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Calif. biotech measure news; China on GM rice

(Sunday, Oct. 24, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- 4 GMO news items below

1. California voters assess anti-GMO initiatives
2. Arcata fine-tunes anti-GMO ordinance
3. Farmers protest measure Q
4. China could release GMO rice as early next year

1. California voters assess anti-GMO initiatives

Robin Meadows, californiaagriculture.ucop.edu:
The debate over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is heating up in California. Anti-GMO measures are on the November 2004 ballot in four counties, and even more are in the works for March 2005. In March 2004, Mendocino County became the first county nationwide to pass a ban on the growth and propagation of GMO plants and animals.

This precedent-setting decision by the voters has spawned a rash of similar actions, say two UC scientists who studied the Mendocino campaign. They are Greg Giusti, UC Cooperative Extension (UCCE) forest advisor in Ukiah, and Peggy Lemaux, UCCE biotechnology specialist at UC Berkeley.

The four counties with anti-GMO measures on the November ballot are Butte, Humboldt, Marin and San Luis Obispo; among the counties considering measures for the March 2005 ballot are Alameda, Lake, Napa, Placer, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, Solano and Sonoma. “These initiatives could have wide-ranging implications, affecting conventional farming, agricultural and natural resources research, educational institutions and even biotechnology companies,” Giusti says. “And county GMO bans could ultimately serve as an impetus for state regulations.”

California’s anti-GMO movement is being spearheaded by the BioDemocracy Alliance, a consortium of GMO Free Mendocino and the Organic Consumers Association (OCA). The latter worked previously at the state and national levels but now favors county-based efforts. “County campaigns with local activists are more effective than lobbying legislators,” says Ryan Zinn, OCA campaign coordinator. However, “we are moving toward statewide legislation that bans or limits the use of GE [genetically engineered] crops,” he adds.

Science and local politics don’t mix

Mendocino’s anti-GMO initiative, Measure H, passed with 56% of the vote, even though no genetically engineered crops are known to grow there. In fact, the issue of GMOs themselves was not even the dominant theme of the Measure H campaign, according to Giusti and Lemaux’s analysis of campaign materials, newspaper coverage, editorials and letters to the editor that appeared prior to the vote. “The theme of limiting multinational corporate influence in local agricultural policy and directions dwarfed all others,” they say.

After Measure H passed, supporters said it was a “test case for democracy.” But Giusti says something important was left out of the Mendocino County GMO debate: science. “Local politics are not driven by accuracy. There’s a division between science and local politics, and in Measure H the two sides came crashing together,” Giusti says.

Notably, Measure H wrongly defines DNA as a protein, Giusti says, and while state initiatives are checked for accuracy, local initiatives are not. Science was often not considered in the newspapers and debates as locals focused on economic and political themes, Giusti and Lemaux found in their analysis.

Pitting farmer against farmer

The researchers say another problem with local anti-GMO measures is that they can divide communities. The main antagonists in Mendocino County were advocates of organic products (not necessarily agriculturalists) and the biotech industry. But Butte County has farmers on both sides of its anti-GMO initiative, Measure D. Butte is one of the state’s major rice-growing counties, and locally Measure D is supported by the largest organic rice grower in the United States, Lundberg Family Farms. However, “there are other farmers who are against it and it’s very uncomfortable for the community. It gets personal,” Lemaux says. Measure D is also opposed locally by the Butte County Rice Growers Association and the Farm Bureau, and at the state level by the California Rice Commission, which has the authority to regulate new rice varieties under state law. “They don’t want individual counties passing laws that go against existing legislation and dictate the rules applied to rice growing in the state,” Lemaux says.

While initiatives are being used to address GMOs in most counties, Lake County is trying another approach. County supervisors asked local organic farmers to work with local conventional farmers, and together to develop a permit process for GMOs. These permits would be considered on a case-by-case basis and would be based on risk assessment. This ordinance-based strategy is in keeping with Lake County’s approach to natural resource issues, which emphasizes collaboration, Giusti says. “They’re not as quick to try and solve disagreements through political channels. This could serve as a model for other counties to address these conflicts.”

In contrast, at the request of proponents only, Trinity County supervisors adopted an anti-GMO ordinance in August, Guisti says. However, the impact will be minimal because 95% of the county is federal land and so is not under the jurisdiction of the ordinance.

