GENTECH archive


FDA hearing on gen-manipulated foods

SF Chronicle Monday,
December 13, 1999

Farmer Will Testify at FDA Hearing on Altered Foods

Organic farmer Robert Cannard tosses a handful of lemon verbena in a pot,
brews the tea and explains his quest.

On this rain-rinsed day, the fields outside are sparkling with endive and
eggplant. Twice a week, a truck from Chez Panisse in Berkeley trundles up
for vegetables and drops off kitchen scraps for compost. For years, the
rhythm of his days has revolved around his 20-acre spread in the Sonoma

But Cannard's spadework these days is in a new venture: politics.

He's digging into democratic dirt, hoping an initiative requiring labels
on genetically altered foods will qualify for the November 2000 ballot.
Several thousand signatures have been returned to the Glen Ellen post
office already.

Although genetically altered crops, such as corn and soybeans, are grown
mostly in the Midwest, the dissent has also taken root in California.
Without labeling, people cannot know whether the corn syrup in their colas
or the soybean in their tofu came from genetically altered plants.

Cannard is expected to testify today in Oakland at a daylong public Food
and Drug Administration hearing on the merits and drawbacks of these
foods. The session will be at the Elihu Harris State Office Building, 1515
Clay St.

Genetically modified foods have given rise to protests in Japan, and
stringent European labeling requirements effectively ban genetically
altered food from the United States.

But the Alliance for Better Foods, a coalition of 40 food organizations
including the American Farm Bureau Federation, says genetically modified
foods will promote greater nutrition and less reliance on chemical
pesticides and could go far in combatting global hunger.

They envision bananas laced with oral vaccines, so shots can be avoided,
or vegetables enhanced with more beta carotene. Already, the Rockefeller
Foundation is working on rice with more vitamin A to counter nutritional
deficiencies in developing nations. Existing federal regulations do not
require food labels to describe the plant development process by which
food is produced.

"There is no doubt that consumer attitudes will ultimately be a big force
in this debate. But other than that, would it do us any good to steer that
debate toward fear? That is what labeling would do," said farm federation
spokesman Mace Thornton.

"The labeling of a food product that scientists and our government
agencies say is safe would do nothing more than raise unwarranted fears in
the general public."

Working just a few miles from the prized patch of land where the dapper
Luther Burbank proved his wizardry with new hybrid strains, Cannard is
cultivating caution. He wants to ensure that the natural order isn't
destroyed by unleashed and untested forces.

"Luther Burbank would think (genetic engineering) was crazy. He knew how
to look at the natural vibration of plants," said Cannard, 46. "When you
start changing the nature of the beast, mixing the genetic organisms from
other plants, then you are changing the spirit of the plants. Luther
Burbank was into the spirit of the plant and not just the superficial."

According to Cannard, crossbred strains or hybrid species don't muck with
a plant's genetic material, but work with the willingness of the plant to
adapt and change. But genetic engineering alters the natural immune system
and growth of plants, introducing foreign fungus or laboratory DNA to make
plants poisonous or unpalatable to pests, disease or weeds.

The effect on insects or people with allergies or sensitive digestive
tracts is unknown, Cannard said. "Heirloom" crops like his -- older
varieties that more closely resemble the ancient strains --may be at risk
from the windblown pollen of genetically altered plants.

Caterpillars of Monarch butterflies have died after consuming pollen from
genetically altered corn species that contain toxins for pests, including
the European corn borer, according to the journal Nature.

If genetically modified foods are labeled, Cannard said, people can vote
with their wallets and let market forces dictate whether farmers use the
altered seeds.

"We're not questioning the religious, moral or scientific merits of
genetically engineered foods but are giving people the opportunity to
know," Cannard said.

"We're not saying genetic engineering is bad, like some sort of addictive
drug, but it needs to be thoroughly studied and the effect on nature
understood before it is released," he added. "If these were drugs, it
would take 20 years before release. Drugs affect small quantities of
people, but food affects many more people on the mass market."

His all-volunteer campaign has harnessed the power of the Internet with a
Web site explaining the scope and purpose of the proposed initiative.

If successful, this campaign would be the first to qualify an initiative
using the Internet, according to Alfie Charles at the secretary of state's

The Internet helps hold down printing and mailing costs, giving people
access to the petitions without the expense of hiring signature gatherers.

Cannard has donated about $5,000 to the drive, and petitions are sprouting
up at farmer's markets, health-food stores and organic-food groups. By
March 6, signatures from 419,260 registered voters are needed to place the
initiative on the ballot.

While a political novice when it comes to initiatives, Cannard said the
effort is worthwhile to educate people about genetically engineered foods.

"The initiatives are an expression of the population. People may not be
aware of a potential problem and the caution needed for genetically
modified food stock," Cannard said. "This effort will raise awareness, no
matter what."

People interested in the petition can write to California Right to
Know/Genetically Engineered Food Labeling Initiative, P.O. Box. 520, Glen
Ellen, CA, 95442; call (707) 939-8316 or visit the Web page at


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