Strange Fruit

Mushroom in banana

Credit: Jennifer Bensadoun

Home from the GMO wars

GMOs, though broadly shunned by the European public, are common in the US marketplace. But even here on the complacent side of the Atlantic, they have become increasingly controversial. Simply defined, GMOs are organisms (most commonly bacteria or plants) that contain genetic material from more than one source. For example, “Bt corn” is a corn plant with a bacterial gene integrated into its DNA; “Golden Rice” is a rice plant that contains daffodil and bacterial genes.

Though often touted as solutions to agricultural, nutritional, and ecological problems, GMOs have also inspired a variety of criticisms. These range from ethical objections to DNA manipulation, to concern about the boundaries of intellectual property rights, to fears of unintended environmental or human health effects. But in the end, both those who reject these organisms and those who defend them struggle with two central questions: who is qualified to evaluate the effects of GMOs, and who is responsible for such evaluations? On whom do we place the burden of ensuring the safety of our Bt corn or Golden Rice?

As it stands, no one governmental agency regulates all aspects of GMOs. This lack of comprehensive, mandatory federal regulation is disquieting to environmental and food safety advocates. That is why, in March2004, Mendocino County in northern California passed Measure H, making it the first county in the United States to render it “unlawful for any person,firm, or corporation to propagate, cultivate, raise, or grow genetically modified organisms.” Trinity County, also in northern California, quickly followed suit, starting a trend in California counties to pass this type of measure.

To counter the anti-GMO push, Fresno County launched a trend of its own. Located in the center of California’s commercial agriculture belt, Fresno grows a large number of genetically engineered crops; as a result, the Fresno Board of Supervisors passed a resolution “that the County of Fresno will make every effort to preserve the choice of using biotechnology in its county and encourage the establishment of a state or national biotechnology policy.” Kings County, neighbor to Fresno, passed a similar resolution, emphasizing farmer choice in the use of GM crops.

As counties rush madly for one bandwagon or the other, California’s famously chaotic, grass-roots approachto legislation is once again breaking new ground.Voters have begun to legislate scientific issues directly, and the effects may eventually ripple through UC Berkeley researchprograms and then the state (and world) agricultural communities.

The Letter of the Law

The measures that made it onto November 2004 ballots in counties across the state were a motley bunch. Some prohibited all GMOs, while others attempted to outlaw only GM food crops, making exceptions for GMOs used in medicine and research. The penalties for contraband organisms also differed, some giving the Agricultural Commissioner power to dole out appropriate punishments. Others, like Humboldt’s, would have punished offenders by “confiscation and destruction of any organisms found to be in violation,” and imposition of “a monetary penalty and/or imprisonment,” in essence, turning the cultivation of GMOs into a criminal act.

Unfortunately for their creators, these measures were written without much scientific or legal advice. The lack of scientific input was evident in such bloopers as “DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, means a complex protein,” a quote common to over half of the voter initiatives. (DNA is composed of nucleotides, not amino acids.)

In other cases, the legality of some ordinances was questionable. The criminalization of growing GMOs in Humboldt County’s measure was illegal and resulted in a lack of support from both sides; it failed to gain voter approval. Similar measures on the November ballots in Butte and San Luis Obispo Counties, despite heavy financial support from anti-GMO groups, also failed. In fact, the year’s three anti-GMO successes were largely symbolic: Marin county, for example, has only minimal commercial farming, almost all of which is organic. Similarly, there were no GMOs growing in Mendocino or Trinity Counties when they voted to ban such organisms.

The tassels of a GM corn plant, flowering in a research plot in northern California.

The tassels of a GM corn plant, flowering in a research plot in northern California.
Credit: Genevieve Schiffrar

Beyond the shaky scientific wording and legality of the California county ordinances, questions of practicality lurk. Whether these laws can even successfully function on a county-by-county basis is an open question. Peggy Lemaux, a professor in the department of Plant and Microbial Biology, doesn’t think it will work at all. The government “used to do [county-by-county regulation] with pesticides and it was so horrible because [the farmers’] land would go from one county to the next. It’s a very difficult situation for farmers to deal with.”

But if these measures were created quickly, with little advice from scientists or lawyers, and they were passed as a purely symbolic move, why were people so eager to act? Lemaux thinks the reason is because the public wants the government to have a system in place to regulate this new technology. “It was born out of people’s frustration because they don’t know…how to get the state to move on this. This is their way to force it.”

This has some farmers in California worried that this series of events has set a precedent for future action. Sarah Hake, a professor in the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology whose husband owns an organic farm in Marin County, is disturbed by this trend: “I don’t think California counties should be setting protocol in the state or the nation.” She thinks these laws should be created at the state level by legislators with help from informed scientists.

