Biotech advocate meets with opposition in Sacramento

By Paul Elias The Associated Press
Wednesday October 23, 2002

SACRAMENTO — Leonard Gianessi, who has been barnstorming across the country promoting the benefits of genetically modified crops, was met Tuesday by protesters who complained the technology is not completely understood and, at a minimum, will ruin organic farmers. 

“California’s got a tremendous growth opportunity with the expansion of organic food,” said Leland Swenson, executive director of the Davis-based Community Alliance with Family Farmers. “That’s what’s at risk when you take a look at the high value of commodities and growth opportunities here within California.” 

But Gianessi says a study he co-wrote shows U.S. farmers could save $1 billion a year, decrease their pesticide use and improve the environment by embracing biotechnology more fully. 

“The technology has already helped farmers reduce their costs,” said Gianessi, a researcher for the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit funded in part by agribusiness and agricultural chemical companies. 

The study showed that American farmers growing genetically engineered crops saved $1.5 billion last year they otherwise would have spent raising conventional plants, Gianessi said. 

“In a very competitive worldwide environment, growers have to find ways to cut costs and this is one way,” Gianessi said. 

He said plants spliced with genes that make them resistant to certain herbicides allows farmers to be less particular about how they apply weed killers, reducing the amount needed. Other plants are modified with natural pest killers, reducing the need for pesticides, as well. 

But anti-biotech activists outside Gianessi’s latest venue, the California Department of Food and Agriculture, pointed Tuesday to other studies that suggest genetically engineered food brings few benefits and carries big risks for farmers, who may lose control over their crops and face potential rejection from consumers. 

Some fear the biotechnology crops will pollinate with their organic crops, ruining a burgeoning industry whose sales have grown from $3.5 billion in 1996 to $7.8 billion in 2000, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Organic consumers demand that their products are free of genetically modified ingredients. 

“There is no such thing as containment. There is no such thing as coexistent,” said Percy Schmeiser a Canadian canola farmer who was successfully sued by Monsanto Co. for illegally using its biotech products. “It will destroy organic farmers.”