A year ago, my colleagues on the Board of Supervisors and I appointed a subcommittee to advise us on the subject of genetically engineered (GE) food crops in Santa Cruz County.
I brought the item to the Board for several reasons: This is an important issue made difficult by a lack of reliable data and the absence of a serious and informed discussion. I felt that the Board, myself included, could benefit from education on this complicated, technical and controversial issue which is being raised in Santa Cruz County, as well as other parts of the state and nation.
Secondly, I wanted recommendations on how to deal with issues of genetically engineered crops in Santa Cruz County. My colleagues on the Board and I particularly wanted to know whether a precautionary moratorium was advisable and whether the Board of Supervisors has the authority to impose such a moratorium.
The GE Subcommittee
The GE subcommittee members were an impressive and divergent group: organic and conventional farmers, a retired county agricultural commissioner, an attorney with a background in plant genetics and a plant scientist were among the members. Over a 10-month period they delved into intensive research and discussion, culminating with a report made to the Board of Supervisors last week.
The subcommittee began by assessing the scope of the issue, investigating the regulatory and enforcement systems currently in place and researching the potential human, ecological, social and economic impacts of genetically engineered crops in Santa Cruz County.
The subcommittee defined "genetic engineering" as inv-olving the alteration by recombinant DNA technology. The recombinant DNA methods allow a gene from any species to be inserted into an organism's genetic material and subsequently expressed in a completely new food crop or other food crops. For example, researchers in Canada have inserted a frog gene into potato plants to make them produce a chemical that protects the genetically engineered potato from a broad range of infections caused by fungi and bacteria.
To me, the GE subcommittee report was chilling. The information indicates that as a nation we are rushing headlong into the artificial manipulation of the genetic make-up of common crops and foods.
Nationally, we are assuming that genetically engineered organisms will not harm humans, plants, animals or insects. We are assuming that the government will control GE experiments and protect non-GE crops from contamination. We are assuming that the benefits will outweigh any harm.
The problem is that we don't have the information that we need to know whether those assumptions are true. The subcommittee concluded that the full impact of GE crops on the natural environment is hard to assess. Some of the ecological risks include genetic pollution and the gene flow of GE traits to non-GE crops, escape of GE organisms into the environment, the killing of beneficial insects and the loss of biodiversity. Nor is there a guaranteed way to protect against GE contamination. The movement of pollen and seed by natural pollinators, wind and human error in planting, field clean-up, transportation and food processing all pose considerable risks.
Currently there are no labeling regulations for foods containing GE ingredients, thus eliminating choice for consumers. The subcommittee also found that no long-term human health studies have been conducted on the consumption of GE food, although there are a number of published reports on deleterious health effects on immune systems and fertility of lab animals fed GE foods.
The primary recommendation to the Board was that we establish a "precautionary moratorium" on growing GE crops in Santa Cruz County until certain common-sense measures are put into place to safeguard public and environmental health.
The following are the critical issues of concern identified by the subcommittee that they felt should be resolved before lifting the moratorium:
From the main home page, scroll down to the green "Board of Supervisors" box and click on "Agenda and Minutes." From the Meeting List," select the year "2006," followed by the month of "June," and the meeting of "June 6." The report is included on that agenda as item number 58.
A proposed county ordinance will be heard by the Board of Supervisors at our meeting on June 20.