Widening implications

Guisti and Lemaux stress the need to work collectively on issues related to GMOs, saying that UC scientists can address people’s concerns by providing factual information. “It is not to anyone’s advantage to be divided into camps of us versus them,” Giusti says. “This is too important and too complex. UC researchers can help by explaining the science that relates to the risks and benefits of GMOs.”

The importance of informed debate is growing as the scope and number of anti-GMO initiatives increases. For example, the Butte County anti-GMO measure would keep the California Rice Experimental Station from performing any genetic-engineering experiments on-site. Moreover, the Butte County initiative goes further than Mendocino County’s and stipulates exactly what can and can’t be grown in the county. Having an “allowed” crop list could be a problem for local rice growers, Lemaux says, because it does not specifically include rice with mutations induced by X-rays or gamma radiation. It means legally these varieties could be banned too, Lemaux says. Much of the rice grown in Butte County fits into this category.

UC researchers can help avoid such problems by checking the wording of initiatives. “We shouldn’t be involved in the politics, but people should use us as a sounding board and clearinghouse for accurate information,” Giusti says.

In addition, some of the initiatives on the November 2004 ballot ban all GMOs, not just crops and animals. This means they also apply to microorganisms and so could affect biotech companies in some counties, like Alameda, Lemaux says.

The county anti-GMO initiatives could also have statewide impact. “If enough of them pass, that could force state legislation,” Lemaux says, noting that county pesticide regulations drove the development of statewide regulations. Currently, the state does not regulate GMOs; field-test applications are overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Alternatively, anti-GMO successes at the county level could help supporters place an initiative on the state ballot.

“Whatever happens in November could change the complexion of agriculture in California,” Lemaux says.

Source: http://californiaagriculture.ucop.edu/0404OND/outrch.html

2. Arcata fine-tunes anti-GMO ordinance
Meghan Vogel Eureka Times-Standard, 10/22/04

ARCATA -- Although Measure M may get defeated on Nov. 2, Arcata could approve its own ordinance banning genetically modified organisms.

At its meeting on Wednesday night, the Arcata City Council honed a proposed ordinance that would ban GMOs within the city. The ordinance is based on a recently adopted ordinance in Trinity County and a pending ballot initiative in Sonoma County. The Community Environmental Defense Fund of Pennsylvania also provided input for Arcata's ordinance. The founder of the defense fund, Thomas Linzey, recently gave a presentation on corporate personhood at an Arcata town hall meeting.

Arcata's anti-GMO ordinance would make it unlawful to "sell, provide, propagate, cultivate, raise or grow" GMO crops in the city. If found, such crops would be deemed a public nuisance punishable by accelerated fines for each day the crop remains. If someone was found with a GMO crop two years in a row, a misdemeanor charge would be filed. Humboldt State University would be exempt from the ordinance because it is state property.

Greg Allen, a candidate for City Council who requested the city look at such an ordinance, had concerns about due process. He asked the city to consider the issue more thoroughly so people would not be deprived of their property illegally.

The City Council had questions about how GMO crops would be identified and if testing, which could cost the city money, would be needed. Also under consideration is to more clearly define who at the city would be responsible for enforcing the ordinance.

"We need to explore the enforcement issue," said City Manager Dan Hauser.

Hauser said the closest thing the city has to an agricultural commissioner who oversees crops would be Arcata's Environmental Services Department.

In addition to an anti-GMO ordinance, the council discussed possibly looking at an ordinance requiring the labeling of GMO foods in the future.

Jim Ferguson, who was the campaign manager for Measure M, an initiative on the November ballot banning GMOs in Humboldt County, said he was pleased with Arcata's proposed ordinance. He commended the work of City Attorney Nancy Diamond for "distilling the essence" of the other laws banning GMOs.

The group that authored Measure M is now urging voters to defeat it because of potential legal flaws in its text. Ferguson said Arcata's ordinance could become a model for the county instead of Measure M. It could also have repercussions outside of Arcata.

"This could be used in other cities in the nation as a possible blueprint for their own communities," Ferguson said.

The City Council will be considering adopting the ordinance at its next meeting on Nov. 3.

3. Farmers protest measure Q
Local Solutions Network, Andrew Masuda, 10/22/04

Farmers and ranchers from across San Luis Obispo County took to the streets on Thursday to set the record straight on how they feel about the proposed ban on genetically modified crops.

