Posted August 23, 2005 (The News & Observer, August 13, 2005 via
CropChoice): The idea of rearranging the DNA
of plants once sounded like the stuff of science fiction.
Today, man-made plants that repel pests or survive
heavy doses of weedkiller cover 3 million acres of North
Carolina farmland -- and state agriculture leaders are
paving the way for more.
A bill likely will pass in the legislature this session
that will stop local governments from banning genetically
modified crops, as three California counties have done.
The bill, requested by the Department of Agriculture,
passed in the Senate on Friday, the last major hurdle
to its success. The House, which passed the bill in
May, must agree to a few changes to make it final.
No North Carolina county or city has tried to ban the
crops. But the bill has created a maelstrom among those
who say that genetically engineered crops pose a danger
to the food supply and could destroy organic farming.
"They're really playing with Mother Nature in a
pretty perverse way," said Ken Dawson, an organic
vegetable farmer from Orange County. "We don't
know what the consequences are."
The outrage is heightened by a new genetically modified
crop in North Carolina that, unlike most others, is
intended to go directly into the food supply.
This year in Washington County, a California company
planted 75 acres of rice implanted with a human gene
that produces proteins found in human milk, saliva and
tears. The company plans to extract the proteins and
use them in food products that they say could help infants
in the Third World.
Those who oppose the crops say they can easily cross-pollinate
with organic and conventional crops, destroying rare
heirloom varieties and making natural food almost extinct.
Now, as the bill awaits final passage, state leaders
are in the middle of a rowdy debate over the future
of high-tech agriculture.
"Research and science has moved agriculture from
the horse and plow and very low yields to very efficient
operations that can meet the world's food demands,"
said state Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler, who
grows genetically modified soybeans on his Guilford
County farm. "I don't know that we can afford to
stop doing that."
Genetically modified crops are the products of biotechnology
companies, which have figured out how to add genes to
plants' DNA to make them resistant to pests or to the
Farmers, who pay the companies for the rights to use
the patented seeds, say the mutant crops make farming
easier and more efficient and cut down on the use of
pesticides and herbicides. Ninety-five percent of cotton,
87 percent of soybeans and 52 percent of corn grown
in North Carolina this year are genetically modified,
according to the Department of Agriculture. Right now,
most genetically modified crops do not go directly into
the food supply. Most of the soybeans and corn are used
for livestock feed, not sold in grocery stores. But
their uses are expanding.
Troxler is among many state agriculture leaders who
say that genetically modified crops provide the best
hope for keeping farmers in business in difficult times
-- and for feeding the world on less and less land.
Troxler said the Agriculture Department asked for the
bill, which is similar to those being floated in several
other states. It would give the state Board of Agriculture,
which Troxler chairs, sole authority to outlaw plants.
He said the push comes at the request of seed dealers,
farmers and agribusiness companies that were concerned
about what they saw in California and New England --
where "genetically engineered free" movements
have gained steam.
"The public is very misinformed," said Wade
Byrd, a Bladen County corn farmer. "We're going
to use fewer pesticides and have a safer food product
when we get more of these crops on the market."
In California, several counties have held referendums
on whether to ban the plants locally. Three have been
successful. In Vermont, more than 80 local governments
have passed resolutions barring them. And in Maine,
one town has passed a resolution, and others are considering
In North Carolina, where no such movement has gained
a foothold, state officials said they thought the bill
would pass without fanfare. It slid through the House
in May with only one dissenting vote.
But advocates of organic farming got wind of it soon
after, and it didn't have such a smooth road in the
Senate. On Thursday, a Senate committee amended the
bill to create a study commission that will examine
the risks and benefits of genetically engineered crops.
It also added two new members to the state Board of
Agriculture: an organic farmer and a consumer advocate.
Tony Kleese, head of the Carolina Farm Stewardship
Association, which promotes organic farming, said the
new bill is better -- but still not palatable.
He said it will all but assure that genetically engineered
crops can spread unchecked.
He said allowing local governments to create zones
where genetically engineered crops aren't allowed could
protect organic crops from being contaminated by wind-blown
pollen. Now, that right will be taken away, regardless
what the study shows.
Kleese and other organic advocates say genetically
engineered crops haven't been studied enough to prove
they're safe. Europeans shun them, banning any U.S.
product that contains them.
They call the bill the work of giant biotech companies
-- such as Monsanto, a Missouri company that owns the
rights to most of the genetically modified seeds used
on American farms -- that want to protect their profit
"Do we want these companies to own our food supply
from seed to plate?"
Kleese said. "The more of these kinds of laws
that go into effect, the more the balance tips to genetically
engineered crops. We need to ask a lot of hard questions
before we continue down this path."
Sen. Charlie Albertson, a Duplin County Democrat, was
one of the bill's sponsors.
He said it's unrealistic to think that organic farmers,
who sell vegetables and fruits at a premium, can feed
the masses. He said the expansion of genetically engineered
crops will ensure an abundant and affordable food supply.
"The truth is, organic crops are out of the reach
of most people who are buying produce," Albertson
said. "We can't grow them at the expense of genetically
modified crops. These crops offer the best hope in the
world to feed hungry people."