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Mendocino GE Ban Rattles the Biotech Industry

Biotech ban may sprout others
Mendocino County's action rattles genetic engineering industry
By Edie Lau and Mike Lee -- Bee Staff Writers
Friday, March 5, 2004

The 14,839 voters who this week banned genetically modified organisms in
Mendocino County have shaken the establishment far beyond their small North
Coast community.

Their success, the first in the United States, is encouraging voters in at
least two, and maybe as many as nine, other California counties to consider
pushing similar prohibitions on "GMOs," as the biotechnology products are
called.

"We're next," exulted Martha Devine, a leader of the Humboldt Green Genes,
which is gathering signatures for a ballot measure in November.

Fearful of growing anti-GMO sentiment in California and nationally, the
biotech industry vowed to continue fighting Mendocino's initiative.

"I don't think we can afford to let it stand," said Allan Noe, spokesman for
CropLife America, the industry trade group that almost single-handedly
funded the No on Measure H campaign.

CropLife contributed $600,000 of the $621,566 raised to fight the ban.
Supporters raised $93,525, a disparity of more than 6-to-1.

But the side with less money got more votes. Unofficial election results
showed 14,839 yes votes to 11,420 no votes.

As returns came in Tuesday night, the Ukiah Brewing Co., an organic-foods
restaurant and bar where Measure H was born, overflowed with celebrants,
many of whom had given time to the campaign. Three blocks away, the
opposition headquarters was dark, closed and empty, a "for lease" sign
hanging outside.

Measure H makes it illegal to grow genetically engineered life forms in
Mendocino County. Its power is not in the act itself - no known biotech
plants or animals are being raised in the county - but in the statement it
makes.

"Now people are going to realize, 'Wow, (if) Mendocino .. can say no, maybe
we can say no,' " said Adam Gaska, 25, an organic farmer and Yes on H
volunteer.

Genetically modified organisms are produced through gene splicing, a
technique that enables scientists to move genes among plants, animals and
microbes in ways that are impossible through conventional breeding.

The biotech industry and U.S. government maintain that genetic engineering
is a benign tool that can be used to lessen agricultural pollution,
including the use of herbicides and pesticides, and to improve crop yields,
among other things.

Skeptics say the technology is too young to be sure of its safety, so its
adoption should be slowed and monitored more closely.

The first biotech crop went to market in 1994. Today, 167 million acres
worldwide are planted in biotech crops, chiefly corn, cotton, soybeans and
canola engineered to produce their own insecticides or withstand treatment
by herbicides. The United States is the world's top producer.

The biotech industry is expected to challenge Mendocino's ban on the grounds
that it preempts federal regulations. It also may seek to override the ban
through state legislation.

Surprised that the ban passed, CropLife's Noe speculated that opponents were
hampered by the brevity of the campaign: The initiative qualified for the
ballot three months before the election.

"The tactic of creating fear of the unknown was, in this short time frame,
difficult to disarm," Noe said.

The issue of local control is one Dave Henson hopes will resonate in Sonoma
County. Henson, director of the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center there, is
eyeing a possible no-GMO ballot measure next year.

"Farmers and environmentalists have to beware that biotech corporations are
going to try to take away our rights to control our local economies," he
said.

Els Cooperrider, a brew pub co-owner and former scientific researcher who
dreamed up the Mendocino initiative to educate the public about genetically
engineered food, said on election night that voters from nine counties had
contacted her about similar measures. Cooperrider declined to identify the
counties, except for Humboldt, for fear of tipping off the industry.

Maverick counties could force debate in Sacramento over an issue that the
state mostly ignores. Anna Blackshaw, a consultant for the state Senate
select committee on international trade and state policy, said Mendocino's
ban delivers a "political imperative" for more action by the nation's
largest farming state.

"Cities and localities ... want to see California play a bigger role," she
said.

Any prospective change in state role likely would be influenced by the
biotech industry, whose leaders are particularly concerned about what they
perceive as an undercurrent of anti-technology sentiment expressed in
Measure H.

"It's sending a negative message in a state where we rely on science to
create the technology and the jobs of the future," said Joe Panetta,
president and CEO of BIOCOM San Diego, a major industry trade group.

Panetta and dozens more biotech leaders were in Sacramento this week for an
annual visit with legislators. A special "Measure H working group" was
dispatched to stem anti-biotech momentum.

"What we don't want to see is bad information getting into the hands of
members of the Legislature who might decide that it would be appropriate to
ban genetically improved crops in California," Panetta said.

In Mendocino, meanwhile, county Agricultural Commissioner David Bengston
took steps to enforce the new ban. He directed an inspector to study a list
of plants that have been engineered and to watch for those varieties during
her routine morning checks of shipments arriving through carriers, such as
FedEx.

He also asked the manager of the county's largest seed supplier to ask his
sources which varieties are genetically engineered.

He said although most such crops are grown in the Midwest, he can't treat
the ban as simply symbolic. "You can't do that with an initiative," he said.
"... I'm not taking it lightly at all."

Moreover, the initiative could inspire a new rebellion - one against the
ban. "I would guess there's GMO material in the county right now," Bengston
said. "I've had people tell me, if it passes, they're going to plant GMO
plants."

In other states, resistance to genetic engineering could cause immediate
practical problems for an industry that has benefited from consumers' being
ignorant or indifferent on biotech foods.

Perhaps the most important anti-biotech action is taking shape in the
Dakotas, where Monsanto Co. aims to sell wheat that withstands the company's
flagship weedkiller Roundup.

A proposal to ban genetically engineered wheat was defeated in the North
Dakota Senate in 2001, but residents are pushing a ballot initiative, and
farm groups are aiming for more legislation.

Bill Wenzel, national director of the Farmer-to-Farmer Campaign on Genetic
Engineering, said Mendocino's success adds fuel to an anti-biotech movement
from Hawaii to Vermont.

"So far, we have been looking at a few brush fires (of resistance) here and
there," he said, "but increasingly this is becoming a bigger issue that
could in all likelihood result in a prairie fire."