Posted on Sat, Oct. 16, 2004

Editorial/Opinion of The Tribune

Why Measure Q is a costly mistake
The Tribune

In the final analysis, most of the heat surrounding Measure Q boils down to one sentence: "It shall be unlawful for any person or entity to propagate, cultivate, raise, or grow genetically engineered organisms in San Luis Obispo County."

That line has reverberated among the medical, farming, legal and scientific communities locally and across the nation. We'll get back to that language in a moment, but first a nutshell overview.

Proponents of the measure say that genetically engineered crops can cross-pollinate with non-engineered crops. They point to recent cases where GE grass pollen was found a dozen miles from its source.

Opponents say the ordinance is so badly written that it would ban genetic engineering in medical research.
Proponents say the ban would give county farmers protection from GE crops until all the risks are known.
The farming community by and large says that the ban will hurt them competitively if or when they decide to use GE seeds.
In response, proponents point to countries that have banned GE modified food imports.
Both sides have trotted out testimonials from doctors. The pro-Q physicians say that GE foods need to be further investigated for potential harmful effects. Anti-Q physicians point to the medical marvels that bioengineering has created.

Realizing that the measure would be a tough sell if linked to GE medical applications, the authors of Measure Q have been trying to separate the bioengineering implications from their goal of curbing GE farming. Unfortunately, the term "organism" in the above mentioned sentence won't allow the two industries to be unlinked.

San Luis Obispo attorney Robin Baggett, a lawyer and president of the San Luis Obispo Vintners and Growers Association, said in a recent letter to the county Health Commission -- which has voted 7-3 not to take a stance on the issue -- that the term "organism" is defined as "any living thing, exclusive of human beings and human fetuses ... and courts will enforce that definition."

The Washington, D.C., law firm of Arent Fox found that "all genetically engineered organisms are biological systems; a prohibition on growth or propagation is a prohibition on production, regardless of whether that growth or propagation takes place in a field or in a factory. ... Measure Q-04 unambiguously prohibits all commercial research and production of genetically engineered organisms."

Without going into the philosophical questions surrounding bioengineering, we find that Measure Q is bad legislation for the following reasons:
• Cal Poly, as a state-owned property, would be exempt from the ban. This means the university can, and does, grow GE food, which makes the measure discriminatory against farmers in the private sector. It also means that research capital probably won't be spent at a university located in a county hostile to bioengineering. This is at a time when head-of-household biotech jobs are expected to increase 32 percent over the next 10 years, and business and community leaders have suggested that the area should look to the biotech field as a source of good-paying jobs that could stimulate the local economy.
• The enforcing agent would be the county Ag Commissioner who, with no offense to Commissioner Bob Lilley, has neither the expertise nor budget to oversee compliance of medical bioengineering.
• Besides the term "organism" having far-reaching unintended consequences, the safety factor of keeping the ban in place "until all the risks associated with these organisms are fully understood" is simply unattainable in its subjectivity.

In sum, Measure Q is a poorly written ordinance with unintended consequences of banning research on life-saving medicines. That, in turn, will kill any hopes of this county growing a clean, well-paying bioengineering job base.

Like the supporters of a similar ordinance in Humboldt, the authors of Measure Q should acknowledge the fatal flaws of the ordinance's wording and pull their support. Then, if they're serious about county residents having an informed say on GE foods being raised in this county, they should work with the affected stakeholders -- farmers, shippers and organic farmers -- to craft an ordinance that says what it means and means what it says.

In the interim, The Tribune strongly urges a NO vote on Measure Q.