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Archive for Monday, April 9, 2007

Battle grows over genetically engineered crops

April 9, 2007

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The growing battle over genetically engineered plants is slowly taking root, most recently in California with a proposed state Assembly bill that would allow farmers to sue growers for cross-contamination of organic plants that could hurt their sales.

Freshman Assemblyman Jared Huffman, a Democrat, introduced a bill in March, saying it would establish the state's only law related to genetically altered crops.

The Assembly Judiciary Committee will discuss the bill, also known as the Food and Farm Protection Act, at its meeting Tuesday.

"There's a lot of organic farmers in my district that worry about what potential damage genetically engineered crops could do to their fields," Huffman said.

With few regulatory laws on the books in the U.S., California's attempts to enter the fray over genetically altered plants could hold major implications for the state's agricultural industry - the nation's largest with $27 billion in annual revenue.

Growing popularity

Nearly 30 years since the introduction of genetically altered plants, growers are increasingly facing a backlash from local and regional governments worried about the plants' unknown environmental and health risks.

At the same time, genetically engineered plants, also known as "bio-crops," are more popular than ever across the country and around the world.

Between 1996 and 2006, the amount of land cultivated worldwide with genetically engineered plants increased from 4.2 million acres to 250 million acres, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report. More than half of those acres were in the U.S.

Proponents say genetically engineered plants can provide longer-lasting crops, resistant to adverse conditions, herbicides and insects, and can be used for pharmaceutical purposes or as edible vaccines for diseases, such as Hepatitis B or AIDS.

"The benefits are even more profound for developing nations as it could lead to genetically enhanced crops with higher iron content and longer-lasting shelf life," said Brian Hyps, a spokesman for the Maryland-based American Society of Plant Biologists. "If anything, the acceptance of bio-crops has become widespread as it's hard to make it through the grocery store without encountering one."

In 2005, 52 percent of corn, 87 percent of soybeans, and 79 percent of cotton planted in the U.S. were genetically engineered, according to a 2006 USDA report.

Benefits

Farmers said bio-crops have led to less pesticide use and longer-lasting crops with no visible adverse effects on their environment, the report found.

Bio-crops were developed primarily in the 1980s as plant biologists and farmers sought to make stronger crops. The plants are created by taking desired genetic material, or DNA, from one organism and injecting it into a plant's DNA.

While cross-breeding similar plants and crops is common, genetically engineered plants are altered using DNA not just from plants but any living organism, possibly even mammals, said Michael F. Thomashow, a Michigan State University plant biologist.

For example, altering the DNA of squash can result in the grown plant fending off viruses, making it last longer, Thomashow said.

Nicknames like "Frankenfood" and "super weeds" used by critics only breed misconceptions about the plants, which are still in the minority of most U.S. agriculture, Thomashow said.

The USDA reported last year that only 6 percent of the nation's agriculture were bio-crops.

Regulation needed

It's against federal law to conduct a bio-crop experiment outside of a controlled setting, like an indoor lab, without USDA approval.

Skeptics say genetically engineered plants might contaminate the soil and general food supply and produce weeds resistant to environmentally safe herbicides.

In August, federal authorities said the U.S. food supply had been "cross-contaminated" by an unapproved variety of genetically engineered rice after it was found in Southern U.S. shipping bins, mills and fields.

Believed to have been grown in small field trials in 2001 at Louisiana State University, the rice developed by Bayer CropScience led to 40 farmers suing the company. Japan and various European markets temporarily banned U.S. rice, leading to a $150-million market price drop.

"It's situations like that we're trying to avoid," Huffman said.

Huffman's bill would allow anyone whose property annually incurs $3,500 or more in damages from cross-contamination to sue the bio-crop manufacturer responsible, but not necessarily the farmer planting the bio-crops.

"There is no ban in this bill," said Huffman, who said he does not oppose bio-crop research. "The fact is that genetic engineering is with us and will be for a long time. There needs to be some regulation."

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