Organic Consumers Association


Previous Page

Click here to print this page

Make a Donation!


More on Historic Mendocino Anti-GE Ballot Initiative

Opening Fire on GMOs

By Linnea Due, Terrain
February 27, 2004

Genetically modified potatoes can vaccinate consumers
against hepatitis B and cholera. Flounder genes render strawberries and tomatoes more resistant to frost. At least that's the line of the biotech industry. But critics across the globe say there's a potentially disastrous flipside ­ like vaccine plants getting into the general food supply, or pollen drift and crossbreeding creating herbicide-resistant weeds.

On March 2, Mendocino County voters may make their
county the first in the nation to ban the
"propagation, cultivation, raising, and growing of
genetically modified organisms." The fate of Measure H
will affect a raft of similar measures, now in the signature-gathering phase, in Marin, Sonoma, Humboldt, and other California counties.

"We're confident but nervous," says campaign
coordinator Doug Mosel. Confident because Mendocino
County is famously liberal, even radical. Nervous
because an Oregon state measure that demanded GE
products be labeled, which had the support of 70
percent of the electorate before the election, went
down to a resounding defeat after a $5.53 million
blitz of anti-labeling advertising, nearly half of it
in the last few weeks before the election. The big
spenders in Oregon were Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta,
Dow Agrosciences, and similar corporations, banded
together under the name "Coalition Against the Costly
Labeling Law." Monsanto alone ponied up $1.5 million,
according to Oregon's Money in Politics Research
Action Project.

But the Mendocino measure doesn't go as far as
Oregon's attempt ­ in Oregon all GE products coming
into the state, like cereals, snacks, and animal
feeds, would have had to be identified. Products like
these are not covered under the Mendocino proposal.

The county Farm Bureau opposes any attempt to block
what it describes as future life-saving techniques.
More practically, says bureau president Peter
Bradford, "We feel this measure is inappropriately
addressed at county level. These issues should be
developed at a state or federal level. We're already
strapped for cash. This would only deplete resources
sorely needed in other areas." The ballot argument
against Measure H, submitted by Bradford to the county registrar, is slyer: "All plants ­ whether grown in your backyard or on a farm ­ could be subject to regulation and enforcement if Measure H passes. Does the government need to know what's growing in your garden?" In a county with an estimated $2 billion pot industry ­ compared to $156.4 million in above-board agriculture ­ those are fighting words.

Mosel calls the measure an application of the
precautionary principle. "The citizens of this county
could decide any time in the future to rescind it once
the technology is proven safe. I see a ban as putting
a stop to this uncontrolled experiment whose
consequences we don't know." Mosel points to evidence
of GM pollen contamination ­ two recent studies in the
UK reported that bees carried GM rapeseed pollen to conventional plants more than 16 miles away. Studies by UC Berkeley's Ignacio Chapela, recently denied tenure (allegedly) over the GMO controversy, found traces of genetically altered material contaminating heirloom corn varieties in isolated Mexican villages.

The first legal shot was fired in Mendocino on
December 19, when fertilizer and pesticide industry
advocate California Plant Health Association, which
represents Dow AgroSciences, HydroAgri, and others,
brought suit to prevent the printing of pro-H ballot
arguments. On December 30, Superior Court Judge
Leonard J. LaCasse refused to change any language in
the ballot material. The suit might have backfired on
industry advocates ­ it was revealed in arguments
before the court that there are a couple dozen trials
of GM grapevines now under development in California.

Both sides agree that there are no GM organisms
growing in Mendocino at present, and both foresee that
wine grapevines genetically engineered to resist
Pierce's disease, caused by a bacteria borne by
insects like the glassy-winged sharpshooter, would be
the likeliest target of the new measure.

That's about the extent of the accord: proponents see
the measure as easily enforceable by agriculture
officials who already inspect incoming plants, while
county agricultural commissioner Dave Bengston,
speaking at a Board of Supervisors meeting in
December, called the measure "unenforceable" and said
passage would place a burden on local farmers, who
wouldn't be able to compete "on an even scale" with
growers of GMO crops elsewhere. Proponents counter
that being GM-free would give Mendocino farmers a
marketing advantage.

