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Scattered efforts

California plays little part in the patchwork that oversees biotech crops

States' concern grows

As biotechnology spreads farther into California, Richvale rice farmer Bryce Lundberg wants to make sure things are done better.

He peeled away from his job as organic certification director at Lundberg Family Farms during the heat of the summer growing season last year to urge a state Senate committee to protect farmers from the unintentional spread of genetically engineered crops.

“I don't want them on our farm and ... right now there's nothing that says it's wrong for those genes to be moving across farm borders,” Lundberg told Sen. Nell Soto, D-Ontario.

“I'll be glad to introduce that legislation,” Soto replied.

“I think that would be fantastic,” Lundberg said.

Though Soto has yet to follow through, her interest may be part of a small, but growing, awareness in Sacramento. Similar concerns are being voiced in statehouses and county offices from Vermont to Hawaii.

Michael Rodemeyer, executive director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, said the federal policy vacuum leaves states with the rubber-meets-the-road issues that accompany the expansion of any new technology.

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Congress sees biotech largesse

As the biotech industry matures, it's spreading more cash around Washington, D.C., and getting more favors in return.

Campaign contributions from biotech companies topped $7.7 million in the 2002 election cycle, up more than sixfold from $1.2 million in 1990, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan campaign finance watchdog group. Its report includes biotech companies in agriculture and medicine.

The top donors are Dow Chemical Co., Aventis and Monsanto Co. - all of which have been big players in the agricultural biotech world - which gave nearly $13 million combined to congressional campaigns between 1990 and 2003. Not far behind are Bayer, DuPont and Syngenta, the other major players in biotech seeds, according to an analysis conducted by the center for The Bee.

One leading recipient of biotech largesse, Missouri Republican Sen. Christopher “Kit” Bond, boasts that he's been able to secure more than $40 million of federal money for biotech research in his home state, the corporate home for Monsanto. Since 1990, the biotech industry has given Bond more than $177,000, according to the center's analysis.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican and strong supporter of allowing drug compounds to be grown in corn, is among the heavyweights on the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee backed by biotech company dollars. He's gotten $123,000 since 1990. Other top recipients on the panel include Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and Pat Roberts, R-Kan.

Few bills in Congress mention any risks associated with biotechnology. More typical is a June 2003 bill that would create a federal task force to promote the “benefits, safety and potential uses” of biotechnology around the world.

- Mike Lee


Activists and legislators in dozens of states are trying to address problems such as what responsibility companies should have for preventing and cleaning up genetic contamination.

In 2003, legislators in 32 states introduced 130 biotech bills and resolutions, according to Pew research. Only 27 pieces of legislation passed and, of those, about 70 percent sided with industry - many of them aimed at boosting biotech businesses with research initiatives and tax breaks.

Virtually all attempts to restrict the industry have failed in recent years, including efforts to shift liability for environmental damage to biotech companies, give farmers the right to save genetically engineered seeds from year to year and allow states to ban the planting of biotech crops during a study period.

The biotechnology industry works hard to defeat such measures, saying state and county regulation is inappropriate because the federal government is in charge. Patchwork state-by-state legislation also would increase their cost of doing business.

“Consistent rules to the game would be good,” said Doyle Karr, a spokesman for Pioneer.

Typically, gene giants don't invest much money directly in state candidates. Instead, they hire lobbyists in the major agricultural states. They also contribute to industry organizations, such as the Western Plant Health Association, which in turn support industry-friendly political candidates and oppose legislation that could undermine the industry.

Mendocino money

This spring, biotech interests turned their attention toward Mendocino County, where organic activists aimed to make their county the nation's first to swear off genetically modified plants. Under the banner of the industry organization CropLife America, biotechnology companies spent more than $600,000 to convince residents that the county had no business regulating biotechnology.

It bought them a blizzard of radio ads and countywide mailers, but not what they really wanted: a decisive defeat of the proposed ban. Measure H was approved, 56 percent to 44 percent, and already has spurred copycat measures in Humboldt and Sonoma counties.

The industry was more successful in North Dakota, where a bipartisan group of legislators in 2001 proposed a ban on growing biotech wheat, which farmers feared would scare away major export buyers.

The bill sailed through the state House but met stiff resistance in the Senate after CropLife and Monsanto lobbyists showed up.

