TCS Daily


Saving California From Californians

By Henry I. Miller - August 10, 2006 12:00 AM

Some aspects of our political and personal lives -- zoning, city planning, traffic laws, noise ordinances, conformity in architecture, composition of school boards, and so forth -- can effectively be determined at a local level. Arguably, central authorities at the state and federal level should keep hands off unless it becomes absolutely necessary.

Well, it has become necessary in California -- to save misguided anti-technology voters and local officials from themselves, and to save everyone from a tyranny of the majority.

Four counties already well known for goofy, radical left-wing politics have imposed bans on the cultivation of plants genetically improved with state-of-the-art techniques. This is democracy at its worst, reminiscent of the Indiana House of Representatives passing legislation to redefine by fiat the value of pi, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. (The state senate refused to go along.)

To begin with, anti-biotechnology measures in California are unscientific and logically inconsistent, in that their 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. Another inconsistency is that vast numbers of gene-spliced bacteria are released routinely from ordinary, low-containment microbiology laboratories -- such as those at the University of California, Santa Cruz, located in one of the counties that imposed a ban. A study by the U.S. EPA found that on average, approximately 50 million to 1 billion bacteria per technician per day get out on labcoats, shoes and hair, or are just blown out windows and doors (without causing harm). But for some reason, local politicians seem to be more worried about insect-resistant lettuce and longer shelf-life tomatoes.

By prohibiting the use of the most precisely crafted and more predictable -- that is, safer -- products, the bans on gene-spliced plants and seeds turn science-based regulation on its head. But there is a far more important and fundamental issue at stake: the freedom of individuals and companies to pursue lawful activities unencumbered and unharassed. 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.

Fortunately, state legislators have introduced a bill, SB 1056, that would preempt local regulation of seeds and nursery stocks in the future. It would ensure consistency of regulation throughout the state, and obviate the need for farmers to navigate a county by county patchwork of differing restrictions and requirements. Not surprisingly, the bill has the support of virtually all major agricultural organizations, including the California Farm Bureau, Western United Dairymen, California Women for Agriculture, Western Growers Association, the Wine Institute, and more.

By outlawing the cultivation of insect-resistant crops developed with the assistance of biotechnology, county officials have ensured the increased use of chemical pesticides and persistence of these chemicals in their ground and surface water. (It will also result in increased occupational exposures: Let's not forget that homo sapiens is part of the environment.)

Most important of all, the county prohibitions 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, that threatens a variety of crops in many of California's most productive agricultural areas. Genetic improvement of plants may well prove to be the definitive solution -- one that should not be denied to local farmers and home gardeners merely because of the willful ignorance of political "leaders" (loosely defined) or even misguided 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 regions -- and to California during our next drought: Irrigation for agriculture accounts for roughly 70% of the world's fresh-water consumption (and the proportion is even higher in agriculture-intensive regions).

For years, activists (who, of course, oppose the legislation) have relentlessly promoted The Big Lie about gene-splicing -- namely, that it is unproven, unwanted, untested and unregulated. After more than 20 years, none of the hypothetical concerns about safety has been substantiated. Crops made with gene-splicing techniques are currently grown by 8.5 million farmers in 21 countries on more than 100 million acres annually. California farmers currently plant almost a million acres of gene-spliced crops annually, primarily corn and cotton.

Americans have consumed more than a trillion servings of foods that contain gene-spliced ingredients. (That is not a misprint.) Throughout all this experience, there is not a single documented case of injury to a person or disruption of an ecosystem. Scientists are virtually unanimous that gene-splicing techniques are essentially a refinement of earlier ones, and that gene transfer or modification by molecular techniques does not, per se, confer risk. Like robotics, fiber optics and supercomputers, gene-splicing is no more than a widely applicable tool -- a better, more precise and predictable tool than its predecessors.

Irrational regulation -- especially when it is as nonsensical and counter-productive as California's anti-biotech measures -- makes a mockery of government and diminishes all of us. Letting ideology and misguided activism trample science and common sense is antithetical to sound public policy. That's why we need SB 1056.

Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a fellow at the Hoover Institution. Barron's selected his most recent book, The Frankenfood Myth, as one of the 25 Best Books of 2004. He headed the FDA's Office of Biotechnology from 1989-1993.

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12 Comments

That which we don't understand, we first fear, and later hate
Too much bad scifi about killer broccoli has convinced the less intelligent that doom and gloom await mankind due to the meddling of "scientists" with the secrets of nature. Of course, the religious zealots would call this "messing with God's plan."