Ukiah Brewery owner Els Cooperrider, one of the
originators of Measure H, believes the fight is worth
it: "People feel so unempowered in the world, and this
is something they can do on their own and make their
own issue. That's helping us."

County weighs ban on modified food

By Bobby Caina Calvan, Boston Globe Correspondent, 2/29/2004

MENDOCINO COUNTY, Calif. -- This haven of the counterculture was first in the nation to legalize the growing of marijuana, the undisputed top cash crop in a county famous for its coastal vistas and organic grapes. But even some folks here may have their limits.

The latest pitched debate is over gene-altered crops, which organic-food activists want to prevent from taking root in this county's rich soil. A ballot measure in Tuesday's election seeks to make Mendocino County the first in the nation to ban farming of genetically modified plants and animals.

"We're the cleanest county in the state. We have the least contaminated soil and water, and we want to keep it that way," said Els Cooperrider, who with her husband, Allen, is behind the initiative known as Measure H. "It's about keeping Mendocino County natural, that's the issue."

The introduction of genetically modified organisms, or so-called GMOs, could potentially foul the environment, she and others say, by introducing plants that require more fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals. Cooperrider also says GMOs could taint the genetic purity of existing crops and tarnish the county's reputation as a leader in organic farming.

"What could be so bad to saying `No to GMOs' until we learn a little more about them?" asked Cooperrider, who runs a brewery in Ukiah, the county's largest city, that advertises itself as the nation's first organically certified brewpub.

Already, the measure has spawned the most expensive campaign in the history of this county of 87,000 people, located about 100 miles up the coast from San Francisco. Storefronts and front yards are awash in campaign placards. And Measure H has been the hottest topic of conversation.

Fearful the movement could spread elsewhere, the biotechnology industry has pumped some $400,000 to defeat the initiative, nearly all of it from CropLife America, a Washington-based trade association. In comparison, Measure H backers have raised about $100,000, most of it in small contributions from county residents, who see the campaign as another case of David vs. Goliath.

"This would be a bad precedent. We think it is bad public policy to attempt to regulate [through the ballot box] something that has a complexity of issues like this one," said Allan Noe, CropLife America's director of communications.

If Measure H is approved -- which both sides agree is far from certain -- Mendocino County would become the first jurisdiction to outlaw the farming of genetically modified food. Others have tried to pass similar laws, but none, to Noe's knowledge, has succeeded thus far.

"We're concerned it could get some traction in other parts of the country," Noe said. If other jurisdictions passed similar laws, he said, "it would be a logistical nightmare to grow anything."

Already, an attempt for a similar measure is underway further north in Humboldt County.

Ever since the introduction of the "Flavor Saver" tomato more than a decade ago, the biotech farming industry has been under siege from those concerned with scientific ethics and food safety.

Vermont legislators are debating a possible moratorium on bioengineered crops. A movement is also underway in Maine. And in Hawaii, coffee growers have been pushing for laws to protect their industry from potential competition from bioengineered coffee plants, although farmers in the state are growing genetically engineered papaya.

The proposal in Mendocino County is limited to the raising of genetically modified food oncounty soil. It does not prevent such food, grown or manufactured elsewhere, from being sold in the county. Nor does it require such food be labeled. It mentions fines, but doesn't specify how much.

"I don't want my food to be messed with," said Lori Rosenberg, the general manager of the natural foods cooperative in Ukiah. The store has been helping with Measure H fund-raising, contributing $5,000 toward the campaign and generating nearly $6,000 from it co-op members.

Measure H opponents have filled the radio airwaves with commercials warning of increased taxes and invasion of privacy -- issues that resonate in a county with an eclectic mix of voters. Opponents suggest that government inspectors could seize backyard plants, conjuring up long-held concerns by some over law enforcement raids over marijuana plants.

"Measure H will cost our county additional funds," said Elizabeth Brazil, who is running the campaign against it. "It would create a new government program that requires additional resources that we do not have."

David Bengston, the county's agricultural commissioner, isn't saying where he stands.

