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California debate resurrects StarLink debacle

(Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Philip Brasher, Des Moines Register: Washington, D.C. - StarLink lives on.

Four years after becoming one of the most notorious products of biotechnology, anti-biotech activists are using the example of StarLink in their campaign to ban the growing of genetically engineered crops in four California counties.

First, Iowa. Next, California. Or so goes the logic.

The discovery of StarLink corn in taco shells roiled U.S. grain export markets and forced nationwide food recalls. StarLink was approved for animal feed but not for human consumption. Activists are warning California farmers a similar disaster could happen to them.

Two northern California counties, Mendocino and Trinity, have already banned the cultivation of biotech crops. Those two will hardly matter in the grand scheme of American agriculture because they are not big agricultural counties.

But now anti-biotech activists are targeting some counties with significant agriculture, including Butte County, California's second-largest rice producer. Butte County farmers did $252 million in sales in 2002.

The activists say this is the start of a statewide movement to stop biotech agriculture in California.

So far, California producers grow relatively few biotech crops, mostly cotton, but there is a vigorous debate going on over whether the state's farmers should try Roundup Ready rice when it comes on the market.

"We have an opportunity here that wasn't available in the Midwest because the technology was rushed to market so quickly there," said Renata Brillinger of Californians for GE-Free Agriculture.

Her organization does not take a position on the ballot measures, but it recently organized a series of speaking events for several Midwest farmers and activists in Butte County and other farming areas.

George Naylor of Churdan, Ia., president of the National Family Farm Coalition, spoke recently to journalism students at the University of California-Berkeley and also at an event for farmers in Watsonville, Calif.

"I thought it was important that farmers and consumers get some independent information about genetically modified crops other than from the corporations that stand to gain from the sale of these products," Naylor said.

Watsonville is not in one of the counties with a November ballot measure, and the issue did not come up during the meeting there, but Naylor said there is reason for Iowans to watch what is going on in California.

"They need to be worried about whether people decide they aren't going to eat GM crops. That's always a possibility," he said.

When the issue came up earlier this year in Mendocino County, the biotech companies took the lead in fighting the referendum, spending more than $600,000 through CropLife America, an industry trade group.

This time around, conventional farmers are taking the lead. The California Cattlemen's Association is helping out, lending a top official to the pro-biotech campaign. The president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, Bob Stallman, went to Butte County in August to raise money for opponents of Measure D, the anti-biotech referendum.

While the Farm Bureau views these ballot measures as isolated actions, "we're watching them very closely," said Michelle Gorman, director of regulatory issues of the organization. "We don't like what's happening there."

Be sure that the biotech industry is watching what is happening in California, too, even if company executives are keeping their heads down.

The Butte County vote will provide a better gauge of sentiment in the state.

"After November we'll have a better grasp" of whether there is a trend, said Lisa Dry, a spokeswoman for the Biotechnology Industry Organization. "We really haven't been tested in an agricultural area."

Source: http://desmoinesregister.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20041003/BUSINESS03/410030315/