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Huffman’s bill out of step with ag’s biotechnology

Freshman California Assemblyman Jared Huffman has resurrected a failed bill of two years ago, AB 541, that is a colossally bad piece of legislation that would impact researchers, seed and biotech companies, and plant breeders, as well as farmers and consumers in general.

In 2005, Assemblyman John Laird introduced a similar measure aimed at holding makers of genetically engineered crops (GE) liable for damages. Fortunately, it died in the Assembly.

So, here we are, a couple of years down the road, and we are being forced to revisit the issue being pushed by the Democrat from San Rafael. The Laird legislation was bad then, and Huffman’s version is equally bad now.

For now, the bill has been put on hold in the Assembly Agriculture Committee, but agriculture will have to revisit it again early next year.

In essence, the measure creates a series of obstacles to agricultural research and practices that employ gene-splicing technology — the most precise, predictable, and reliable techniques for the genetic improvement of plants.

Besides holding manufacturers developing GE crops liable for damage if their work becomes present in nearby fields, the legislation would ban open-field production of GE crops in the development of medications; would require growers to give county ag commissioners at least 30 days notice before engaging in open-field development of other GE plants; and would establish a GE crop registration process so that non-GE farmers can reduce the chance of crop “contamination.”

Further, the language establishes “strict liability” on manufacturers of agricultural bio traits. Strict liability has always been reserved for inherently dangerous products — such as the making of explosives or the keeping of a boa constrictor as a pet. It has no place in agriculture.

Huffman says the reason this topic has been resurrected is directly linked to an incident last year in which an experimental form of rice showed up in grain elevators in Arkansas, Missouri, and Louisiana. The freshman lawmaker says AB 541 is necessary to protect California farmers against significant losses if their conventional or organic crops are ruined by GE plants, seeds or pollen.

Huffman fails to realize that current legal recourse is available and works for growers. This bill would impose liability on the manufacturer of a safe, legal, government-sanctioned product, based on activity that could only occur long after the product left the manufacturer’s care and control.

Additionally, no U.S. grower has been sued because they were unknowingly growing crops containing biotech traits. Only the most egregious cases of patent infringement have resulted in lawsuits.

During the past decade, only 90 lawsuits have been pursued against farmers for patent infringement, in contrast to millions of farmers (in the U.S.) who have planted GE crops.

Regarding a crop registration process, there is no need to establish a burdensome bureaucratic registration process for a problem that doesn’t exist. Talking to your neighbors about their planting intentions is the best way to reduce the chance of GE traits turning up in your crops.

And, it’s well worth noting, that only three biotech crops — corn, cotton, and alfalfa — are grown on any significant acreage in California. Organic production for each of these is on a tiny amount of land, and the National Organic Standard does not ban trace amounts of biotech products in organic crops.

As to the obstacle AB 541 poses for the future development of medicines, no less a personage than Dr. Henry I. Miller, a physician and fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and author of the popular book “The Frankenfood Myth,” had this to say in a recent news article:

“The legislation prohibits ‘the production of a pharmaceutical crop’ in open fields in a plant species ‘commonly produced for use as food for humans and animals.’ This might sound plausible, but it is a perfect example of the kind of inflexible, one-size-fits-all regulation that ignores the science and can do incalculable damage to ‘biopharming,’ one of biotech’s most important applications.”

Miller adds, “The concept of biopharming is not new. Many common medicines, such as codeine, morphine and the anti-cancer drug Taxol have long been purified from plants. But biopharming’s great promise lies in using the techniques of gene-splicing to make old plants do radically new things.”

He sums up AB 541: “In other words, in defiance of science and common sense, the California bill creates a regulatory scheme in which the degree of governmental scrutiny and intrusion is inversely proportional to the likely risk.”

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