Nearly 100 farmers and ranchers from the area drove their tractors, trucks, and farm equipment through downtown San Luis Obispo. The group protests the claim by Measure Q proponents that local farmers support the initiative. Protesters believe 99% of county farmers oppose Measure Q, and say they're trying to defeat a bad piece of rushed legislation.

"They got in a big hurry," says Vince Ferrante, who opposes Measure Q. "There should have been more planning. There should have been more collaboration and then collectively society decides what it's going to do. When one minority group tries to force it on the majority of farmers, it doesn't go over well, and that's what we're stuck with right now."

Q supporters say GMO's pose contamination and health risks, which could hurt export markets. The farmers say GMO's may allow them to use less water and fewer pesticides, which would benefit the environment and their bottom lines. In addition, the farmers say GMO's are here to stay, and banning them would put producers and researchers in the county at an unfair disadvantage.

Three other counties in California will have similar proposed bans appear on the November ballot.

4. China could release GMO rice as early next year
Nao Nakanishi, Reuters, 10/18/04

HONG KONG, China - China, the world's top producer and consumer of rice, could release its genetically modified rice as early as next year, as pressure mounts to boost domestic production and spur farmer income.

China has long been seen as the pioneer in GMO rice, while the plant has slipped off the priority lists of Western private researchers who have focused their efforts on other commodities such as soybeans, corn, cotton or wheat.

"This technology is more or less ready for commercialisation," Jikun Huang, a director of the Centre for Chinese Agricultural Policy at the Chinese Academy of Science, told Reuters.

"You cannot hold it back too long when you have invested a lot of money. It would boost Chinese agricultural productivity and increase farmers' income," he said from Beijing.

Scientists in China believe Beijing is likely to give the green light for commercialisation of insect and disease-resistant GMO rice as soon as next year after more than six years of trials.

The move would be in stark contrast to Monsanto Co's (MON.N) decision in June to halt controversial plans to introduce the world's first GMO wheat in Canada and the United States.

An official at the Ministry of Agriculture in Beijing declined to elaborate but said field studies would take at least a year and there was no timetable set for the commercialisation.

Greenpeace is already concerned about China's next move, however.

"GMO rice poses risks to human health and irreversible environmental threats," said Greenpeace spokesman Sze Pang Cheung.

"It can reproduce and interbreed with natural organisms, spreading to new environments and future generations in an unpredictable and uncontrollable way," he said in a statement.


China is already the world's top grower of insect resistant GMO cotton, known as bacillus thuringiensis cotton, which has been effective in controlling damage from the bollworm pest.

Dayuan Xue, professor at the Nanjing Institute of Environmental Sciences, is concerned about GMO rice after studying the environmental impact of BT cotton in China.

He fears GMO rice pollen could contaminate the other 75,000 conventional rice varieties in China, the birthplace of rice.

"We are concerned about the commercialisation," he said. "The gene-flow is a problem and it is dangerous."

Pressure to launch GMO rice comes at a time when Beijing faces a tough task in raising the country's grain output and in narrowing the income gap between farmers and urban citizens.

After 2003 grain production slid to 435 million tonnes from 457 million tonnes the previous year and a record 512 million in 1998, Beijing is encouraging farmers to grow more grain, such as rice or wheat.

China's 2004 rice crop is expected to rise to about 180 million tonnes from about 161 million last year, the lowest since 1994. The output is helped by many farmers in the south resuming growing early rice, but China still has a supply deficit of about 10 million tonnes.

Some pro-GMO scientists believe biotechnology could really help Beijing's efforts to boost production if it allows hybrid rice varieties, including BT rice, cowpea trypsin inhibitor gene rice and disease resistant Xa21 rice.

Huang said field trials in Hunan and Fujian provinces showed GMO rice boosted yields by 4 to 8 percent, and allowed an 80 percent drop in pesticide use, he said.

"I estimate if China commercialises GMO rice now, by the year 2010 China can gain nearly $4 billion per year," he said. "Consumers also get benefits. When production rises, prices drop ... half of the benefit would go to consumers."

Huang estimated China has spent 1.6 billion yuan ($193 million) on biotech research in 2003 - double the figure three years earlier, with 200 million yuan going on rice. But Xue was not as convinced.

"Benefits would not be so big," he said. "The rice bollworm is a problem in some provinces of China but not everywhere." (Additional reporting by Niu Shuping in Beijing).

Grassroots campaigns against genetically engineered crops have spread to numerous California counties, with four initiatives on the ballot in November 2004 and others in the works for the March 2005 ballot.