Published on Thursday, March 16, 2000 in the Rocky Mountain News
California At Center Of Growing
Battle Over Biotech Farming
by Michael Doyle

Meet Mark Ryan and Chuck Atwood, two San Joaquin Valley farmers on opposite strands of the biotech revolution.

Ryan's family grows cotton on 2,000 acres in Fresno County, while Atwood grows lemons, olives and oranges on 52 organically tended acres in Tulare County. For Ryan, biotech holds the eventual promise of fewer pesticide sprayings and lower labor costs.

"It's really incredible what Monsanto has done," Ryan said, citing one of the country's largest biotech companies. "Each year, more varieties are coming out. Eventually, most farmers will be planting (genetically engineered) cotton."

Currently, Ryan added, steep prices charged by biotech companies seeking to recoup their hefty research investments have slowed purchases of genetically engineered cotton. He expects, though, that this economic disadvantage will fade with time. As a concept, Ryan termed the genetic engineering an "awesome theory (whose) pros surely outweigh the cons."

But for Atwood, biotechnology represents a dangerous genie that's sliding out of the bottle. He stopped spraying chemical pesticides several years ago, and he's now questioning the health and environmental risks associated with the quickly evolving world of agricultural biotech.

"We're all a little bit leery of buying genetically engineered stuff," Atwood said. "I know the Europeans sure are."

The differences between Ryan and Atwood, and the respective camps they represent, are now being played out in multiple arenas. In federal courthouses, on Capitol Hill, in international negotiations and along bureaucratic corridors, the future of biotech farming is being diced, spliced and remade.

Scientists are chasing breakthroughs, companies are chasing profits, and lawmakers are trying with only sporadic success to keep up with the market. Already, an estimated 90 million acres nationwide are planted with genetically engineered crops.

Here's one question confronting lawmakers: Should labels be required on genetically modified foods? Tomatoes, corn, soybeans and other crops have already had genetically modified varieties checked through the Food and Drug Administration, and more are on the way.

Legislation newly introduced by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., would require labeling on such foods. In the three weeks since she introduced the bill, Boxer hasn't secured any co-sponsors. Labeling is deemed unnecessary if not downright harmful by biotech champions.

"Over-regulation in the form of compulsory labeling could change the course of future research and development," cautioned Martina McGloughlin, director of the biotechnology program at the University of California, Davis. "Labeling raises costs, which discourages producers and consumers and destroys markets for new products."

Still, the labeling proposal strikes a chord among groups like Consumers Union, and a comparable labeling bill has claimed 47 supporters in the House.

"Why don't they label all this?" Atwood said. "The Europeans do."

Myriad biotech lobbyists are doing their best to squelch the labeling bill and in other ways monitor the legislative front.

Witness the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which more than doubled its reported lobbying expenses from $1.2 million in 1997 to $3.7 million in 1998, according to figures compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. This augments individual company efforts. Monsanto, which makes genetically engineered Roundup Ready cotton and NewLeaf insect-protected potatoes, spent $4 million on its own lobbying efforts in 1998. DuPont, another major biotech player whose products include genetically engineered soybeans and cotton, spent a reported $1.8 million on lobbying.

But the industry and the lobbyists also must cope with questions beyond the predictable political, scientific and regulatory worlds they know so well.

A Ukiah-based teacher of Buddhism contends in court that gene-spliced foods interfere with his religious practice. Another challenge uniquely contends that U.S. government officials have the legal duty to maintain the integrity of the country's genetic resources.

The picture is further complicated because no one federal agency is solely responsible for biotech developments. A genetically engineered corn that produces its own insect toxin, for instance, faces evaluation by the Agriculture Department, for its environmental impact; the Environmental Protection Agency, for its pesticide characteristics; and the Food and Drug Administration, for the high fructose corn syrup that's produced and used in soft drinks.

And California, with its combination of a $27 billion-a-year farm economy, its pre-eminent university research and its lively biotech industry, is the state whose residents appear most often on the front lines.

Consider Mary Cake, a farmer in the Stanislaus County town of Hughson.

Cake grows organic tomatoes, herbs and potatoes on a 20-acre swatch located between orchards. She and her husband, Terry, have used organic methods since they started farming the land 11 years ago. They are also now plaintiffs in a major lawsuit filed in federal court in Washington, D.C.

"The track they're going down is frightening," Cake said of biotechnology. "It's the same as going to the moon, or to Mars, just because it's possible. But, should we be there?"

The Cakes joined a number of other California farmers, including Yolo County cotton and walnut farmer Sally Fox and Madera vegetable grower Tom Willey, in pressing the lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency. The suit, coordinated by the environmental group Greenpeace, contends the EPA has broken the law and harmed the environment by approving use of eight genetically engineered crops.

These EPA-approved crops produce their own Bacillus thuringiensis, or B.t. This is a form of bacteria that kills insects by interfering with their digestion. As a spray, B.t. has been widely applied by organic farmers for years.

Since 1995, genetically engineered crops like B.t. cotton and B.t. corn that produce their own insect toxin have been widely planted. By some estimates, more than 40 percent of all field corn planted in the United States is now the B.t. variety.

But the Cakes and their allies fear pollen from genetically engineered B.t. crops could contaminate their own organic plots, and they fear as well that insects will develop B.t. resistance through exposure to the modified plants. Their lawsuit, originally filed in 1997, demands that the EPA withdraw the approvals for the B.t. crops and prepare a major environmental study.

"This is the beginning salvo," Cake said. "My concern is down the road, when biotech crops are being planted next to mine."

The lawsuit is still undecided, though it already may have had some impact. In January, the EPA announced that farmers using B.t. corn would have to plant up to half of their acreage with standard corn. The lawsuit, moreover, illustrates how the biotech revolution is posing mind-boggling new legal questions.

For instance: Who should own genetic information? The Greenpeace lawsuit takes a cut at this question, by declaring that the EPA "holds the genetic resources in trust on behalf of U.S. citizens," and that the agency improperly conveyed a "proprietary interest" in these public resources by granting the B.t. crop approvals.

A separate lawsuit now before the U.S. District Court in Washington demands that the Food and Drug Administration require labels on genetically engineered foods. Under a 1992 policy, now being reviewed again by the FDA, genetically engineered foods are deemed "generally recognized as safe." This means producers need not necessarily obtain FDA approval or apply labels, though the agency strongly encourages "consultation" before the foods come to market.

"We are convinced that our policies and processes in this area are well grounded in science, and that we have an excellent track record," FDA Deputy Commissioner Sharon Holston told an overflow crowd in Oakland late last year.

Labeling, in any event, poses legal questions of its own.

In 1993, for instance, the FDA allowed use of recombinant bovine growth hormone to boost milk production. Vermont imposed its own labeling requirement, but a federal appellate panel subsequently declared the labels presented a First Amendment problem. The First Amendment, the judges noted, protects not only the right to speak, but the right not to speak. Mandatory labeling, in this case, amounts to mandatory speech, the court ruled.

Copyright, Denver Publishing Co