TCS Daily

California's Fruits and Nuts Oppose Agriculture

By Henry I. Miller - February 19, 2004 12:00 AM

This is a cautionary tale about abuses of the local referendum process and about the risks of getting involved in local political causes. Earlier this month, I authored a letter opposing an anti-biotechnology county ballot referendum item, and the letter was sent to most of the voters of California's Mendocino County.

I don't know how many recipients were enlightened, but it was certainly a learning experience for me.

In a state known for dumb, gratuitous referendum issues, Measure H takes the cake. It would ban the cultivation of any plant genetically improved using the most precise and predictable techniques, regardless of their risk.

To begin with, Measure H's definition of DNA is bizarre and scientifically incorrect. Measure H is also logically inconsistent, in that its restrictions are inversely related to risk. It permits the use of microorganisms and plants that are crafted with less precise, less predictable techniques, but bans those made with highly precise and predictable ones. It turns science-based regulation on its head.

Significant advances in the fight against cancer, diabetes, AIDS, Parkinson's, and numerous other diseases have relied on biotechnology. If future research were to lead to development of a product that provides significant relief, or even a life-saving cure, Measure H would prohibit its use in Mendocino County. That alone is reason enough to defeat this poorly-worded and confusing measure.

California boasts a strong environmental movement, but by outlawing the cultivation of insect-resistant crops developed with the assistance of biotechnology, Measure H could lead to an increase in the levels of chemical pesticides in the area's ground and surface water (and would certainly cause increased occupational exposures).

Most important of all, Measure H would block sophisticated genetic approaches to the eradication of blights such as sudden oak death, phyloxera, powdery mildew and Pierce's Disease.

Biotechnology's potential is not just theoretical. A decade ago, an epidemic of papaya ringspot virus had almost destroyed Hawaii's $64 million a year papaya crop, but by 1998 biotech researchers provided virus-resistant varieties that have preserved the industry.

These kinds of remedies would be foreclosed if Measure H were passed.

I made two other points in my letter. First, citizens should be concerned about the implications of subjecting plants in backyard gardens to confiscation and destruction by county officials; and second, thousands of scientists worldwide have conducted exhaustive, independent experiments and concluded that biotech crops are at least as safe as their conventional counterparts.

Within days of the letter being sent out, I received irate, often anonymous phone messages on my voice-mail and e-mail. Soon after, irate, often anonymous mail began to arrive. These California fruits and nuts questioned my motivation, my ties to the agribusiness industry, and my integrity.

To set the record straight, I received no compensation of any kind for writing the letter; in fact, I have often been at odds with the agribusiness industry, which I have criticized for demanding and getting excessive regulation of agricultural biotechnology over the past twenty years.

Like many Californians, I love the state's table grapes and wines, but California's vineyards are being threatened by Pierce's Disease, a bacterial infestation carried by an insect, the glassy-winged sharpshooter. Organic and conventional grape growers especially fear this devastating and lethal disease. Genetic improvement of grapevines may well prove to be the definitive solution to Pierce's Disease -- a solution that should not be denied to Mendocino County. The same applies to sudden oak death, which is destroying many of our glorious oak trees.

But there is a more important reason. I spent more than 15 years responsible for biotechnology regulatory policy at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. I personally evaluated the first biopharmaceuticals in the early 1980s. During that time, I was a crusader for imposing only the amount of regulation that was necessary and sufficient, and for regulatory approaches that made scientific and common sense. I was on the side of neither the activists nor the industry, and that remains true today. I am convinced that flawed public policy -- especially when it is as nonsensical as Mendocino County's Measure H -- makes a mockery of government and diminishes us all. I have written or edited five books and published more than 500 articles, many in peer-reviewed journals, on various aspects of regulation.

I am as much of an environmentalist as any of the people who have criticized me, but letting ideology and misguided activism trample science and common sense is not the route to sound public policy.

Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His latest book," The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution," will be published later this year by Praeger Publishers. He headed the FDA's Office of Biotechnology from 1989-1993. He last wrote for TCS about stopping the real pests.


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