Banana in pear

Credit: Jennifer Bensadoun

In the midst of this controversy, bio-tech companies continue to produce new genetically modified organisms, and farmers continue to plant more and more land with these crops. Given a choice, with no pressure from non-governmental organizations, farmers choose genetically engineered crops time and again.1

Why have most scientists and farmers welcomed this technology, even in the face of growing public opposition? Genetic engineers claim that their new techniques are no different from classical breeding and affirm that farmers have been manipulating plant and animal characteristics for thousands of years. GMOs can also yield new crop lines in a much smaller time frame than classical breeding. Additionally, many biotech companies vow to engineer plants with increased nutrient composition and greater fruit yield. But opponents counter these claims with vehement criticisms of the economics and ecology of GMO-based agriculture (see sidebars).

Opinion among the faculty at UC Berkeley varies as much as it does internationally. In the Departments of Molecular and Cell Biology (MCB) and Plant and Microbial Biology (PMB), researchers regularly genetically engineer species of bacteria, fungi, and plants, mostly for research, but some for eventual commercial use. Peggy Lemaux and Sarah Hake both make it a priority to speak to the public about both sides of the issue. Hake, in a letter to the residents of Marin County, wrote that “investigating the benefits and risks of each GM crop would be much more prudent than simply saying no based on fear of the unknown.”

Apple in pear

Credit: Jennifer Bensadoun

Voicing the opposite side of the issue are Andrew Gutierrez and Ignacio Chapela, professors in Environmental Science and Policy Management (ESPM), who frequently address the public about possible problems with these new crops. Gutierrez, who studies “non-target” effects of GMOs, constantly returns to his most basic argument against these crops: “You need to ask: are they needed, are they efficacious, and are they economic. In most cases, you’ll find they are not.”

A pound of prevention?

To many who are concerned with GMO safety, one of the most significant regulatory problems is that the GMO market is dominated by a few very large companies like Monsanto and DuPont. These companies own not only the genetically modified plants themselves, but also the technology and information used to create them for at least the next 20 years. With this monopoly and little government oversight, such companies can set their own standards for product regulation. Many people fear that as a result, the proper tests are not done and possible problems with human health and environmental safety are not discovered.

Indeed, there is very little enforced regulation by either the state or the federal government. As long as the company selling the product can demonstrate that the genetically engineered crop is “substantially equivalent” to its closest classically bred relative, no additional testing is required.

Nonetheless, many companies extensively test their products, regardless of government pressure, for fear of litigation. In fact, GMOs are tested with greater rigor than any classically bred crop currently produced, even though an overwhelming majority of current peer-reviewed data indicates that GMOs are no more harmful than classically bred crops.

Frustrated by the success of anti-GMO initiatives, industry representatives assert that the public should be championing less regulation, not more. Neal Gutterson, a graduate of UC Berkeley and Chief Operating Officer of Mendel, a private biotechnology research company in the East Bay, thinks genetically modified crops are already overregulated. He points to a five-hundred-page dossier sent by Monsanto to the US government in support of a new product. To clear a classically bred crop for sale, the government requires far less paperwork. Gutterson argues, “[introduction of GMOs to market] is overregulated based on what is required to demonstrate safety.” Since there hasbeen no verifiable demonstration of any harm to human health,2, 3 GMOs should be regulated at the same level as classically bred crops.

Peggy Lemaux examines some GM sorghum, engineered to be more easily digestible.

Peggy Lemaux examines some GM sorghum, engineered to be more easily digestible.
Credit: Genevieve Schiffrar

In contrast, UC Berkeley’s Andrew Gutierrez supports the implementation of the precautionary principle, which questions the ethics of blindly implementing a new technology. This principle asserts that if the effects of a new technology are unknown but are judged by some scientists to have negative risks, then it is better not to carry out the action at all rather than risk uncertain consequences. In essence, the precautionary principle would thus prohibit any further development or use of GMOs until they could be shown to be irrefutably safe for the environment and for human health.

Of course, the demonstration of irrefutable safety is impossible, but to help quiet public concerns, many researchers continue to study the human health and environmental safety of these crops. But, according to Gutierrez, “it’s difficult to get resources to do those studies. Who provides the money? The USDA and industry provide the money,” and these groups have a vested interest in benign results.

Sarah Hake's husband, Don Murch, at Gospel Flats, his organic farm in Marin County.

Sarah Hake’s husband, Don Murch, at Gospel Flats, his organic farm in Marin County.
Credit: Sarah Hake

Opponents of the precautionary principle point out that the principle can limit any technology because there are possible negative effects associated with any new advancement in science. The principle ignores any possible benefits of GMOs. Gutterson claims, “our society would never have gained wheels if it had been for the precautionary principle.”

Something that both sides of the GMO debate agree on is that the general voting public should not directly decide how to regulate GMOs. Rather, scientists and legislators should work together to create these laws. As Gutierrez states, “I don’t think the public is sufficiently informed on the issues.” Gutterson agrees, saying, “it’s an act of democracy, so you can’t argue with that, but you need a more expert, informed view. The voters can be misguided.” Instead, he thinks “we look to the federal government to regulate complex issues and I think that’s the right place to go. The USDA and FDA need to be given a mandate.”

The gene’s out of the bottle

The granules of GM sorghum tissue in this petri dish will be treated with hormones and develop into full-grown plants.

