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Mendocino Ballot Measure to Ban GMOs Heating Up

Biotech showdown divides growers

Mendocino County's Measure H to impose nation's first ban on altered crops at center of costly campaign

February 15, 2004

By MIKE GENIELLA
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The organic grape grower who vows to protect his vines from man-made alterations and the university scientist who manipulates DNA in the lab to strengthen a grapevine strain represent the opposing forces in a Mendocino County election with national implications.

Voters will decide March 2 whether the county will be the nation's first to ban genetically engineered crops.

At the heart of the debate is whether the ban is needed to insulate Mendocino County's organic crops from a fast-emerging biotechnology that's reshaping the world's agriculture.

Measure H began as a homegrown initiative pushed by two former scientists who own an organic brew pub in Ukiah and fear that a genetic mistake could be built into global foodstuffs. It was embraced by organic growers, businesses and food safety activists who are considering similar campaigns in Sonoma and Humboldt counties and across California.

To deter that movement, agricultural interests are pouring record amounts of money into the campaign, arguing that Measure H is misguided and that scientists are creating safe molecular alterations that could help plants resist diseases, bugs and weeds.

Even if it is approved by voters, however, Measure H may be largely symbolic.

No genetically engineered plants are believed to be growing in Mendocino County, where the primary crops are grapes and pears, or in Sonoma, Lake and Napa counties. None is expected to be planted for at least a decade, including grapevines that researchers hope to make genetically immune to vine-killing Pierce's disease.

The debate has overshadowed local elections. Radio stations bombard listeners with hourly ads, political brochures arrive almost daily and local newspapers run full-page advertisements touting the pros and cons of genetic engineering.

A key supporter of Measure H is grower Charlie Barra, whose family has worked 300 acres of Redwood Valley vineyards for 57 years without using pesticides. Barra represents many local farmers who pride themselves on relying only on nature.

Yet many of Barra's closest business associates and friends are opposed to Measure H, reflecting the deep division within the agricultural community.

California Farm Bureau President Bill Pauli, a Potter Valley pear and grape grower, is Barra's longtime business partner in Redwood Valley Cellars.

When it comes to Measure H, however, they have very different opinions.

Pauli has led the 77,000-member state Farm Bureau since 1997, and he and the bureau's board of directors see Measure H as folly.

"We believe this initiative could have statewide implications, and that the potential problems caused by such an initiative far outweigh any advantages," the board said in a statement last week, explaining why it took the unusual step of taking a stand on a local ballot measure.

Barra, however, takes the opposite stance.

"Once the door is open to these kinds of genetically altered crops, there's no turning back," he said.

The genesis of Measure H came from Els and Allen Cooperrider, two retired scientists who founded the Ukiah Brewing Co., the nation's first certified organic brew pub and restaurant. Els Cooperrider is a former medical researcher at the University of Colorado. Allen Cooperrider is a retired zoologist.

Working through the Mendocino Organic Network, the Cooperriders enlisted the support of Ukiah Natural Foods, a promoter of the county's growing variety of organic crops and grass-fed beef, and the Frey winery family. Eventually, Barra and other organic grape growers and wineries were persuaded to join.

FoodFirst, an Oakland-based nonprofit institute, has since become involved in the Mendocino campaign, along with organic farming activists across the United States.

If Measure H is passed, activists vow to promote similar initiatives elsewhere on the North Coast.

"It will certainly help our own efforts to develop a policy that will keep Sonoma County free of genetically engineered crops," said Dave Henson, director of the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center in Sonoma County.

In Humboldt County, a group calling itself "Green Genes" is already gathering voter signatures to put a similar measure on that county's November ballot.

Burbank legacy

Not since Luther Burbank, Santa Rosa's famous horticulturist who crossbred 800 new plant varieties before he died in 1926, has a new technology promised to so significantly reshape global agricultural practices.

Douglas Cook, a plant pathology researcher at UC Davis, said biotechnology accelerates traditional breeding practices and raises the possibility that productive new varieties more resistant to diseases, including grapevines, can be developed, tested and grown more quickly.

Unfortunately, Cook said, the debate surrounding genetically engineered crops generally tends to focus on the "improbable."

"Personally, I think those probabilities are more exaggerated through traditional breeding practices," Cook said.

At issue for both sides is the relative risk.

Norman Ellstrand, a UC Riverside geneticist, believes the vast majority of genetically engineered products produced so far are safe. "But there are some realistic concerns about the scientific risks associated with the technology," he said.

Mendocino County's measure would make it illegal to propagate, cultivate, raise or grow genetically modified organisms in the county. The county Agricultural Commissioner would be given authority to confiscate and destroy any plant proven to have been genetically modified. The commissioner also could impose unspecified monetary penalties.

A little-known void in state policy is allowing Mendocino voters to weigh in on the global controversy that surrounds the genetic manipulation of plant DNA in research labs.

"State oversight of genetically engineered crops is absolutely zero. If there were any at all, Measure H could not have been placed on the ballot," said Mendocino County Agricultural Commissioner Dave Bengston.

Measure H critics worry that local enforcement costs could be significant. Supporters contend that imported nursery plants are already subject to county inspection for insects and fungal infestations, and could be expanded to include genetically engineered plants and livestock.

Passage of Measure H could bring an economic benefit to Mendocino organic businesses, grape growers and wineries, giving them a potent new marketing tool to help Mendocino County's organic farmers promote their products as free of genetic modifications.

"There is no doubt in my mind that it could be a big boon to our local industry," said grape grower Barra.

