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GMO Free Butte Makes Ballot in CA Rice Country

Biotech crop ban makes Butte ballot

It would bar the new seeds in a key rice-growing county.

By Mike Lee -- Bee Staff Writer - (Published June 18, 2004)
Mendocino County's ban of biotech crops has been cloned: Butte County has validated enough signatures for a November ballot measure that would prohibit genetically engineered crops in the heart of rice country, activists said Thursday.

The ballot measures and congressional legislation introduced Thursday by a farm-state senator signal continuing public discomfort about holes and secrecy in the regulatory system for biotech foods. The problems were highlighted last week in The Bee's series about genetic engineering.

U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., wants to force companies to submit their new biotech foods to the Food and Drug Administration for review before marketing them, a change from the current voluntary process.

"We need to understand more of what is going on," said Lou Ann Choss, a massage therapist in the Butte County community of Paradise.

Choss and her like-minded friends announced the county had certified more than enough signatures - 7,981 - for a November ballot measure that would ban cultivation of genetically engineered crops. Butte County supervisors have the option to adopt the measure or send it to the ballot.

If successful, Butte would follow Mendocino County, which banned biotech crops in March. Anti-biotech organizers in Humboldt County say they are nearly ready to submit 8,000 signatures for a similar November ballot.

The effort in Butte is arguably the most significant in California because the county is a leading rice producer. Companies reportedly are close to marketing genetically engineered rice immune to popular herbicides - products that some Butte farmers no doubt would embrace.

Choss said the decision to seek a ban was based on fears about the spread of biotech genes to non-biotech crops and the implications for organic consumers trying to avoid engineered food. Those fears were crystallized by the recent efforts of a Sacramento biotech company to boost production of rice laced with common human proteins.

"This isn't just a bunch of granola-eaters who want to stop scientific research," Choss said. "It's a broader scope across all lines in the farming community, organic as well as conventional."

The Biotechnology Industry Organization, a trade group based in Washington, D.C., is watching Butte for now and didn't rule out a fall election campaign.

"We feel strongly that farmers should have the right to choose the types of crops they want to grow, whether it's conventional or biotech or organic," said spokeswoman Deb Carstoiu.

Durbin took a different approach to regulating biotechnology, which mostly is done by federal agencies. His bill would force companies to alert the FDA when they want to market a new biotech food and give the public time to comment. It's up to companies if they want to tell the FDA about a biotech product, and the FDA does little independent verification of company science.

Biotech industry watchdog Greg Jaffe at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C., said the bill offered a sensible, streamlined and transparent way to regulate biotech foods.

But at the Grocery Manufacturers of America, a major food trade group in Washington, D.C., spokeswoman Stephanie Childs said Durbin's tinkering with the regulatory system isn't needed. "Overall, we are confident that the FDA ... has had an adequate review" of products on the market, she said.


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About the Writer
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The Bee's Mike Lee can be reached at (916) 321-1102 or mflee@sacbee.com.