GE Policy Alliance Position Paper Executive Summary
The Genetic Engineering Policy Alliance is a coalition of organizations and businesses advancing precautionary policies around genetic engineering in agriculture. We work to protect farmers from economic loss due to unwanted contamination from genetically engineered crops; promote the public’s right-to-know about the presence of genetically engineered crops in our food and agriculture; and safeguard the environment and public health from damage due to exposure to genetically engineered crops and food.
Concerns About GE in Agriculture
Genetic engineering (GE) in agriculture is one of the most contested technologies of the past half-century. Used to change the DNA of plants and animals by moving genes from one species to another, GE produces organisms that do not occur in nature and cannot be developed through natural plant breeding techniques. Since the advent of commercial production of GE crops in 1996, more than 100 million acres of these crops have been planted in the U.S., the bulk of which are soy, corn, canola and cotton that are used primarily in processed human foods and animal feed. GE ingredients are present in an estimated 70% of all processed food in the U.S.
GE technology is marketed as a way to improve crop yields and reduce pesticides, but to date these promises have proven elusive or short-lived at best. Conversely, the economic, health and environmental risks associated with the technology have generated profound concerns among farmers and consumers.
Legal and Financial Burdens for Farmers. Contamination of non-GE crops by GE crops is virtually impossible to control. Contamination can present legal and financial burdens for farmers who knowingly grow GE crops as well as those who produce GE-free crops. Several of California’s most important export markets have labeling laws, thresholds and restrictions on GE imports, and in some cases complete bans on GE foods and crop production. In the event of GE crop commercialization or unwanted GE contamination, these markets have indicated that they will impose severe restrictions or even discontinue trade with California. This warning was borne out when a 2006 long grain rice contamination incident caused all of California’s major rice markets to close their markets to U.S. long grain rice and implemented mandatory testing of all California’s rice exports. Rice farmers sued the manufacturer, Bayer Corporation, but questions of liability and compensation for lost revenue from these incidents have yet to be resolved.
There are a growing number of well-documented adverse environmental effects of the use of GE in agriculture. Studies show that over time, GE crops can lead to increased herbicide and pesticide use and the use of more toxic chemicals. Reasons for this include: GE technology exacerbates the problem of the evolution of weed and insect resistance to pesticides due to natural selection by creating a reliance on a single herbicide used in conjunction with herbicide resistant crops, or in the case of the Bt insecticidal GE crops, exposing target insects to the continuous presence of the Bt toxin in the GE plant itself. Herbicide tolerance can also be transferred when GE crops cross-pollinate with their wild relatives. Herbicide resistant crops themselves can also become weed problems in farm fields, along roadsides, railways, and in the wild. GE crops with built-in pesticides can lead to the development of resistance in target pests, rendering the pesticide trait ineffective and again leading to the use of more toxic pesticides. GE crops can also harm non-target animal and plant species, including endangered or sensitive native species. Finally, genetic contamination threatens the integrity of indigenous and heirloom plant varieties as well as species in areas of the world where important crop genetic diversity exits.
Public Health Risks.
Despite the widespread prevalence of GE ingredients in most processed foods in the U.S., alarmingly little research has been conducted to ensure that GE organisms are safe for people to eat. The growing body of independent peer-reviewed scientific research shows that health effects from consuming GE foods include allergic reactions, toxicity, and modified organ and cellular functioning, structure and growth. GE foods are not required to be labeled in the U.S, making it impossible to trace detrimental health effects to consumption of these foods. Consumers who wish to avoid GE foods must purchase certified organic products, which are more expensive and thus less accessible to low-income communities. Finally, the increased pesticide use often associated with GE crop production exacerbates threats to the health and safety of farm-workers and nearby communities that are already exposed to toxic agricultural chemicals.
GE Crops Producing Drugs and Industrial Chemicals.
Two special classes of GE crops, called ‘pharm’ and industrial chemical crops pose unique risks to public health, the environment and the economy. These GE crops are genetically engineered to produce pharmaceuticals or industrial chemicals such as plastics, detergents, vaccines, hormones, and antibodies. GE food crops that contain pharmaceuticals or industrial chemicals are of great concern because they contain compounds not intended and often not safe for general human consumption. This combined with the many opportunities for contamination of the food supply make these crops arguably the most dangerous of all genetically engineered crops.
Inadequacy of Existing GE Regulations
The federal government has implemented neither mandatory environmental or human safety testing requirements for any GE crops nor labeling regulations for seeds or food. Biotechnology companies are permitted to determine what, if any, safety studies are performed and how they are conducted. The locations of thousands of open-air field trials of experimental crop varieties are unknown, and the National Academy of Science and the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Agriculture have raised grave concerns about the inadequacy of the oversight of these field trials.
Importance of California
As the country’s largest producer of both conventional and organic crops, California is firmly at the center of the growing debate over GE. Although GE crops comprise very little of the state’s agricultural acreage, many of California’s most common crops are currently being field tested throughout the state. As of October 2006, there were 1,294 issued field trial permits for 48 crops in California alone, including lettuce, strawberries, wine grapes, rice, tomatoes, walnuts and more. The potential introduction of GE versions of common California crops has raised concerns among farmers, both organic and conventional, about contamination of their products and loss of critical markets. An herbicide resistant GE variety of one of California’s main exports, rice, had been federally approved for market but not yet produced commercially due to widespread consumer rejection. The State of California has no policies dealing with GE crops.
Beginning in 2004, several California counties and cities moved to fill the federal and state regulatory shortcomings by enacting precautionary local ordinances restricting GE crop production, arguing that local governments have the right to protect their economies, public health and ecosystems. In response, in the 2005/06 legislative session, powerful biotechnology industry and agricultural interests introduced a bill that would have pre-empted local authority over seed and crop restrictions. Though this attempt failed due to a groundswell of opposition from public interest organizations, citizens, and elected officials around the state, it dramatically underscored the need to enact effective state policies that address the widespread concerns over genetic engineering in agriculture.
Recommendations for California
The Genetic Engineering Policy Alliance believes it is essential and timely to enact California policy that protects farmers, consumers and the environment from certain risks inherent in GE agriculture. Because the technology involves living organisms that reproduce and spread through the environment, and can thus contaminate non-GE plants, farmers and the public should know where they are grown and what seeds and plants contain GE material. Because some consumers prefer to not eat GE foods, and since most consumers want to know if GE ingredients are present in their food, they should have access to information about what foods contain GE ingredients. Because there are likely to be unforeseen consequences of this relatively new technology for farmers, consumers and the environment, there should be remedies in place to clarify the burden of liability. Finally, some classes of GE crops are simply too risky and should be prohibited.