Board of Supervisors supports bio-technology

By C.J. Barbre

Without a single voice of opposition, Tulare County endorsed the use of bio-technology in agriculture, as was proposed by the Agricultural Commissioner's Office at the April 5 Board of Supervisors meeting.

Assistant Ag Commissioner Bill Appleby walked the supervisors through the pros and cons as outlined by his office.

Biotechnology has been the subject of voter initiatives in Butte, Humboldt, Marin and San Louis Obispo counties in the most recent general election. The initiatives were intended to prohibit the use of biotechnology, including genetically-engineered (GE) or genetically-modified organisms (GMO) and were placed on ballots by those opposed to the use of such technologies.

The initiatives failed in all but Marin County. Mendocino and Trininty counties banned the growing of genetically-engineered crops on March 2, 2004 and Aug. 3, 2004 respectively. Currently the counties of Sonoma, Alameda, Lake, Santa Cruz, Napa, Solano, Contra Costa, Placer and Santa Barbara have activities contemplating or underway to prohibit or limit the use of biotechnology. Some or all of these may have initiatives on the next ballot(s).

Proponents of the use of biotechnology promote the benefits including: crop varieties which have been developed to ward off pests, resist particular herbicides, resist diseases, tolerate adverse growing conditions, as well as improving production and reducing costs. This technology can and does allow commercial and pharmaceutical production to be produced both cheaply and abundantly. Proponents also indicate that such technology holds a very real promise of reducing particulate matter and ozone-forming emissions through reduction of tillage and pesticide application. Several neighboring Valley counties [Fresno and Kings] have adopted resolutions similar to the one proposed supporting the use of such technology.

Opponents of this technology cite concerns including: potential harm to human health and the environment, contamination of conventional crops through pollen transfer, a loss of efficacy of certain pesticides and herbicides due to the development of resistant pests, and advance reaction in the marketplace.

Many argue that agricultural biotechnology has not had sufficient time to be thoroughly tested. And it seems to have veered toward production qualities more suited to industrial agriculture and export crops than the small farmer.

Greg Knutson, president of the Tulare County Farm Bureau, told the supervisors, "Biotechnology is one of the tools that will become very important. It has been going on for centuries, but will result in new and improved food products with increased shelf-life." He noted that insulin was the first registered biotech product. He said golden rice prevents childhood blindness. It is a genetically modified strain of rice that has been engineered to produce beta-carotene. The World Health Organization estimates about 250 million people globally are deficient in vitamin A, increasing their risk of blindness, immune problems and other serious conditions. Knutson assured the supervisors that GE and GMO crops take 7-8 years to clear all the regulating agencies including the USDA, EPA, and FDA, at a cost of $2-4 million.

"They have not identified any problems but [such products] can be recalled if they do," Knutson said. But you can't always get the genie back in the bottle. He said the common "myths" are that genetically engineered foods are unsafe, then listed a string of countries that already produce them, including China, Canada, India, Argentina and South Africa.

Currently corn and cotton are the only crops locally that have been modified. Knutson said cotton production is up and pesticide use has been dramatically decreased.

District 5 Supervisor Jim Maples said, "We have a great deal of confidence in the ag commissioner, that the benefits outweigh the negatives."

District 3 Supervisor Phil Cox said, "We need to be on the cutting-edge or we will be left behind. The future is here, but not quite."

"It's important for us to make a positive statement as the No. 2 ag county, said District 4 Supervisor Steve Worthley. He said non-agricultural counties take the opposite position, "not realizing what havoc they could be wrecking on the scene."

Still it seems the consumers of these products deserve to be heard. A little debate is desirable. "Recalling" is hardly a viable antidote after changing the course of nature.

Start typing and press Enter to search