulkner. "We can cross-breed
using traditional methods to develop the kind of tomatoes we need,"
Faulkner said from company headquarters in New Jersey.

Despite the demise of its tomato, Calgene remains an important player as
it develops the next generation of biotech crops: those purported to
benefit consumers instead of farmers.

The company is a research hub for Monsanto's efforts to develop oil seeds
high in omega-3 fatty acids, commonly called fish oils. Within the
decade, Monsanto envisions augmenting common cooking oils with plant-
derived heart-healthy omega-3s -- that come without the fishy taste.

California's significance in the future of biotech is evident at the
University of California, Davis, where about 50 tenure-ranked faculty are
working on multiple aspects of biotech crops. Their efforts include
helping tomatoes tolerate saline soil and modifying milk to reduce its
fat content.

While commercialization has been slow, genetic engineering remains the
kind of technology some say California can't afford to pass up if the
state's giant agricultural sector is to decrease pollution and remain
competitive globally.

California is the state with the most to gain from widespread adoption of
the 32 biotech crop varieties under development and eight that already
have been introduced, according to a study last year by the National
Center for Food and Agricultural Policy.

Introduction of those biotech crops -- including apples, broccoli and
lettuce -- would reduce California's pesticide use by 66 million pounds a
year, according to the study, which was paid for partly by the biotech
industry. Between lower bills for agricultural chemicals and higher
yields, economic benefits for California were pegged at $207 million annually.

But there are plenty of reasons farmers here are wary of biotechnology.
Most pointedly, they are leery of consumer opinion in a state known for
its environmental sensitivities.

Most growers just want to wait and watch consumer trends. For instance,
herbicide-tolerant sugar beets were commercialized in 1999, but no one
will grow them.

"You have great technology sitting on the shelf," said Leonard Gianessi,
co-author of the agricultural policy study. "It's just not being used
because they are afraid of the backlash."

Such is the case among California wheat growers, who fear rejection by
mills if they pioneer plantings of biotech wheat.

"We haven't had in our industry any question of the technology. The
question has been the loss of market share," said Bonnie Fernandez,
executive director of the California Wheat Commission. "No one wants to
be first."

California's wheat industry -- which planted 742,000 acres this year --
keyed on the Canadian Wheat Board's recent rejection of Monsanto's
Roundup Ready wheat as a sign that the era of biotech wheat remains
somewhere in the future. Undeterred, Monsanto is moving ahead with
commercialization plans for the product in Canada and the United States.

Even Schuh, who loves the bottom-line benefit of his Roundup Ready
cotton, hesitates when asked whether he'd plant a biotech food crop. "I
would have to make certain the public was ready for that," he said.

Biotech cotton largely falls under the radar screen. Schuh felt no heat
from activists when he planted it, nor did he have trouble finding a mill
for his lint or a dairy for his seeds, which are used as high-protein cow
feed.

Except for the seeds, which are colored blue to distinguish them, Schuh's
800 acres of Roundup Ready cotton don't look different from conventional
cotton. Neither does the Roundup Ready feed corn he planted last year --
a few stalks of which still tower over his young cotton plants because
his all-purpose herbicide won't kill either crop.

Schuh worries that herbicide-resistant weeds will develop but he figures
solutions will emerge if that becomes a problem. For now, he's just
enjoying the cost savings from spending less time tending cotton and the
environmental benefits of reducing his use of air-polluting heavy equipment.

Californians for GE-Free Agriculture -- an umbrella group that includes
Greenpeace and California Certified Organic Farming, among others --
don't accept the premise that biotech foods are environmentally friendly.
But that is not the focus of the campaign they are preparing for rice
farmers this summer.

Their message centers on problems in the Midwest, where genetic crops are
common. With the crops, they note, have come lawsuits over genetically
modified pollen drift and fears of marketplace rejection, given the
European Union's moratorium on genetically modified food imports or plantings.

Once commercial crops get a foothold, the entire state becomes suspect in
the eyes of a world that harbors deep reservations about food-altering
technology, GE-free advocates contend.

"Our whole concern is the economic health of California agriculture,"
Brillinger said. "The promises of genetic engineering are not measuring
up. They aren't a good deal for the farmers from what we can see,
primarily because at this point in time, the export markets are not
interested in GE crops."

Bayer CropSciences is expected to get federal approval for herbicide
tolerant Liberty Link rice later this year. California industry leaders
expect biotech rice will be ready first for the Southeast, allowing
growers here to gauge consumer reaction from afar.

California passed a law in 2000 that allows a special rice board to set
conditions under which genetically modified rice can be grown. The idea,
according to the California Rice Commission, is to make sure new rice
varieties don't contaminate the rest of the Sacramento Valley's staple crop.

The Sacramento-based Farmers' Rice Cooperative, which controls a quarter
of the state's rice, remains cool to the prospect of a herbicide-
resistant crop.

"We do not see any market demand for GMO rice," said William V. Huffman,
spokesman for the 900-member cooperative. "That product doesn't give any
benefit to the consumer."




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