Last week the county's Health Commission unanimously agreed to add two new members - a biomedical researcher and a biomedical ethicist - to the GMO Task Force, the group charged with educating the commission about genetically modified organisms.
The task force was born from the wreckage of Measure Q, a ballot measure voters defeated in 2004 that would have banned genetically engineered crops in the county. During the election, emotions on either side of the debate ran high - something that hasn't changed since the inception of the task force.
Members of SLO GE Free - which is made up of many "Yes on Q" campaign workers - have accused the Health Commission of allowing the county's Farm Bureau director and ag industry representatives to take part in the selection process - allegations the board denies and which SLO GE Free members can only support with circumstantial observations.
Members of the group also point out what they see as further damning evidence: the fact that three out of five current members of the task force publicly came out against Measure Q before the election:
Robert Robbins was listed as a supporter in "No on Q" ads; Michael Broadhurst wrote two editorials against the measure for the Cambrian; and Scott Steinmaus signed the ballot argument against Measure Q.
Elizabeth Johnson, who worked on the "Yes on Q" campaign, said that Broadhurst's and Steinmaus' professions - Broadhurst, who holds a Ph.D. in chemistry, has worked with the pharmaceutical industry; Steinmaus, who has a Ph.D. in plant biology, teaches at Cal Poly - shows further proof of a bias in favor of genetic engineering.
"My view is that a public health committee shouldn't be from the ag industry," she said.
However, Dr. George Pinkel, a member of the Health Commission whom some GE Free members think of as an advocate to their side, denied that the addition of members was because of bias in the task force.
Pinkel, who graduated from medical school in 1951, has spent his career working in pediatric medicine, along with medical research and academics. He said that earlier this summer, he realized the task force lacked three things: a biomedical researcher and a biomedical ethicist.
Pinkel wouldn't comment on the specific makeup of the current task force, but said his background with medical and drug research, where new ideas go through many layers of study and discussion before they're approved, has made him very cautious when it comes to GMOs.
"It's unwise to exclude those scientific cautions," he said. "Genetic engineering is a very powerful tool, and just like any other powerful tool, one must be cautious in its use."
The task force's co-chair, Steinmaus, said he's thrilled by the additions: "The more the better," he said. "All I care about is someone who's qualified, someone who's a good scientist."
As to the accusations of bias, Steinmaus said that since the election, he's grown "sorrier and sorrier" that he took part in the "No" campaign, and says his involvement then has "everything to do" with the accusations now.
At the time, he said, he was concerned that the way the measure was written would adversely affect Cal Poly's scientific community, and wanted simply to be a "source of information.
"I don't want to be on the pro GE side. But it's either 'be one of us' or 'be one of them,'" he said, referencing the highly emotional debate that still surrounds GMOs in the county. "There's no middle ground."
Because of that polarization, Steinmaus, like members of SLO GE Free, questions whether the additions are an effort to stack the deck in favor of one group or another. "Is there a hidden agenda?" he questioned.
Johnson, with SLO GE Free, wondered the same thing. She said she would like to see better dialogue with the community when the new task force is formed, but questions if "they'll make up the committee the way they did before."
"It's brought up a lot of emotion again," she said.
Pinkel, who'll be one of several commissioners who will approve the additional members, said that in the end, the task force's reports won't make specific recommendations like other task forces do, but will simply be educational.
"If we get good scientists and bioethicists, they'll really look at it objectively and look at it rationally," he said. "That's not to say that scientists don't get emotional," he continued, laughing. "But hopefully they can remain rational."
Staff Writer Abraham Hyatt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.