You are here: Part Four

Scattered efforts

California plays little part in the patchwork that oversees biotech crops

By Mike Lee and Edie Lau -- Bee Staff Writers
Published Wednesday, June 9, 2004 -- Fourth of five parts

Bryce Lundberg and his dog, Chief Bryce Lundberg and his dog, Chief, get pelted with rice and barley sown by a plane on his organic rice farm in Butte County. Lundberg has asked neighboring farmers not to plant genetically modified crops next to his fields. "If that was GMO rice," he said, "you could see how they could miss exact targets." Sacramento Bee/Renée C. Byer

Dig deep into state files to see just how closely genetically modified agriculture is regulated in California and you'll find an unsettling memo, part of a federal sign-off that is supposed to occur a week before some experimental crops are planted.

The memo is dated April 24, 2001 - five days after insect-resistant corn was planted on about 8 acres near Woodland.

“The weather was right, so we put it in the ground,” seed giant Pioneer Hi-Bred informed government regulators.

No federal fine followed. No state alarm sounded.

California is home to the nation's most diverse and valuable agricultural industry and a center of organic farming. Its cornucopia of crops can be bound for biotech-wary markets in Japan or Europe. The smallest genetic mistake could send customers fleeing.

Yet California takes almost no role in regulating genetically engineered crops or food. It does little to manage the economic, environmental or trade implications of biotech farming on the state's $28 billion agricultural industry, despite several calls for action during the past five years.

None of the 1,791 employees at the California Department of Food and Agriculture is dedicated full time to crop biotechnology, one of history's largest agricultural revolutions, and one now budding in California.

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Biotech field experiments

Click image to see more about biotech field experiments.

Instead, like every other state, California relies almost entirely on a decision made nearly a decade before the first genetically engineered foods arrived in supermarkets - that such products need no special state attention.

California defers to a three-agency system of federal oversight that has been widely criticized for failing in many of the areas that matter most to this state: contamination of other crops, foreign trade barriers to biotech products and the long-term environmental and health implications of genetic engineering.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture oversees crops being tested in fields, the Environmental Protection Agency regulates plants engineered to contain pesticides, and the Food and Drug Administration monitors food safety. But there are overlaps and yawning gaps.

Without the state filling in, farmers like Bryce Lundberg of Butte County are left to come up with their own system of self-protection, which for Lundberg includes writing letters to neighbors asking them not to plant genetically engineered crops next to his fields.

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Organic farmer Juli Brussell waits at 5 a.m. for a train in Casey, Ill. Organic farmer Juli Brussell waits at 5 a.m. for a train in Casey, Ill., to take her to a meeting in Chicago. She spends much of her time as an activist on biotech issues. Renée C. Byer

Organic ideal becomes her mission

Just about every week, Juli Brussell charges from her lush organic farm in the gentle hills of southern Illinois to distant meetings in Wisconsin, Texas and California.

Her mission: to preserve the organic ideal in a world overrun by genetically engineered crops.

She's passionate, articulate and linked to like-minded groups nationwide, including the Organic Farming Research Foundation in Santa Cruz.

Her concerns - shared by a small minority in the Corn Belt - are that biotechnology mostly benefits big companies and that their products are spreading quickly into places where they aren't welcome, such as conventional seed.

“We can't measure the impact, we can't control the technology in the field and we have no way to know there is a problem until we have a train wreck. Then it will be too late, because the stuff will be pervasive in the environment,” she said.

Brussell has made it her mission to force such issues into the public debate, and she's got a federal grant to create something she calls the Illinois Sustainable Food Policy Council. Its job is to lobby for legislation that supports healthy farms and healthy food from the perspective of small farmers and others who typically don't get asked about farm policy.

Like Brussell, the group will raise questions about the economic, social and health impacts of biotech foods, questions that Brussell fears often are ignored because of the biotech industry's influence.

- Mike Lee


Lundberg hopes for something better someday soon - perhaps a tracking program for genetically modified crops, like the one that allows him to get information about farm chemical use across the state.

“That system is already in place,” said Lundberg, who exports rice to notoriously picky buyers in Japan. “Why not put GM (genetically modified crops) in there so we are not letting this stuff just go all over the place and potentially impact ... customers and companies that haven't accepted biotech?”

More than 110 biotech field tests were slated for California this spring alone - experiments in growing everything from rice to peas - and the volume of commercial plantings of biotech corn and cotton continues to grow.

Yet state oversight does not grow with them. Former state Sen. Tom Hayden, who in 2000 tried - and failed - to get California to require labeling of genetically modified food, finds that surprising for a state that generally takes pride in setting stricter environmental standards than the federal government.

“We have the lead in anti-smoking legislation, we take the lead in trying to protect the coast against offshore drilling, we take the lead in trying to establish standards higher than the norm for pesticides,” said Hayden, who now teaches at Occidental College. “With respect to biotech, (the state) took the complete reverse position. ... We are just going to pass on it. I found that really astounding.”

With a flood of ever more novel genetically engineered plants on company drawing boards, but only a few in commercial fields, Hayden and others say there's still time for California to protect itself from the unintended consequences of biotechnology.

Missing pieces

Barbara Hass became California's first line of defense against biotech mistakes in 1986, when she started part time as its sole biotech plant regulator.

Hass, a biologist, was charged by CDFA with preventing the experimental plots from introducing diseases or insect infestations into the state's farms.

Glossy FedEx packets of proposed experiments for California fields landed almost daily in Hass' third-floor office downtown, competing with her raft of nonbiotech duties.

First, she'd look to see what type of plant was being engineered, then what novel trait had been created. In the early days, she remembers, that initial review went relatively smoothly.

But by 1990, Hass hit a bump. Nitty-gritty scientific descriptions were missing from many pages; others lacked information as basic as the variety of plants.

Hass puzzled over the increasingly blank documents. “What is going on?” she asked herself.

“You look at application after application with skimpy data and manage to figure it out,” Hass said. “Then you would finally come to one that was basically an application form with 'CBI' deleted on just about everything.”

Barbara Hass, now retired, recalls her days ... Barbara Hass, now retired, recalls her days as California's only biotech plant regulator. By 1990, the applications had become cryptic because of trade secrets. Sacramento Bee/Renée C. Byer

Her opponent was formidable: CBI, short for “confidential business information,” a federal protection for trade secrets that allows private companies to withhold information from the public. Biotechnology companies, increasingly aware of how accessible state files were to the public and competitors alike, had begun removing as much information as they legally could.

Hass remembers thinking, “How would a sensible applicant think that it was possible for a government scientist to review their proposal?”

She questioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture about the deleted data, only to be told that the state couldn't have the missing information unless she promised to keep it from public view.


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