Food Not Politics


That’s the question thousands of Golden State voters will face on November 2.

No, I’m not talking about the presidential election. President Bush and Senator Kerry may not agree on a lot of things–Iraq, tax cuts, Social Security, etc.–but both of them support agricultural biotechnology, according to an American Farm Bureau survey.

Activists in four California counties, however, are now trying to ban what Bush and Kerry endorse–a mainstream farming choice utilizing technology that’s accepted by scientists, conservationists, and the majority of men and women who work the land in my state, around the nation and across the globe.

Previous attempts to hinder biotechnology at the ballot box have failed. Two years ago, Oregon voters soundly rejected a complex and costly initiative that would have slapped special labels on food products containing even tiny traces of genetic enhancement.

After licking their wounds from that defeat, anti-biotech activists regrouped and decided to focus on California counties where there wasn’t a large agricultural presence. In March, Mendocino County did their bidding with a vote to ban genetically modified crops. It was a symbolic measure because there aren’t any biotech crops grown there. The climate and the soil aren’t right for America’s current leading biotech crops, so the Mendocino measure has had little practical effect. The same is true for Trinity County, which approved its own ban at a county executive meeting in August.

On Election Day, however, the number of California counties outlawing biotech crops could triple as voters consider bans in Butte, Humboldt, Marin, and San Luis Obispo Counties.

It’s a safe bet that at least the Humboldt County initiative will fail.

“I think it’s fatally flawed,” said Milt Boyd, a biology professor at Humboldt State University and a member of the local Democratic Party. “The science is wrong, the language is imprecise.”

He’s got that right. The Humboldt County measure actually defines DNA as “a complex protein” when in fact it’s a nucleic acid. These are important distinctions in Professor Boyd’s classroom–and they’re no less important in our laws.

Even the group that collected more than 4,000 signatures to put the anti-biotech measure on the Humboldt ballot is urging voters to turn it down. “We’re basically admitting we made some big mistakes” in the wording, said the group’s co-chairwoman.

She can say that again. Her group’s scientific ignorance would be laughable if it didn’t threaten to do so much damage to farmers in California. Have these people even bothered to look at the evidence? The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization says biotech foods are safe to eat and farm. So does the National Research Council, here in the United States. So do professors at California’s public universities.

That’s because they know how much biotechnology is delivering right now and how much it will offer in the future.

Consider this: Scientists at the University of California at Berkeley recently created a form of hypo-allergenic wheat through biotechnology. If it moves into commercial development, it will be a boon to people who suffer from wheat allergies. Similar work is now being done on soybeans, which almost certainly will lead to safer products, especially baby foods.

Yet the anti-biotech crowd apparently couldn’t care less. I just wish they had to explain their views to a roomful of mothers who have infants with soy allergies.

Of the four California counties voting on agricultural biotechnology next month, the one to watch is Butte. It actually has a significant amount of agriculture. Moreover, the farmers there have done an effective job of organizing themselves. Earlier this year, some Mendocino voters reacted negatively to biotech companies becoming financially involved in what they considered a local matter. In Butte, however, the big companies have stayed away. Local farmers have bankrolled virtually all of the opposition movement. Their slogan is “Food Not Politics.”

Meanwhile, something like two-thirds of the money for the ballot initiative–the folks whose motto ought to be “Politics Not Food”–has come from the Organic Consumers Association, based in Minnesota.

I’m convinced that if voters examine the facts about biotech crops, then they’ll understand the benefits and make the right choices. After all, how bad can something be if both George W. Bush and John Kerry support it?

Ted Sheely raises cotton, tomatoes, wheat, pistachios and garlic in the San Joaquin Valley and lives in Lemoore, California. He is a board member of Truth About Trade and Technology, a national grassroots advocacy group based in Des Moines, Iowa, formed by farmers in support of freer trade and advancements in biotechnology.

Ted Sheely

Ted Sheely

Ted raises lettuce, cotton, tomatoes, onions, pistachios, wine grapes and garlic on a family farm. Chairman of Horizon Growers (pistachios). Long-standing interest and investment in water availability and quality. Received Innovative Water Conservation Award.

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