In both cases, it shows that humanity, no matter how enlightened we become, are still fearful savages ruled by our emotions.

Just wait until the fear turns more nasty...

Freedom of Choice
In essence this piece presents the view that the citizens of a small entity must be overseen by the citizens of a larger entity in order to prevent the first group from making what the citizens of the larger group consider a mistake. In this case the mistake is taken to be the erroneous choice of one method of farming over another. I submit that if this choice is wrong, which I believe that it is, the future result of that choice will become apparent to the citizens who made it and at some point they will either change their opinion or relocate to a more favorable environment. In other words, if allowed to the populace will vote, with either their ballots or their feet and isn't that what liberty and democracy are really about?

Unfortunately...
You are correct, but much of the opposition to GMO's is led by very intelligent people who scare the "less intelligent" with cute little quips like "Frankenfood", the dangers of multinationals, Monarch butterfly death and the dreaded MONOCULTURE. Keep in mind that GMO opposition in Europe is driven by fear of "genes in my food".

For the good of the whole...
The last post and the subject line, reminds me of a quote from Star Trek or one of its many clones.

The problem with the previous analysis (post) is it assumes
[1] we are a democracy
[2] we act rationally

As far as the first, America is contrary to popular opinion, NOT a democracy. It is a constitutional republic. Remember a democracy is where all voters decide an issue. It is the equivalent of majority (mob) rule. A republic on the other hand is the rule of law. It is the law and neither a deity nor a group of enlightened intellectuals which is the highest authority.

As to the second, just consider after any major life disrupting event occurs, the number of hand-wringers who seem to come out of the woodwork demanding that someone "do something" about something. Several cases come to mind, but the latest is the high price of gasoline (big oil gauging us all - make it stop!). How many times have you heard that there needs to be an investigation or that big oil needs to be "broken up" or that the profits are too high? The mob would demand that the oil companies give away their property for free.

My position on Frankenfoods and all its cousins (wolfy foods, mummy foods, vampirefoods ha ha ) is simple. If I feel the rewards exceed the risks, I'll buy it and eat it (and I have enjoyed Frankenfoods).

As to genetic manipulation causing a biological catastrophe, remember "they", the unenlightened savages, felt the same way about nanotechnology (gray goo scenario where nanotech self-replicating machines converts the entire earth to grey goo) and in particle physics (the black hole that ate the world - a subatomic particle is created which does not naturally disintegrate but continues to grow until it sucks the entire earth into its gravity well) and from history: during the first atomic test, they (PhD scientists no less) thought the earth's oxygen would be ignited and the earth would go nova.

TS

For the good of the whole
Thanx for the minilecture but I am already aware that our political structure is a mixture of styles of government, of which democracy applies only to the public election of representatives. And that one has already been usurped by those who prefer that state governments have no voice in the operations of the federal government.

Additionally, I fully realize that the founders choice of governmental structures is explictly designed to avoid the worst excesses of each. Further, I am fully aware that the primary thrust of the political left in America has been to centralize government and distance it's operators from the electorate and that the purpose of this maneuvering has been to create a political class, largly successful to date, as a ruling elite available for purchase.

(By the way, I presume that you intended 'gouging' rather than "gauging" in your statements regarding the oil companies.)

Interesting as your views may be you have none the less entirely avoided addressing my question since you seem to prefer to lecture me on the potential evils of genetic manipulation. Each of the cited dangers have indeed had proponents of it's own reality but without going into the "guns don't kill people, people do" arguments as they apply to genetic manipulation, I await with breathless anticipation your actual reply to my question, that is, how is government oversight preferable to democratic, ie personal freedom of action?.

(In retrospect, perhaps I should have made note that I was not referring to democracy as a form of 'formal' government.)

Thanx again
kruel

(Yes, that is in fact my name - I have concluded after sixty odd, sometimes very odd, years that my parents were loons.)

your welcome
minilecture: that you know the difference between a and b is great. Others might not. in fact I'm sure many do not know what "democracy" means.

"gauging": yes, good catch, too fast typing and sloppy proofing.

"Interesting as your views may be you have none the less entirely avoided addressing my question since you seem to prefer to lecture me..." I do? Hmmm.

"how is government oversight preferable to democratic, ie personal freedom of action?"

Answer:
When the actions of the individual or group interferes with life, liberty or property or the free exercise thereof.

