Rice growers fear biotech ban

Foes say Butte initiative could hurt the regular crop and research.

By Mike Lee -- Bee Staff Writer

Published Sunday, July 18, 2004

Some rice growers are concerned that the measure to ban biotech crops could call into question the legality of commonly planted rice. The measure makes no mention of mutations induced by radiation, a technique used to develop several modern rice strains. Sacramento Bee file, 2001/Chris Crewell

If Butte County residents vote to ban biotech crops in November, they could be inviting unintended trouble for the county's all-important rice crop.

Rice industry leaders say the official language of the newly minted ballot measure is ambiguous enough to threaten growers of conventional rice.

And they fear the initiative would impede advances at the Biggs research station, responsible for developing 90 percent of California's rice.

"We have a huge concern," said Richvale rice grower Gary Stone. "We have the potential of losing our current high-yielding varieties. ... At the farm level, this would take us back 20 years."

That isn't the intent of the ballot measure, which is one of four that have qualified in California for the November ballot.

Susan Sullivan of Chico, a founder of the GE-Free Butte movement, acknowledged the need to address concerns about the research station but said the other complaints "are mostly red herrings and minor things that can be worked out."

The initiative would ban genetically engineered plants, such as those that have been altered to produce drug compounds or to resist herbicides for easier weed control. Both of those biotech tricks are being tested in rice, a Sacramento Valley staple crop, but have not been commercialized.

"Genetically engineered life forms and products are being developed with precipitous speed ... before the potential risks and long-term effects of these products have been studied," the Butte County ballot measure says.

As the first big production agriculture county to vote on a biotech ban, Butte is critical to the hopes of anti-biotech activists.

"It's the key test," said Doug Mosel, spokesman for the BioDemocracy Alliance, a newly formed organization to support similar November ballot initiatives in Marin, San Luis Obispo and Humboldt counties.

In March, Mendocino became the nation's first county to ban the growing of genetically engineered crops. That vote passed by a margin of 56 percent to 44 percent. Because no biotech crops are grown in Mendocino, its ban is seen mostly as a symbolic statement against genetic engineering and the few multinational companies that control it.

The landscape is different in intensively farmed Butte County, home to a rice crop worth $112 million last year. More than 7,000 signatures were gathered quickly to put the ban on the ballot, but opposition also is mounting fast.

The Butte County Farm Bureau, the county's largest farm organization, opposes the measure. "In the next few weeks, there will be a huge alignment of other ag interests" against the initiative, said olive grower Jamie Johansson of Oroville, chairman of the Farm Bureau's opposition campaign.

While many opponents want to preserve biotech options for the future, their early arguments focus on problems they see in the ballot measure's language, including the possibility of scuttling research at the Biggs' Rice Experiment Station.

Butte ballot backers say they welcome scientific exploration, and they explicitly included an exemption for university research and education. The trouble is, the Biggs station is operated by a statewide grower-funded foundation and is not part of a university. That has director Kent McKenzie concerned.

"The law means ... we can't do anything in recombinant DNA research. Period. Not in the lab. Not in the greenhouse. Not in the field. Not at all," he said.

McKenzie said the station doesn't have any biotech experiments right now, but he doesn't want to limit exploration on the front edge of plant science, the station's hallmark for 92 years.

"Biotechnology holds great promise," said a statement by the research foundation board, which formally opposes the ballot measure. "Independent third-party research is essential to achieve an objective scientific evaluation on new technology."

At GE-Free Butte, Sullivan said measure-writers assumed the research station would fall under the research exemption and were caught off-guard by claims that it doesn't.

"It's tricky," she said. "We are looking at ways to see how that could be dealt with."

Butte Agriculture Commissioner Richard Price has expressed another concern: He told county supervisors that the measure's language is vague enough to call into question the legality of commonly planted rice.

The official text lists genetic tools that are acceptable and those that are not. However, it makes no mention of mutations induced by radiation - a technique used to develop several modern rice strains.

Sullivan said the initiative doesn't target established tools of conventional breeding. "It's not an issue as far as we are concerned," she said.

Industry leaders concede it's a long shot that such ambiguity would lead to a court case. But Sullivan's assurances do little to calm farmers who have seen laws such as the Endangered Species Act used in ways they didn't imagine.

"This is going to end up in the hands of lawyers and judges," said the Farm Bureau's Johansson. "You end up with a 50-50 shot of really having a severe effect on ... Butte County."

About the Writer

The Bee's Mike Lee can be reached at (916)321-1102 or mflee@sacbee.com.