An Open Letter In Response to Mark Wilson

Dear Supervisors, Agricultural Commissioner, and Voters of Humboldt County,

After several months spent trying to convince Humboldt County voters that GMOs are a force for good and prohibiting the growing of them is bad policy, Mark Wilson suddenly changed course Monday with his widely distributed email implying that even voters who support the policy goals of Measure P should vote against it because of “problems with the wording.” He quickly followed up with a very similar op-ed in the Lost Coast Outpost and related attacks in other forums. This tactic should come as no surprise. Support for Measure P is strong, and Wilson has been having little success convincing the voters that it was a bad idea. The sudden shift in focus from the broad policy goals to the technicalities is a classic last-ditch political ploy, and should be seen as such.

Regardless, now that the technicalities have been raised, we recognize that it is important for us to address them. Indeed, we are happy to do so, because Wilson is wrong on all points. I’ll address each of his four points directly. This is going to get technical, so please bear with me.

  • Wilson claims that we “copied” our definition of genetic engineering from a problematic 20-year-old USDA definition, which he helpfully provides. If one reads the definition he provides, and then reads the definition included in Measure P (which you can read here: https://gmofreehumboldt.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/humboldt-co-genetic-contamination-prevention-ordinance.pdf), one can clearly see that—while some language is understandably similar—the definitions are in no way identical. Among other differences, the USDA definition is much less precise. So Wilson’s first and primary claim is clearly and demonstrably false.

In fact, the definition we used was suggested to us by the Center for Food Safety, a national non-profit organization with a long-running focus on GMO-related issues. In deciding to use this particular definition, we consulted specifically with George Kimbrell, a Senior Attorney with extensive experience litigating GMO-related cases at the Center. Kimbrell and the rest of the Center’s legal team, in turn, had developed this definition in consultation with the Center’s scientific experts and based it on the most widely accepted and precise legal definitions of genetic engineering used around the world. In other words, the definition used in Measure P is up-to-date, scientifically sound, and legally defensible.

  • Wilson claims that Measure P’s definition would cover many current varieties not generally considered GMO, “because they were produced with gene doubling or cell fusion.” Wilson is correct that “gene deletion and doubling” are included as examples of “in vitro nucleic acid techniques,” which is one of the two types of prohibited techniques in Measure P’s definition. However, he is taking advantage of confusion over the term “gene doubling” to make this seem like a problem. The common methods used to develop new crop varieties which are sometimes called “gene doubling” but which are not generally considered GMO—particularly the use of colchicine, highlighted by Wilson—would more accurately be termed “genome doubling.” They do not involve the copying of specific genes, but rather of entire chromosomes or genomes. More to the point, these techniques do not involve any in vitro nucleic acid techniques where DNA is manipulated outside of cells, so they would not be covered under Measure P’s definition. We have consulted with Center for Food Safety legal and scientific experts on this subject specifically, and they have confirmed this interpretation.

The second part of Wilson’s claim—that Measure P would prohibit common crop varieties produced using cell fusion—is even more disingenuous. Again, I encourage anyone with a concern on this subject to actually read Measure P’s definition. While some “methods of fusing cells” are indeed covered under the Measure P definition, the plain language makes clear that only very specific types of cell fusion are covered. Specifically, for cell fusion to be prohibited by Measure P, it must occur “beyond the taxonomic family,” “overcome natural physiological reproductive or recombinant barriers,” and not be a traditional breeding technique. All of the non-GMO varieties about which Wilson expresses his trumped-up concern clearly were developed using methods of cell fusion which would not be prohibited under Measure P. For example, the transfer of male sterility genes from radish to Brassica vegetables was accomplished by cell fusion within the taxonomic family, since both radish and Brassica spp. belong to the plant family Brassicaceae. Similarly, wheat, corn and barley are all in the same family, Poaceae, and thus cell fusion combinations between them are not prohibited.

  • Wilson claims that Measure P’s definition excludes “conjugation,” and that many common GMOs are developed using conjugation and therefore would not be covered. This is again disingenuous and must result from an intentional misreading of the definition. To be clear, Measure P’s definition of genetic engineering has two parts. To be considered genetic engineering, a technique must be either (a) an in vitro nucleic acid technique or (b) a specific type of cell fusion. Conjugation is mentioned only in part (b) of the definition, to clarify that traditional techniques of cell fusion involving conjugation—which are not in vitro nucleic acid techniques—would not be prohibited. However, the common use of conjugation to develop modern GMOs involves the injection of DNA prepared outside the organism into cells, and does not involve the prohibited methods of cell fusion. In other words, organisms developed using the type of conjugation Wilson references would clearly be prohibited under the relevant part of the definition, part (a), as they would have been developed using an in vitro nucleic acid technique.
  • Wilson claims that certain live vaccines containing viruses that have been genetically engineered, when administered to animals, would be prohibited under Measure P. This is meant to be an appeal to the hearts of pet owners, and is a clear sign that Wilson is grasping at straws. While Wilson is correct that Measure P’s medical exemption does not extend to non-human animals, the idea that a vaccine of any kind would be prohibited is ridiculous.

Once one gets through the complex definition of genetic engineering, Measure P’s prohibition is quite clear and simple: “It is unlawful for any person, partnership, corporation, firm or entity of any kind to propagate, cultivate, raise or grow genetically engineered organisms in the County.” Administering a live vaccine involves injecting viruses into an animal with the express purpose of provoking an immune response from the animal—in other words, to get the animal’s body to fight back and kill the viruses. While there may be some replication of the virus in the animal, it takes a real stretch of the imagination to say that this process involves the “cultivation, propagation, raising or growing” of a virus. I think it’s clear no reasonable person would accept that interpretation. In fact, the intent to allow animals treated with genetically engineered medical products is clear from the definition of a “genetically engineered organism” in Measure P, which specifically states that animals injected with any drug produced by genetic engineering shall not itself be considered genetically engineered.

Finally, don’t forget that a variety of legal definitions of genetic engineering have appeared in regulations and legislation over the last two decades. All of these definitions differ slightly from one another, but few substantive problems have arisen in their interpretation—even in the case of the USDA definition Wilson cites, which the memo admits “has provided adequate guidance” over the years. Certainly none of the other California counties with GMO growing prohibitions in place over the last decade have had any problems with definitions or with enforcement of any kind.

I appreciate the public interest in Measure P. And if you’ve read this far, I appreciate your willingness to wade through these details with me! The important point, however, is that Measure P is good public policy—particularly for our local farmers and our local environment—and that an attempt like Wilson’s to bog us down in the technicalities is a calculated political strategy, not a sincere attempt at dialogue. He is also just flat wrong on all points.

Sincerely,

Bill Schaser
Spokesperson
Committee for a GMO Free Humboldt – Yes on Measure P

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