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[whitespace] The Right to Know

Local activists seek input on genetic engineering

By Greg Cahill and John Yewell

THERE ARE MANY EFFORTS under way to inform consumers about genetically engineered foods. In Santa Cruz, the City Council passed a resolution Jan. 4 supporting a moratorium on the genetic engineering of foods until their safety can be established--and that such foods now available to consumers should be labeled as genetically engineered.

One of the biggest events to discuss genetic engineering of foods starts today (Jan. 19) in Pacific Grove. The 20th annual Ecological Farming Conference, sponsored by the Committee for Sustainable Agriculture in Watsonville, will host participants from around the country. Prominent among the speakers will be Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation on Economic Trends and author of The Biotech Century.

Sam Earnshaw is the central coast regional coordinator for the Community Alliance with Family Farmers and one of the organizers of the Ecological Farming Conference.

"Biotech is going to play a major role in agriculture, whether through increased protein contents, more favorable growing attributes, or any number of characteristics that will benefit consumers as well as farmers and agricultural businesses," Earnshaw says. "But can't the goals intended by the introduction of GMOs [genetically modified organisms] be accomplished by other alternative, sustainable, organic or conventional farming practices? The government regulatory agencies, including the FDA and EPA, have totally failed to address the problems of testing and labeling. Labeling would give consumers the right to know."

Earnshaw lists a number of trouble areas in genetic food engineering that will be addressed at the conference. Among them:

* Diminished biological diversity.

* BT (Bacillus thuriengsis) resistance. BT is a soil bacterium that kills caterpillars and is used with soy beans, corn, potatoes and other crops. Unfortunately, the pests ultimately develop resistance. Meanwhile, BT also kills monarch butterflies, Earnshaw says.

* Increased costs to farmers by making them rely on commercially patented bioengineered seeds, which produce sterile offspring. This is a particular problem in Third World countries, where collecting and using fertile seed from crops is essential to making poor farmers independent.

* Drift of bioengineered products and pollen onto organic fields.

* Unknown environmental effects.

* Health effects on farm workers.

In order to qualify for the November 2000 ballot, "The California Right to Know/Genetically Engineered Food Initiative" must collect 413,000 signatures by March 1 (organizers need the petitions returned by Feb. 20).

Initiative organizers say they are not opposed to the bioengineering of foods, only that the public has the right to know how food is produced.

"We wrote this initiative because we believe people have a fundamental right to know whether the foods they purchase and consume have been genetically engineered," wrote Glen Ellen organic farmer Bob Cannard on the initiative's website. "There are a variety of personal, ethical, and medical considerations that make this information necessary."

According to Cannard, who heads the signature-gathering effort, surveys show that 81 percent to 93 percent of the American public supports the labeling of genetically altered foods.

The law would require all produce and meats resulting from genetic engineering to be clearly labeled. Those products are defined as crops and livestock containing genetic material transferred from one species to another, or DNA modifications not commonly possible under natural conditions, such as cell fusion, gene deletion or doubling, and induced sequence or encapsulation variations. Historical breeding techniques such as hybridization and cross breeding are not considered genetic engineering.

The 20th annual Ecological Farming Conference will be held at the Asilomar Conference Center, 800 Asilomar Blvd., Pacific Grove (831.763.2111). For more information about Jeremy Rifkin, go to www.biotechcentury.org or call 202.466.2823. People interested in the "Right to Know" petition can contact the California Right to Know/Genetically Engineered Food Labeling Initiative, P.O. Box 520, Glen Ellen, 95442, call 939.8316 or visit the website at www.calrighttoknow.org.

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From the January 19-26, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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