This was in today's /SF Chronicle/. TTMI.
Farmer Will Testify at FDA Hearing on
Pamela J. Podger, Chronicle Staff Writer
December 13, 1999
Organic farmer Robert Cannard tosses a handful of
lemon verbena in a pot, brews the tea and explains his
On this rain-rinsed day, the fields outside are sparkling
with endive and eggplant. Twice a week, a truck from
Chez Panisse in Berkeley trundles up for vegetables and
drops off kitchen scraps for compost. For years, the
rhythm of his days has revolved around his 20-acre
spread in the Sonoma Valley.
But Cannard's spadework these days is in a new venture:
He's digging into democratic dirt, hoping an initiative
requiring labels on genetically altered foods will qualify
for the November 2000 ballot. Several thousand
signatures have been returned to the Glen Ellen post
Although genetically altered crops, such as corn and
soybeans, are grown mostly in the Midwest, the dissent
has also taken root in California. Without labeling, people
cannot know whether the corn syrup in their colas or the
soybean in their tofu came from genetically altered
Cannard is expected to testify today in Oakland at a
daylong public Food and Drug Administration hearing on
the merits and drawbacks of these foods. The session
will be at the Elihu Harris State Office Building, 1515 Clay
Genetically modified foods have given rise to protests in
Japan, and stringent European labeling requirements
effectively ban genetically altered food from the United
But the Alliance for Better Foods, a coalition of 40 food
organizations including the American Farm Bureau
Federation, says genetically modified foods will promote
greater nutrition and less reliance on chemical
pesticides and could go far in combatting global hunger.
They envision bananas laced with oral vaccines, so
shots can be avoided, or vegetables enhanced with more
beta carotene. Already, the Rockefeller Foundation is
working on rice with more vitamin A to counter nutritional
deficiencies in developing nations. Existing federal
regulations do not require food labels to describe the
plant development process by which food is produced.
``There is no doubt that consumer attitudes will ultimately
be a big force in this debate. But other than that, would it
do us any good to steer that debate toward fear? That is
what labeling would do,'' said farm federation
spokesman Mace Thornton.
``The labeling of a food product that scientists and our
government agencies say is safe would do nothing more
than raise unwarranted fears in the general public.''
Working just a few miles from the prized patch of land
where the dapper Luther Burbank proved his wizardry
with new hybrid strains, Cannard is cultivating caution.
He wants to ensure that the natural order isn't destroyed
by unleashed and untested forces.
``Luther Burbank would think (genetic engineering) was
crazy. He knew how to look at the natural vibration of
plants,'' said Cannard, 46. ``When you start changing the
nature of the beast, mixing the genetic organisms from
other plants, then you are changing the spirit of the
plants. Luther Burbank was into the spirit of the plant and
not just the superficial.''
According to Cannard, crossbred strains or hybrid
species don't muck with a plant's genetic material, but
work with the willingness of the plant to adapt and
change. But genetic engineering alters the natural
immune system and growth of plants, introducing foreign
fungus or laboratory DNA to make plants poisonous or
unpalatable to pests, disease or weeds.
The effect on insects or people with allergies or sensitive
digestive tracts is unknown, Cannard said. ``Heirloom''
crops like his -- older varieties that more closely
resemble the ancient strains --may be at risk from
pollen of genetically altered plants.
Caterpillars of Monarch butterflies have died after
consuming pollen from genetically altered corn species
that contain toxins for pests, including the European corn
borer, according to the journal Nature.
If genetically modified foods are labeled, Cannard said,
people can vote with their wallets and let market forces
dictate whether farmers use the altered seeds.
``We're not questioning the religious, moral or scientific
merits of genetically engineered foods but are giving
people the opportunity to know,'' Cannard said.
``We're not saying genetic engineering is bad, like some
sort of addictive drug, but it needs to be thoroughly
studied and the effect on nature understood before it is
released,'' he added. ``If these were drugs, it would take
20 years before release. Drugs affect small quantities of
people, but food affects many more people on the mass
His all-volunteer campaign has harnessed the power of
the Internet with a Web site explaining the scope and
purpose of the proposed initiative.
If successful, this campaign would be the first to qualify
an initiative using the Internet, according to Alfie Charles
at the secretary of state's office.
The Internet helps hold down printing and mailing costs,
giving people access to the petitions without the expense
of hiring signature gatherers.
Cannard has donated about $5,000 to the drive, and
petitions are sprouting up at farmer's markets,
health-food stores and organic-food groups. By March 6,
signatures from 419,260 registered voters are needed to
place the initiative on the ballot.
While a political novice when it comes to initiatives,
Cannard said the effort is worthwhile to educate people
about genetically engineered foods.
``The initiatives are an expression of the population.
People may not be aware of a potential problem and the
caution needed for genetically modified food stock,''
Cannard said. ``This effort will raise awareness, no
People interested in the petition can write to California
Right to Know/Genetically Engineered Food Labeling
Initiative, P.O. Box. 520, Glen Ellen, CA, 95442; call (707)
939-8316 or visit the Web page at
©1999 San Francisco Chronicle Page A17
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