TCS Daily

Direct Dumb-ocracy: California Fruits and Nuts Against Agriculture

By Henry I. Miller - November 8, 2005 12:00 AM

California's referendum process frequently leads to incredibly dumb issues appearing on the ballot -- and to some preposterous outcomes. Among the most egregious examples this year is Measure M, a Sonoma County anti-biotechnology proposal that would prohibit the cultivation of plants or seeds improved with state-of-the-art techniques. Its approval would be direct participatory democracy at its absolute worst, damaging the interests of all consumers, and of farmers in particular.

To begin with, the proposal is unscientific and logically inconsistent, in that its restrictions are inversely related to risk -- in other words, they permit the use of microorganisms and plants that are crafted with less precise and predictable techniques, but ban those made with more precise and predictable ones. They turn science-based regulation on its head -- which alone should be reason enough to defeat the 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, voters would ensure the increased use of chemical pesticides and persistence of these chemicals in the area's ground and surface water. (It would also result in increased occupational exposures: Let's not forget that homo sapiens are part of the environment.)

Most important of all, the county prohibitions would block sophisticated genetic approaches to the eradication of blights such as sudden oak death, phyloxera, powdery mildew and Pierce's Disease, a bacterial infestation carried by a leaf-hopping insect, the glassy-winged sharpshooter.

Pierce's Disease, which threatens California's multi-billion dollar wine and table grape industries, is of special concern to Sonoma County, which produces some of the world's best wines. Genetic improvement of grapevines may well prove to be the definitive solution -- one that should not be denied to California farmers merely because of the willful ignorance of the voters.

Biotechnology's potential is not just theoretical. By inserting a single gene into squash, sweet potatoes and other crops, scientists have made them virus-resistant. Gene-spliced papaya varieties have resurrected Hawaii's $64 million-a-year industry, which was moribund a decade ago because of the predations of papaya ringspot virus. In addition, because of the way that gene-splicing enhances the resistance of plants to pests and disease, the natural environment already has been spared the use of scores of millions of pounds of chemical pesticides.

The future holds out even greater hope. The technology makes it possible to remove dangerous allergens from wheat, peanuts, milk and other commonly allergenic foods. Gene-splicing will allow crop varieties to thrive in conditions of drought or near-drought. Imagine the boon to water-distressed countries -- and to California during its next drought: Irrigation for agriculture accounts for roughly 70% of the world's fresh-water consumption (and is even higher in agriculture-intensive regions).

Moreover, gene-splicing techniques increasingly are being used to program common crop plants such as rice, barley, corn and tobacco to synthesize high-value-added pharmaceuticals. The plants are harvested and the drug is then extracted and purified. Future research may well lead to important products, or even life-saving cures, but agbiotech now is completely off-limits in three California counties that have adopted bans. Local ordinances could have a "chilling effect" on the state's agricultural research, according to David C. Nunenkamp, deputy secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

Activists are relentless in promoting The Big Lie about gene-splicing -- namely, that it is unproven, untested and unregulated. After more than 20 years, none of the hypothetical concerns about safety has been substantiated. For more than a decade farmers have cultivated gene-spliced plants on more than 100 million acres annually (currently in at least 18 countries) -- and not a single ecosystem has been disrupted, or person injured, by any gene-spliced product. (California farmers currently plant more than 600,000 acres of gene-spliced crops annually, primarily corn and cotton.)

Arbitrary and illogical ordinances raise other issues. All citizens should be concerned about the implications of subjecting safe, legitimate commercial products -- in this case, plants crafted with a proven, superior technology -- to surveillance, confiscation and destruction by local officials. This is the tyranny of the majority over the rights of minorities.

Flawed regulation -- especially when it is as nonsensical and counter-productive as Sonoma's Measure M -- makes a mockery of government and diminishes us all. Letting ideology and misguided activism trample science and common sense is not the route to sound public policy.

Henry I. Miller is a fellow at the Hoover Institution. Barron's selected his latest book, "The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution," as one of the 25 Best Books of 2004. He headed the FDA's Office of Biotechnology from 1989-1993.



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