Science & Environmental Health Network

Science, Ethics and Action in the Public Interest
Science & Environmental Health Network - In The News
In The News County Eyes Ban on Genetically Engineered Crops
By Roger Sideman
Santa Cruz Sentinel, June 8 2006

SANTA CRUZ - The county is one step closer to seeing a ban on the cultivation of genetically engineered crops.

Supervisors unanimously agreed Tuesday to develop an ordinance that would place a "precautionary" moratorium on the use of crops that carry transplanted genes from other species to make them more nutritious or easier to grow. The ordinance is being drafted, and will come before supervisors on June 20.

There are no genetically engineered, or GE, crops in Santa Cruz County, but the supervisors' action was prompted by a nine-month study of the laws and risks associated with such crops, which are being planted on a growing share of the world's farmland.

The group that conducted the study suggested a moratorium because too little is known about the effects of genetically engineered organisms on human health and the environment. The future viability of organic agriculture is also at risk, the report states.

Some counties, including Trinity, Mendocino and Marin already have imposed bans on genetically engineered crops.

"There are too many concerns about the impact on crops and human health," said Peggy Miars, executive director of California Certified Organic Farmers in Santa Cruz.

A minority within the study group said in an unsigned letter that the technology "holds promise" and that a moratorium is unnecessary since there's currently no interest in planting GE crops in the county.

Indeed, a moratorium would be more of a preemptive move. Genetically engineered crops are typically corn, cotton and soybeans rather than the berries and lettuce crops that dominate the county's agriculture. Still, the potential exists for local GE crops, said Poki Namkung, county health officer and the report's lead author.

Genetic engineering research in other areas has begun on 13 of the 39 commercial crop and flower varieties grown in the county, including strawberries and apples, Namkung told supervisors.

The report was written by two appointees from each of the five supervisorial districts, as well as the county agriculture commissioner and two public health experts.

Among its findings:

  • State and federal laws provide inadequate oversight. The USDA does not know the location of many GE test sites. Some crops not approved for human consumption have found their way into the food supply.
  • Lack of safety testing leaves a potentially dangerous void in understanding long-term health effects of GE food, which is still largely unlabeled in the U.S.
  • Farmers worldwide have reported their crops being tainted by stray GE pollen, subjecting some to patent infringement lawsuits from large biotechnology corporations.
The moratorium could be lifted once GE crops are better contained, tested and labeled.

"A ban places responsibility back on the industry," said Angela Flynn, an organic farmer in Bonny Doon.

Flynn was among about 15 people who spoke in favor of the ban Tuesday. No one was against it.

"I am one of the 76 percent of Santa Cruz residents who buys organic foods on a regular basis," said Gavilan College instructor Debra Klein, citing a well-publicized study. "The looming prospect of unregulated GE foods being sold in our grocery stores and farmers markets is horrifying to me, my family and friends."

Supervisor Ellen Pirie agreed, describing the report's findings as "scary." Supervisor Mardi Wormhoudt said a ban would be "only prudent when 65 nations already have regulations."

"Hopefully other communities in California will see this," said Supervisor Mark Stone.

During the meeting, Supervisor Tony Campos, whose district spans most of the county's farmland, was quiet on the subject and did not return calls later Tuesday.

County Agricultural Commissioner Dave Moeller noted that supervisors already passed a law in 1988 that requires that the county be notified before genetically modified crops are planted. Down the road, additional regulations could hurt local farmers if GE technology takes off, Moeller said.

A anonymous minority within the study group disagreed with a moratorium. In their letter, they wrote:

"We do not want to close the door on those opportunities for increased yields, reduced pesticide use ... which results in cleaner water and air through reduced emissions."

The comments echo sentiments heard in counties where similar bans have failed and where GE crops have been touted by their producers and many scientists as the future of farming, improving agriculture and even human health.

Though the letter was unsigned, Moeller was later identified as one of its authors, along with Richard Nutter, Steve Bontadelli and Thomas Rider - all of whom participated in creating the report.

Moeller later said that the minority group agrees with the report's general findings.

The report can be found online at:

Contact Roger Sideman at

This page URL:

This Page was generated with web2printer 4 in: 0.000771 seconds