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California GE-Free Ballot Initiatives May Determine Future of Agriculture

Posted 10/25/04

California Agriculture Oct-Dec 2004

California voters assess anti-GMO initiatives

The debate over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is heating up in
California. Anti-GMO measures are on the November 2004 ballot in four
counties, and even more are in the works for March 2005. In March 2004,
Mendocino County became the first county nationwide to pass a ban on the
growth and propagation of GMO plants and animals.

This precedent-setting decision by the voters has spawned a rash of similar
actions, say two UC scientists who studied the Mendocino campaign. They are
Greg Giusti, UC Cooperative Extension (UCCE) forest advisor in Ukiah, and
Peggy Lemaux, UCCE biotechnology specialist at UC Berkeley.

The four counties with anti-GMO measures on the November ballot are Butte,
Humboldt, Marin and San Luis Obispo; among the counties considering measures
for the March 2005 ballot are Alameda, Lake, Napa, Placer, Santa Barbara,
Santa Cruz, Solano and Sonoma. "These initiatives could have wide-ranging
implications, affecting conventional farming, agricultural and natural
resources research, educational institutions and even biotechnology
companies,"Giusti says. "And county GMO bans could ultimately serve as an
impetus for state regulations."

California's anti-GMO movement is being spearheaded by the BioDemocracy
Alliance, a consortium of GMO Free Mendocino and the Organic Consumers
Association (OCA). The latter worked previously at the state and national
levels but now favors county-based efforts. "County campaigns with local
activists are more effective than lobbying legislators," says Ryan Zinn, OCA
campaign coordinator. However, "we are moving toward statewide legislation
that bans or limits the use of GE [genetically engineered] crops," he adds.

Science and local politics don't mix

Mendocino's anti-GMO initiative, Measure H, passed with 56% of the vote,
even though no genetically engineered crops are known to grow there. In
fact, the issue of GMOs themselves was not even the dominant theme of the
Measure H campaign, according to Giusti and Lemaux¹s analysis of campaign
materials, newspaper coverage, editorials and letters to the editor that
appeared prior to the vote. "The theme of limiting multinational corporate
influence in local agricultural policy and directions dwarfed all others,"
they say.
After Measure H passed, supporters said it was a "test case for democracy."
But Giusti says something important was left out of the Mendocino County GMO
debate: science. "Local politics are not driven by accuracy. There's a
division between science and local politics, and in Measure H the two sides
came crashing together," Giusti says.

Notably, Measure H wrongly defines DNA as a protein, Giusti says, and while
state initiatives are checked for accuracy, local initiatives are not.
Science was often not considered in the newspapers and debates as locals
focused on economic and political themes, Giusti and Lemaux found in their

Pitting farmer against farmer

The researchers say another problem with local anti-GMO measures is that
they can divide communities. The main antagonists in Mendocino County were
advocates of organic products (not necessarily agriculturalists) and the
biotech industry. But Butte County has farmers on both sides of its anti-GMO
initiative, Measure D. Butte is one of the state's major rice-growing
counties, and locally Measure D is supported by the largest organic rice
grower in the United States, Lundberg Family Farms. However, "there are
other farmers who are against it and it's very uncomfortable for the
community. It gets personal," Lemaux says.

Measure D is also opposed locally by the Butte County Rice Growers
Association and the Farm Bureau, and at the state level by the California
Rice Commission, which has the authority to regulate new rice varieties
under state law. "They don't want individual counties passing laws that go
against existing legislation and dictate the rules applied to rice growing
in the state," Lemaux says.

While initiatives are being used to address GMOs in most counties, Lake
County is trying another approach. County supervisors asked local organic
farmers to work with local conventional farmers, and together to develop a
permit process for GMOs. These permits would be considered on a case-by-case
basis and would be based on risk assessment. This ordinance-based strategy
is in keeping with Lake County's approach to natural resource issues, which
emphasizes collaboration, Giusti says. "They're not as quick to try and
solve disagreements through political channels. This could serve as a model
for other counties to address these conflicts."

In contrast, at the request of proponents only, Trinity County supervisors
adopted an anti-GMO ordinance in August, Guisti says. However, the impact
will be minimal because 95% of the county is federal land and so is not
under the jurisdiction of the ordinance.

Widening implications

Guisti and Lemaux stress the need to work collectively on issues related to
GMOs, saying that UC scientists can address people's concerns by providing
factual information. "It is not to anyone's advantage to be divided into
camps of us versus them," Giusti says. "This is too important and too
complex. UC researchers can help by explaining the science that relates to
the risks and benefits of GMOs."

The importance of informed debate is growing as the scope and number of
anti-GMO initiatives increases. For example, the Butte County anti-GMO
measure would keep the California Rice Experimental Station from performing
any genetic-engineering experiments on-site. Moreover, the Butte County
initiative goes further than Mendocino County's and stipulates exactly what
can and can't be grown in the county. Having an "allowed" crop list could be
a problem for local rice growers, Lemaux says, because it does not
specifically include rice with mutations induced by X-rays or gamma
radiation. It means legally these varieties could be banned too, Lemaux
says. Much of the rice grown in Butte County fits into this category.
UC researchers can help avoid such problems by checking the wording of
initiatives. "We shouldn't be involved in the politics, but people should
use us as a sounding board and clearinghouse for accurate information,"
Giusti says.

In addition, some of the initiatives on the November 2004 ballot ban all
GMOs, not just crops and animals. This means they also apply to
microorganisms and so could affect biotech companies in some counties, like
Alameda, Lemaux says.

The county anti-GMO initiatives could also have statewide impact. "If enough
of them pass, that could force state legislation," Lemaux says, noting that
county pesticide regulations drove the development of statewide regulations.
Currently, the state does not regulate GMOs; field-test applications are
overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Alternatively, anti-GMO
successes at the county level could help supporters place an initiative on
the state ballot.

"Whatever happens in November could change the complexion of agriculture in
California," Lemaux says.

< Robin Meadows

This GMO news service is underwritten by a generous grant from the Newman's
Own Foundation and is a production of the Ecological Farming Association