At the time, Monsanto and the chairman of the state Senate Agriculture Committee said the bill sent a negative message about the acceptance of innovation in North Dakota. In May, the company succumbed to grower concerns about exports and said it would wait at least four years before putting its Roundup Ready wheat on the market.

Over the summer, though, North Dakotans still plan to gather signatures for a ballot initiative that would give the state's agriculture commissioner some authority over the growing of biotech wheat.

If North Dakota adopts the initiative, it would follow in the steps of California's rice industry, which four years ago sponsored legislation to protect itself from the economic hazards of biotech rice.

Rice law unique

The California Rice Commission's president, Tim Johnson, worked out the legislative language as he and his wife flew to Kauai for their 10th anniversary in January 1999.

Biotechnology companies were creating a biotech rice for California, and the state's growers were agitated about how foreign buyers would react.

Concerned that companies were moving faster than public acceptance, Johnson spent his vacation in paradise on the phone with Rice Commission lawyers, hammering out what would eventually become the Rice Certification Act of 2000.

The legislation remains the only law of its kind in the nation. Although it never mentions biotechnology, it gives a 12-member committee of the Rice Commission an opportunity to set protocols for any new rice varieties that need to be kept separate from the main crop.

The Legislature approved it, biotech companies cringed - but they didn't mount a concerted campaign against the bill - and rice growers waited.

Four years later, a small Sacramento biotech company called Ventria Bioscience caught almost everyone off-guard with a proposal that gave Johnson's legislation its first big test.

Ventria asked to expand its test plots of rice engineered to inexpensively produce common human proteins for use in an anti-diarrhea medication - the first attempt in the nation to grow commercial-scale food crops as drug factories.

The rice industry collectively gasped, then debated for months about what conditions to set.

The main issue: how to assure that not a single biotech grain escaped from Ven.tria's transport trucks, farming machines or planted fields.

In early March, Maxwell rice farmer Joe Carrancho told the rice panel that he wouldn't hesitate to eat Ventria's rice. But he's so uncertain about how the rest of the world might react to the new product that he begged the panel not to allow it in California.

“If there is one kernel that gets out here somehow, it could ruin our entire industry,” Carrancho said.

Although Ventria worked toward compromise, privately the company bristled at the public scrutiny.

“We are less than happy with a completely open process,” company official Stacey Roberts complained in a January e-mail to the California Rice Commission that was obtained by The Bee. In another, she wrote: “Under no circumstances is the location of our crop, its yield nor the amount processed 'public information.'”

Agreement stalled

At the end of March, the rice panel gave the go-ahead for a new era in California agriculture, but only after Ventria agreed to dozens of conditions on its crop - including to not plant it in the state's rice-growing region, the Sacramento Valley. Then, the California Department of Food and Agriculture rejected the Rice Commission's emergency agreement, saying the public needed time to comment. The issue is expected to come back to the state later this year.

The process illustrated the potential value of state review, which allowed Ventria and the rice industry to alleviate some major concerns.

Yet, besides the rice bill, California has done little else to put bounds on biotechnology. Instead, like other states, it's focused on promoting biotech business and its high-paying jobs.

“I do believe its success is going to drive our economy and hopefully push us out of the economic downturn we are in,” said Assemblywoman Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, who recently introduced bills for biotech tax breaks and biotech job training.

When faced with the 2000 proposal from former Sen. Hayden to label genetically engineered foods, the Legislature instead created a task force to assess advantages and risks of biotech crops.

The task force's findings, issued three years later, proposed no new rules for genetically engineered agriculture, nor did the panel address whether the state's role was adequate.

An accompanying letter from the state Department of Food and Agriculture highlighted some weighty public-policy considerations for California: federal and state oversight, impacts to organic farming, implications for international marketing and issues that might arise if biotech traits were introduced into one of many crops that California grows almost exclusively.

It also expressed the need for long-term studies about the environmental and health effects of biotechnology.

The Legislature never responded, said Lourminia Sen, who was tracking biotechnology for the CDFA when she wrote the letter.

Since then, Sen's position has been eliminated. She does analytical chemistry for the agency instead. But the issues raised in her letter, she said, still merit state attention.

“It's huge - it's right here on our doorstep,” Sen said. Referring to biotech mistakes such as StarLink corn that have rocked Midwest grain markets in recent years, she added, “To me, it's a wake-up call for California.”


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