Measure H reads: It shall be unlawful for any person, firm, or corporation to propagate, cultivate, raise, or grow genetically modified organisms in Mendocino County. It goes on to exempt any GMOs associated with medical treatment and any GMOs that come into the county through commerce. Genetic modification in the sense in which it is defined in the ordinance refers to genetic engineering, not conventional breeding or hybridizing. GMOs cannot be produced conventionally.
GMOs represent a fundamental disruption of the basic pattern of living organisms for which the only equivalent parallel is the rending asunder of the structure of matter in a nuclear reaction. My college biology teacher, Nobel Prize winning Harvard professor George Wald has warned: Recombinant DNA technology [genetic engineering] faces our society with problems unprecedented not only the history of science, but of life on the Earth. It places in human hands the capacity to redesign living organisms, the products of some three billion years of evolution . It presents probably the largest ethical problem that science has ever had to face. Our morality up to now has been to go ahead without restriction to learn all that we can about nature. Restructuring nature was not part of the bargain. For going ahead in this direction may be not only unwise but dangerous. Potentially, it could breed new animal and plant diseases, new sources of cancer, novel epidemics.
Most of us are in favor on consumer protection recall laws. If a car or other product is defective and poses a threat to human health or safety, then the manufacturer is required to notify us that we can return the product for repair or replacement with a non-defective item. With GMOs there is no possibility of recall. Once they have been released into the environment, there is no way to remove them. Because they are there forever, we need to take special care before we decide to release them. Unfortunately, both the Clinton and Bush administrations have let the fox into the hen house and appointed people from the biotech industry to make the key decisions about the safety and release of GMOs. Further, because university researchers are dependent on corporate money to do research on GMOs, almost no money is available to study potential dangers of GMOs, and people who do so put their academic careers in jeopardy. One recent local example is UC Berkeley Professor Ignacio Chapela, who discovered that the worlds most important repository of native corn strains had been polluted by GMO corn. He is now being denied tenure by the chancellors office, because the university is afraid of losing the substantial funding of one of multinational corporations that is a major player in the GMO market.
In 1999 Professor Elaine Ingham of Oregon State University published the results of research that should make us all wonder about the trustworthiness and efficacy of the oversight and regulation of the federal government. She and a graduate student tested a common soil bacterium that had been genetically engineered to produce alcohol from plant debris, a GMO bacterium that had already gotten EPA approval for release in the open. The idea was that, after the alcohol was produced, the remaining debris containing the bacteria would be dumped back on the fields as fertilizer. Her experiments showed that when wheat seedlings were grown in soil containing the genetically engineered bacteria (GMOs), the seedlings all died. Professor Ingham then testified about the ramifications of her experiments: These bacteria would therefore get into the root systems of all terrestrial plants and begin to produce alcohol. The engineered bacterium produces far beyond the required amount of alcohol per gram soil than required to kill any terrestrial plant. This would result in the death of all terrestrial plants, because the parent bacterium has been found in the root systems of all plants where anyone has looked for its presence. This could have been the single most devastating impact on human beings since we would likely have lost corn, wheat, barley, vegetable crops, trees, bushes, etc, conceivably all terrestrial plants. Needless to say, the company involved did not go forward with its plans for commercial release of that GMO, no thanks to the EPA.
Some local farmers are against Measure H because they are wrongly afraid that they will miss out on some new GMO magic bullet that will save them from Pierces disease or some other agricultural disease or pest problem, and if they dont have the GMO plants and others do, they will go out of business. If we look at this reasoning carefully, we can see that it does not stand up to the light of day. Farmers should know that GMO fixes only last two to four years before they stop being effective. Recent studies show that over a several year time span GMO crops require more herbicides and pesticides than conventional ones. That and the high cost of buying GMOs add up to a lot more expenditures. Plus by contract they would open their farms to twenty-four hour-a-day, unannounced inspection visits by rent-a-cops hired by the biotech corps from which they purchase.
Moreover, the danger of GMO-generated plant super-viruses could dwarf any problems that they have now. It has been well documented that new plant viruses develop when they enter plant cells, break apart, and then recombine with plant DNA to create new viruses. It has also been shown that viruses can recombine with DNA from a GMO to create plant viruses that would never occur in nature. We just dont know whether natural ecosystems and standard agricultural defenses will be able to deal with these GMO super-viruses.
The same powers that have brought the farmers NAFTA, denying them an equal playing field for selling their products, are now trying to ram GMOs down their throats. Monsanto already has a long track record of squeezing family farmers both in this country and around the world. If you want some details, watch the widely available video of the Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser, or better, listen to him in person. Why then are many of the University of California agricultural extension people either nervously neutral on Measure H or against it? The ag extension gets its information from UC scientists whose research grants, careers, fortunes and reputations are dependent on biotech corporate millions. It takes guts for UC-connected people to speak out against GMOs.
Dont we need GMOs to avert world hunger? After all, thats what all the ADM ads say. ADM just want to sell more GMOs. Biotech corporations dont care about world hunger. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) recently issued a report indicating that production of enough food will not be a problem in the near future. GMOs are not needed, and even if they were, there is no compelling evidence that they would perform as advertised. GMOs have been shown in many cases to have smaller yields and less nutrition than non-GMOs. The problem is and will continue to be equitable food distribution, not the amount of food available.
Is Measure H going to bankrupt the county and raise taxes? Of course not. Commissioner of Agriculture Dave Bengston, who is under enormous pressure from anti-Measure H forces, has recently publicly stated that he does not suspect enforcement to be a major problem, that inspection can be done routinely and cheaply together with non-GMO inspections, and that he does not expect many people to attempt to import into the county GMOs for growing or raising. Bengstons main financial concern seems to be his potential responsibility for enforcing Measure H against people who might grow GMO marijuana, which seems extremely unlikely to most people. [This portion of the essay was cut and did not appear in the paper: Even if that did become a problem, the federal government would do the enforcement and pay for it. Bengston has also publicly stated that he has no intention of bursting into peoples backyards to inspect what they are growing in their vegetable gardens.]
Why then are the anti-Measure H forces disseminating so much erroneous information about Measure H? The multinational biotech corporations will stop at nothing to protect their potential profits from the worldwide sales of GMOs; they have hundreds of billions of dollars at stake. They care nothing for the health and safety of the people of Mendocino County, or for our environment, or for our family farmers. We are clearly engaged in a David and Goliath struggle against these amoral international corporations, and I am confident that, if the voters are given accurate information, they will have the intelligence necessary to see the truth and vote their consciences. [This portion of the essay was cut and did not appear in the paper: What about the people in our community who are actively opposing Measure H? I firmly believe that the great majority of them have either been misinformed by the deliberate campaign of disinformation that is being waged by the multinational purveyors of GMOs, or that they may have taken their present roles in the campaign because of business or social pressures and concern for supporting their families. Let us hope that with better information and a good look at their own consciences, they too will come to see that failure to adopt Measure H may well harm their own children and grandchildren. In any case, even if we do not agree with them, since they are our good neighbors, they deserve our respect, goodwill, and compassion.]
Professor Epstein taught environmental ethics at San Francisco State University
for many years and has written about ethical problems associated with genetic
engineering in a wide range of publications. He has lived in the greater Ukiah
area since 1977.