The granules of GM sorghum tissue in this petri dish will be treated with hormones and develop into full-grown plants.
Credit: Genevieve Schiffrar

Another major concern surrounding GMOs is the possibility that they will genetically contaminate other crops, be they organic plants grown in a nearby field or wild relatives of a genetically modified species (see sidebar “Blowin’ in the wind”). Contamination could occur if a genetically engineered plant pollinated a non-GMO plant, thereby creating fruit or grain containing a genetically engineered gene. This process is known as “gene flow.” Contaminated fruits or grains would be grown and shipped as non-genetically engineered foods, and without complex biological tests, consumers would be none the wiser. Understandably, this makes many farmers uneasy, especially those who farm organically. With even the possibility of this contamination happening, organic farmers stand to lose value in US and European organic markets.

The threat to wild relatives may be even more serious. Wild relatives of cultivated plants are considered unlimited reservoirs of genetic diversity that can be bred into contemporary crop lines. Genes stored in natural relatives can confer traits such as increased flavor or enhanced disease resistance to a new pest. Farmers have resorted to these wild relative gene reservoirs during the entire history of agriculture, and they continue to do so today.

Ignacio Chapela was one of the first scientists to address concerns over gene flow. Chapela believed that pollen from illegally grown GM plants imported from the US could contaminate indigenous plant lines in Central America, where many varieties of corn are grown on small family farms. These plant lines, known as landraces, are genetic warehouses for traits that could be classically bred into US corn lines to confer desired characteristics. After random sampling in the maize fields in Central America, Chapela discovered that genetically engineered traits had already found their way into Mexican landraces.

Although Chapela’s scientific methods have been extensively criticized, few scientists would dispute his conclusion that contamination of the land races in Mexico has already occurred. The extent of the contamination, whether it can be stopped, and how to eliminate the genetic pollution that exists, are all areas that require further study.

Closer to home

The city of Berkeley, located in Alameda County, includes UC Berkeley as well as a large number of private biotechnology companies that may be affected by new laws regulating genetically modified organisms. Berkeley residents do not grow genetically modified crops and most are fairly liberal in their political leanings; the culture in this county has more in common with Marin than with Fresno. This may be why groups such as GMO-Free Alameda are taking hold here.

The main goal of GMO-Free Alameda is to “protect the county’s agriculture, environment, and private property from genetic contamination and to safeguard residents’ health and the economy from the ill effects of genetically modified organisms.” GMO-Free Alameda plans to start just as Mendocino and Marin Counties did, with a ballot measure supported by a collected list of supportive voters. Sonoma, a neighboring county, has already collected the necessary number of signatures to put it on the next ballot, and Alameda County may soon follow.

These county-based initiatives would not directly affect research at UC Berkeley, but the effects on private companies and farmers in northern California would still be felt at the university. Peggy Lemaux conducts research on genetically modified grains, and some of her research is done through contract with local farmers. If the farmers were prohibited from growing genetically modified organisms, this research couldn’t be done and, says Lemaux, “[I] couldn’t assess the impact of GMOs because I couldn’t do the experiment[s].”

Rajvinder Kavr, assistant specialist, and Erica Moehler, undergraduate, work with GM sorghum in Peggy Lemaux’s lab.

Rajvinder Kavr, assistant specialist, and Erica Moehler, undergraduate, work with GM sorghum in Peggy Lemaux’s lab.
Credit: Genevieve Schiffrar

Biotech businesses like Neal Gutterson’s Mendel fear that local legislation against GMOs may limit or even reduce the financial stake the government and private companies have in the biotech industry and university research in California. Currently, California has a large biotechnology sector in both the public and private arenas, and a majority of cotton farmers in California also grow genetically modified plants. However, all of these industries could easily decline if California’s legislative climate discouraged the research or use of GMOs.

It’s a good sign that activist groups have shifted tactics from guerrilla warfare to working within the legal system — introducing ballot initiatives is a far more civilized way to work change. However, good democracy requires informed voters, and the GMO debate is too complex to be reduced to a simple yes or no vote by a public generally uneducated in science, agriculture, economics, or technology. The people we elect, Hollywood action heroes or otherwise, should appoint qualified scientists and legislators to introduce state or federal laws — laws that exercise proper caution, while still allowing farmers the advantages of technology. These scientists and legislators need to understand both the risks involved with gene flow and the social cost of patenting farmers’ seeds, while at the same time taking into account the tremendous benefits this new science promises.



  1. USDA-NASS Censuses; Pew Initiative on Food andBiotechnology Study, 2004.
  2. Hammond, B. G., et al., “The feeding value of soybeans fed to rats, chickens, catfish, and dairy cattle is not alteredby genetic incorporation of glyphosate tolerance,” J.Nutrition 126, pp. 717-727 (1996).
  3. Hammond, B. G., et al., “Results of a 13 week safety assurance study with rats fed grain from glyphosate tolerant corn,” Food and Chemical Toxicity 42, pp. 1003-1014 (2004)

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