Scary Grapes


Something tells me that if today’s anti-biotech activists had been around in the 19th century, when William Thompson introduced seedless grapes to California, they would have called his wonderful innovation a scary example of “Frankenfood.”

That’s exactly the kind of rhetoric they’re now deploying in Sonoma County, where voters will decide on November 8 whether to approve an initiative banning genetically modified crops.

Unfortunately, “Frankenfood” isn’t merely a term for Halloween treats. It’s an insult hurled at one of the most important developments in modern agriculture.

There really shouldn’t be anything controversial about this technology. In the United States today, more than 85 percent of our soybeans, 75 percent of our cotton, and half our corn has been bred to fight off harmful bugs and weeds. Here in California, about 250,000 acres of biotech enhanced cotton and another 340,000 acres of biotech corn were planted and harvested this year. And despite the hand-wringing of some, there’s simply no scientific evidence suggesting that gene-altered crops have caused anybody so much as to sneeze. Authorities as diverse as the National Academy of Science and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization have endorsed biotech-enhanced plants.

Yet anti-biotech agitators have rallied against it. Because they’ve experienced no success at the federal or state level, they’ve recently refocused their political energy on California counties, in the hope of creating a regulatory patchwork that will inhibit farmers from using this technology, ultimately putting us at a competitive disadvantage. Since the start of 2004, three California counties have banned gene-altered crops: Marin, Mendocino, and Trinity. Sonoma has been targeted to become the fourth.

Yet the enemies of biotechnology have failed as often as they’ve succeeded. Last year, voters in the counties of Butte, Humboldt, and San Luis Obispo rejected anti-biotech initiatives. They understood the practical problems of a ban, including the important question of who pays the expensive cost of enforcing it.

Banning biotechnology helps nobody. Up to now, farmers have seen most of the benefits associated with agricultural biotechnology, in the form of higher yields and more efficient and economical use of our resources. However, it has become increasingly clear that biotech crops aren’t merely good for farmers and acceptable to consumers–they’re actually becoming preferable to eat, as researchers figure out ways to produce crops that add essential vitamins and nutrients to our diets. The first wave of heart-healthy soybeans is here. And that’s just one example of many crops in the research-and-development pipeline that promise to become a staple of the American diet. Before long, “biofortification” will reinvent the ways we think about keeping ourselves healthy.

Biotech crops are good for the environment. In a comprehensive new peer-reviewed study, British scientists Graham Brookes and Peter Barfoot report that genetically modified plants reduced greenhouse-gas emissions last year by more than 22 billion pounds–the equivalent of removing 5 million cars from the road for a year. That’s because farmers who grow biotech crops have decreased their fuel use by taking less trips across a field (the fuel efficiency of a tractor makes an SUV look good) and allowing more carbon to be stored in the ground due to less plowing.

Sonoma County itself may benefit from customized solutions to its own farming challenges. There’s no such thing as a commercial biotech grape right now, but in the years ahead perhaps we’ll have grape vines that defend themselves against Pierce’s disease, a bacterial infection spread by leafhopping insects. A ban on biotech would stop Sonoma’s farmers from using it–but of even more concern to me and other farmers, a ban might convince seed companies not to invest in this technology in the first place.

There was a time when it was possible to say that genetically modified crops were a new technology. But now they’re a proven technology with a long track record. In the last ten years, farmers around the world have harvested more than a billion acres of biotech crops. Every year, they chose to plant more than they did the year before. In the United States alone, Americans have consumed a trillion servings of food with biotech ingredients (according to Henry I. Miller of Stanford’s Hoover Institution).

A generation ago, the Green Revolution transformed agriculture practices all over the world and helped us keep pace with a growing human population. Today, a Gene Revolution promises to continue this progress.

Sonoma County voters must decide whether they want to embrace the future–or fear 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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