Bill would let state rule on banning modified crops

By: - July 11, 2005 5:09 am

Winston-Salem Journal
By David Rice JOURNAL RALEIGH BUREAU Sunday, July 10, 2005


As the debate over genetically modified crops in North Carolina accelerates, the General Assembly is considering legislation to limit just who controls what crops can be grown in the state.

In response to the efforts of three counties in California to ban genetically modified plants, a bill in the Senate Agriculture Committee would give the N.C. Board of Agriculture sole authority to ban plants in North Carolina.

The bill has already passed the House. Its backers say that North Carolina farmers – who already grow 3 million acres of genetically engineered corn, soybeans and cotton – need to know they are free to grow their crops.

"The farmers have to plant this stuff in order to be competitive and stay in business," said Sen. Charlie Albertson, D-Duplin, the committee’s chairman and sponsor of companion legislation. "Without it, we couldn’t feed the world.

"Who’s going to make the decisions about those plants? Is it going to be the local governments or the Board of Agriculture, which has the expertise? I think it needs to stay with the Board of Agriculture," Albertson said.

But organic farmers, in particular, have warned about the threat of cross-pollination and contamination of their own crops by genetically modified crops.

The bill would remove control from local officials, said Sen. Janet Cowell, D-Wake. She and others point out that organic farming is a lucrative niche.

"We’ve invested a lot in biotech in this state and we want to get a good return on that. But we’re also extremely well-positioned for organic," Cowell said.

Organically grown corn and soybeans sell for two to 2.3 times the price of conventional corn, said Wade Hubers, who grows both conventional and organic crops in Hyde County.

Though his organic corn crop had a 30 percent lower yield last year than his conventional corn, Hubers said, he still earned $110 more per acre on the organic corn.

"We’re not looking at it like it’s a philosophy," said Mac Gibbs, the acting extension director in Hyde County. "We see it as an opportunity to grow $5-a-bushel corn instead of $2.50-a-bushel corn."

Albertson discounts the relative importance of organic crops, though.

"We currently have people growing organic food. It’s about one-tenth of 1 percent," he said. "We have farmers growing 3 million acres of genetically modified crops."

Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight is a longtime supporter of efforts to build the biotech industry in North Carolina. Basnight’s district includes the research station in Washington County where scientists are studying rice that Ventria Bioscience has planted to produce human milk proteins.

But Basnight is also making plans to serve organic chicken at his Nags Head restaurant because he says that more consumers are demanding it.

Basnight said that he wants legislators to study how to make sure biotech crops don’t threaten organic ones.

"We want to protect both entities. And we don’t know how to do it. So we’re going to study it," he said.

The bill to let the Board of Agriculture regulate plants in the state will move forward, Basnight said, but he also wants to add slots for an organic farmer and a consumer to the farmer-dominated board.

But Gibbs, Hubers and others say they are confident that organic and genetically modified crops can coexist in North Carolina.

Richard Reich, an assistant commissioner of agriculture, said that North Carolina farmers are accustomed to managing transgenic crops and treat them with proper respect for the risks.

"Biotech uses for agricultural crops do hold promise for farmers and for society as a whole," Reich said. "At the same time, it’s important to recognize the need to follow protocols and to safeguard all of our crops – conventional crops, organic crops and transgenic crops."

If Ventria Bioscience wins approval to expand its production of its pharmaceutical-producing rice in North Carolina, "We want to do it in a highly managed and controlled situation," Reich said.

"You don’t take these things lightly and start doling out the seed," he said. "We feel it would be highly managed and affect limited areas."

• David Rice can be reached in Raleigh at (919) 833-9056 or at [email protected]

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Chris Fitzsimon

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina. [email protected] 919-861-2066