Life: you create a biological organism which has not been proven to be safe (to be defined) at some confidence level (to be determined) and release it. 100% safety, while politically ideal, is statistically unreasonable. Is 99% safe acceptable? How about 99.99% safe.

liberty: you create a situation which precludes my ability to travel, work,..., freely and without excessive interference. An example which is the latest prohibition of liquids on some airlines.

property: your actions have interfered with my ability to use, enjoy, transfer, sell or access that which I own.

personal freedom of action is great but I (lecture mode off) subscribe to the "you have a right to do anything until it interferes with my rights" model (lecture mode on). Whether govermnent or society agrees with me is another matter.

TS

Technology and global players...
Each time a society (nation) has come to dominance it was the result of an "unfair advantage" it developed through the deployment of some advanced technology. While its previously more powerful rivals ignored such opportunities.

How does a culture become so staid that its people refuse to progress? Is it because they are rich and arrogant? Yes. Could it be that they are poor and enslaved to idealogue totalitarian governments who seek to maintain the status quo? Also yes. Are they well-meaning liberals or are they no-nonsense conservatives? Both! Does history tell us that this sort of civilization reversal happens with some predictability? Indeed, it does.

Who, therefore, has the most to lose as a result of this normal human behavioral phenomenon? The United States of America.

If we ignore or resist the obvious benefits of bio-technology and if we think that the rest of the world will, therefore, fail to develop these opportunities and thereby create great wealth and power, then we are fools. The rest of the world will not be squeamish about such risks and the developing nations will not hesitate to make us pay for this mistake.

Among the technologies that made Americans economically powerful were automobiles, the highway system and the trucking industry. We killed more than 43,000 individuals on our highways in 2005. Maybe some smaller number of us would have been killed by our horses if we did not have motor vehicles in this country. But we would be talking about it in another language.

Luddites
California will, I am sure, soon impose a tax to fund the comission of a huge sculpture to memorialize the Luddites. These same 4 counties also passed 'no-nuke' laws in the past which, I am sure, were the REAL reasons the Soviet Union collapsed----once they realized that Santa Cruz county(among others), for example, made nuclear weapons illegal they determined that their quest for global dominance had been forever thwarted.
The one thing we need most in California is a savior to save us from all the other saviors!

Ok, we've waited long enough
Mr. Kruel
lets recap, in your last post you wrote:

"...you have none the less entirely avoided addressing my question since you seem to prefer to lecture me."

and later you wrote:

"I await with breathless anticipation your actual reply to my question, that is, how is government oversight preferable to democratic, ie personal freedom of action?."

Since I have answered the above question, I thought I'd go back and check if in fact you did ask the question you claimed to have asked. If you hadn't acted as though I attacked you, I wouldn't have bothered. But, since you did, I note that the _only_ question you asked in the prior post was:

"In other words, if allowed to the populace will vote, with either their ballots or their feet and isn't that what liberty and democracy are really about?"

That question I did answer, although you feel I was "lecturing" you. Since you haven't replied in a timely fashion, I'll assume there is nothing of relevance you wish to add.

TS

Corection
Actually the mister is unneccessary since Kruel is the given name and you're correct in that I did ask a different question. For that error and the length of time required for my reply, thanx for the criticism of my system of prioritization by the way, I plead the same condition: I actually have other things to do that I consider, foolishly perhaps, more significant than internet debate.

I readily grant that you are the more intelligent, and of course better informed, person in this particular "room". To illustrate my point I submit that I often fail to email myself regarding my pronouncements.

bye now,
kruel

No Subject
"Answer:
When the actions of the individual or group interferes with life, liberty or property or the free exercise thereof."

The very definition of modern Libertarianism, wouldn't you say? (By the bye, what's your position on the War on Drugs?)

Further question:
Who is to make this crucial determination? You? Me? Government? Our crippled legal system?
Are we to ignore the actions of those who have loudly and repeatedly vowed to kill as many of us as possible in pursuit of their religio-political ends in the name of the very personal liberty that they so despise?

I believe that the question of protecting our liberties is far more complex than most of us perceive and that we serve the purposes of those who wish us harm when we quarrel over relatively minor inconveniences that result from government's admittedly sometimes inept efforts to prevent that harm.

More later perhaps, after I earn today's daily bread...

kruel

(as to my 'lecture' comment: isn't that what we all do when trying to present a clear point of view?)

Why bother?
California has become such a silly place; let the next earthquake take it entirely, and start with new beachfront in Nevada.

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