Is peaceful coexistence with biotechnology possible?

January 16, 2007
Growing genetically engineered (GE) crops in the United States continues to stir debate, but some University of California scientists believe attention should now be focused on how farmers opposed to the technology and those in favor of it can step back from the controversy and successfully produce and market their crops in the way they personally see fit.
“A debate is being fueled by the perception that there has to be a choice between either organic agriculture or genetic engineering,” said Alison Van Eenennaam, a University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) specialist in animal genomics and biotechnology. “This ignores the possibility that different production systems can coexist alongside each other.”

Coexistence depends on establishing and implementing practical measures to ensure the integrity of crops destined for different markets. The first step, say some UC experts, is providing accurate information on the issue to farmers, environmentalists, lawmakers and consumers. UC’s biotechnology workgroup has crafted 13 fact sheets, reviewed by scientific experts for accuracy, outlining basic information about the production and safety of GE crops, foods, animal feed and animals.

The information will help counties and state agencies as they hammer out coexistence plans for organic farmers, farmers producing products for markets that reject GE crops, and farmers who consider GE crops necessary to compete in the global marketplace.

Interest in the use of GE in California agriculture began in earnest when Measure H, Mendocino County’s ordinance that banned the growth and propagation of GE plants and animals, was passed in March 2004. Subsequently, the Trinity County Board of Supervisors passed a similar measure imposing a ban within county borders and ballot initiatives like Mendocino’s were considered in Marin, San Luis Obispo, Butte and Humboldt counties. (Only the Marin initiative succeeded.) Groups opposed to the use of GE in California agriculture remain active in a number of California counties.

“The discourse regarding genetic engineering is often being inflamed by alarming assertions and facts that are not derived from, nor are they supported by, scientific research,” Van Eenennaam said. “There is a continued need to ensure that the public has access to science-based information and educational materials.”

According to a report released in December 2006 by the Pew Charitable Trust, 34 percent of Americans say they believe genetically modified foods are safe, 29 percent say they are unsafe and 37 percent had no opinion. According to a UC fact sheet, scientific evidence to date has indicated that foods developed using GE pose no greater risk to consumers than foods produced using traditional methods.

In the Pew study, consumers consistently underestimated their consumption of GE foods, with just 26 percent believing they have eaten such foods and 60 percent believing they have not. In fact, it is likely that all U.S. consumers have eaten foods containing some ingredients derived from GE crops.

"Seventy-five percent of processed foods contain genetically modified ingredients — things like cotton seed oil, soy protein, canola oil and high fructose corn syrup,” said UC Berkeley biotechnology specialist Peggy Lemaux, author of two of the fact sheets.

A primary concern of growers producing food for GE-sensitive markets is the potential for some unintended presence GE material in their product. A small amount of engineered genes in non-GE food can result from pollen flow or unintentional mingling during post-harvest storage, transportation or food processing. One hundred percent purity of any processed product, Lemaux said, is not achievable. Tolerance levels for unwanted material are applied in every crop sector, from certified seed to mainstream commodity production.

“The only way we can have coexistence is if both sides are willing to work together to ensure that they can successfully deliver products that meet their customers’ tolerance thresholds,” Lemaux said. “An achievable tolerance level for unwanted material in an end product is probably 1 percent or less. In Europe, products with 0.9 percent GE presence are marketed without labeling.”

San Luis Obispo County officials are currently developing a protocol for coexistence of GE and non-GE crops. The majority of voters there rejected Measure Q in 2004, which would have banned GE crops. But at the polls, nearly 50,000 individuals expressed their support for the ban.

At the request of the board of supervisors, San Luis Obispo County agricultural commissioner Bob Lilley assembled a committee to develop coexistence methods. UC Cooperative Extension horticulture advisor Mary Bianchi served as a member, supplying technical information from UC. Many questions raised by the committee are addressed in UC’s new series of fact sheets. The committee’s recommendations for coexistence were presented to the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors last summer.

“One of the primary considerations is communicating where and when GE crops are grown to minimize GE presence in non-GE foods,” Bianchi said. “This has been done successfully for years by seed producers with mapping systems that identify where their certified seed fields are planted so that other seed producers can plan their planting strategies around the existing crops. We are exploring development of a similar notification process for county growers.”

Lemaux believes the efforts in San Luis Obispo County may serve as an example for other counties in California or regulators at the statewide level to implement policies that will allow for peaceful coexistence of those who favor GE crops and those who do not.

--Jeannette Warnert