For Barra and other organic growers, that's an important consideration. Organic food is now a $9 billion a year industry, and growing rapidly. The market for organic products is expanding at eight times the rate of the packaged food industry, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Some local Farm Bureau members and growers of nonorganic grapes, however, argue the initiative will hamper their ability to compete with growers in other areas able to utilize the benefits of genetically engineered crops.

Hopland grape and pear grower Tyler Nelson views agricultural technology as part of a historical tradition of making crops evermore productive and resistant to the forces of nature.

A 32-year-old ag business graduate from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Nelson said genetically engineered crops could be a boon to the region's agriculture, someday freeing it from destructive and costly diseases that have plagued vineyards and pear orchards for decades.

"I think we should at least have the choice," Nelson said. "What happens if Napa and Sonoma grape growers end up being able to use beneficial new grapevines, but we can't?"

Expensive campaign

As the debate heats up, the Measure H campaign has become the costliest election yet in Mendocino County. At least $250,000 has been spent so far, and the output is expected to soar in the final two weeks of the campaign.

So far, opponents are out-spending supporters by at least a 3-1 margin. The No on Measure H campaign gets most of its funding from a consortium of the nation's largest producers of genetically engineered products. CropLife of America, a Washington, D.C., biotech industry lobbying arm, as of mid-January had pumped $150,000 into efforts to defeat the measure.

Split on safety issue

The deep divisions within Mendocino County mirror sharp differences of opinion within the scientific community over the safety of genetically engineered crops.

In 1996, seven decades after Burbank died, the first crop varieties developed by genetic engineering were introduced for commercial production. Within seven years, nearly 100 million acres of genetically altered crops had been planted in the United States, mostly in corn, soybeans, canola and cotton.

Peggy Lemaux, professor of plant and microbial biology at UC Berkeley, contended that scientists can guarantee the safety of genetically engineered crops better than they can classically bred crops.

Despite those assurances, Lemaux acknowledged in a recent essay that "scientists and biotech companies are the only ones presently excited by genetic engineering."

"Farmers are on the fence, environmentalists are fiercely opposed, and the public is, largely, out to lunch," Lemaux said.

A report issued Jan. 20 by the National Research Council of the National Academies of Science questioned whether current biotechnology can guarantee that unintended environmental and public health concerns won't occur.

Two days later, the Department of Agriculture announced it would consider sweeping changes to a nearly 20-year-old regulatory framework governing the biotechnology industry.

In the nation's breadbasket, the use of genetically engineered crops has sent production soaring while cutting back on pesticide use. It is the result of new types of plants that have weed- and disease-resistant genes injected into them. In Argentina, such crops are so popular that Monsanto stopped selling its Roundup Ready soybean seeds because of a sharp rise in black-market sales of the genetically modified seeds.

In Europe, New Zealand and Japan, however, the fear of possible future crop contamination and a deep distrust of the U.S. government's ability to monitor the fast-paced industry, have dogged the technology.

Pocketbook issue

For organic farmers in Mendocino County, the North Coast and across the country, genetic engineering is a pocketbook, as well as a philosophical, issue. If Mendocino voters say no to genetically engineered crops, grape growers and other organic producers would be able to label their products accordingly.

Fetzer Vineyards, the county's largest winery and the nation's largest producer of organic wines, is another influential Measure H supporter.

Barra said it shouldn't be a surprise that people like him, Fetzer Vineyards and the Cooperriders vote with their pocketbooks. "This is our life. These are our businesses. We'd be foolish not to protect our investments."

Mendocino's Measure H debate has expanded to include other issues, including whether biotech companies should be allowed to patent genetically altered seeds and plants, barring farmers from saving seed and replanting them the following year.

The latter is especially disturbing to county Agriculture Commissioner Bengston.

"This is one of the most profound changes in agriculture in the last 10,000 years. Farmers have always been able to save seed and produce it the following year," Bengston said.

While there are few documented incidents of public harm from the fast-developing biotechnology industry, critics cite a list of troubling incidents involving genetically engineered crops or seeds being accidentally mixed with other crops.

2000 corn mixup

The most serious occurred in 2000. Aventis, a Swiss biotech company, was forced to spend $300 million on a recall of food products after genetically engineered corn banned from human consumption in the United States turned up in taco shells sold across the nation.

Three years later, traces of the genetically altered corn are still showing up in the nation's corn supply, according to federal officials. The "Starlink" corn had been limited to animal feed and industrial use because of federal fears it might cause severe allergic reactions. None was ever documented, despite the contamination.

Mendocino supporters of Measure H are convinced that the Starlink incident, and others, are precursors of environmental and health-related debacles to come.

Recently, under pressure from the Bush administration, the European Union reluctantly allowed introduction of limited number of genetically engineered crops into the European marketplace, but unlike in America, the member nations are requiring that all such products be labeled for consumers. Measure H does not require local labeling.

Whether the Legislature will allow Measure H to stand if passed is in question.

Chief Deputy County Counsel Frank Zotter has noted that after Mendocino County voters in the 1970s adopted an initiative to ban aerial spraying of pesticides, the Legislature, lobbied by state timber interests, acted within two weeks. Lawmakers gave authority for such issues to state agencies, stripping counties of the right to block aerial spraying.

If Measure H wins, and the biotechnology industry marshals enough support in Sacramento, Zotter speculated the outcome could be the same.

"The state can take the right away at any time with the stroke of a pen," Zotter said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mike Geniella at 462-6470 ormgeniella@pressdemocrat.com.

Copyright © 2004 The Press Democrat