"I've kept a secret even from my wife what my feelings are," said Bengston, whose office would be the new law's chief enforcer. "This one is the most controversial, and one of the hottest, ballot initiatives that I've been involved in." Four years ago, county voters approved Measure G, which legalized small-scale farming of marijuana intended for personal use. But the debate over that measure, some say, is nothing compared to the vitriol that is being generated by the current campaign.

"Not everybody smokes weed, but everybody eats," said Hal Wagenet, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, explaining why Measure H has become such a contentious issue.

So divisive has been the measure that the county farm bureau until recently kept quiet its opposition because so many of its members support Measure H, including Fetzer vineyards, the county's largest winery and organic farm.

Both sides are campaigning for support of county residents like James Henwood, who lives in Redwood Valley.

"I haven't quite made up my mind yet," he said while filling his old Volvo with gas. "I don't know who to believe. I think both sides aren't being truthful. But at the same time, I don't like the fact that there's big money coming in from the outside trying to crush it.

"This is a rather divided community. We've got hippies and rednecks who don't like the idea of slicing up frog genes into redwoods," Henwood joked, "then having to chase them over the county to cut them down." © Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company. ________________________________________________________________________
San Jose Mercury News (California)
March 1, 2004
Tyler Nelson, a third-generation farmer in Ukiah, with field worker Felix Torres, right. Nelson opposes Measure H, saying the initiative is poorly written.;
By Paul Jacobs; Mercury News

A national struggle over the future of genetically engineered crops is centered for the moment at a brew pub in Mendocino County.

Ukiah Brewery Company and Restaurant owners Els and Allen Cooperriders serve up an inviting mix of organic burgers with organic beer to their paying customers. But the brewery doubles as headquarters for the committee backing county Measure H: the ballot initiative that would ban the planting of genetically modified crops in Mendocino County.

It's the first such measure to be submitted to voters anywhere in the country -- and it's attracted opposition to the tune of a third of a million dollars from the giants of the biotechnology agriculture industry.

This homegrown issue is attracting national attention in a raging debate over the future of plant biotechnology.

CropLife America -- a national lobbying group representing agribusiness giants like Monsanto, DuPont and Dow -- has pumped $350,000 into the campaign to defeat the initiative and is poised to attack the measure in court if it should prove successful.

Environmental activists have joined the fray as well, but on a smaller scale, including the Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C., which contributed $23,900 to the effort to pass the crop ban.

''We don't want to see this pick up any steam,'' said Allan Noe, vice president of CropLife America, a national lobbying organization representing the world's leading biotech agricultural companies, including Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta. ''The activist community is well-known for championing causes and for going all out to fuel their beliefs.''

Prior efforts

On the other side, the Center for Food Safety's Andrew Kimbrell points out that the biotech industry has been able to beat back efforts to label and restrict genetically modified foods at the state and federal level. Two years ago, Oregon voters overwhelmingly rejected an initiative to impose a state labeling requirement on genetically engineered foods after the biotech industry poured in more than $5.5 million to defeat it.

Now Kimbrell thinks one way to get Washington's attention is to fight biotech crops ''town by town and county by county.''

Already backers of the initiative say that there are efforts in nine or 10 other counties in Northern California, including Humboldt and Sonoma, to place similar measures on ballots in November. A number of town meetings in Vermont and Massachusetts have passed resolutions to label or ban genetically engineered crops, but they lack the force of law.

Els Cooperrider, by training a research biologist, said the idea of a county ban came at a meeting of the Mendocino Organic Network -- a coalition of organic farmers and others -- after someone mentioned that the local food co-op was selling products with genetically engineered ingredients.

''We got to talking about that and someone said maybe we should label them,'' she recalled. ''I just mentioned that labeling efforts are failing. We should have a ban on growing of genetically engineered organisms to stop the spread of them and then later we could talk about labeling.''

In crop genetic engineering, scientists take the genetic instructions for a trait they want -- like a natural pesticide found in bacteria -- and splice it into the genetic machinery of the plant, to produce a crop that makes its own pesticide. But critics worry about unknown health effects on consumers and the possibility that the trait can spread inadvertently by pollination or the mixing of seeds.

4,000 signatures

After gathering 4,000 signatures, the organic coalition got its initiative on the ballot, but only after beating back a lawsuit from the California Plant Health Association -- CropLife America's West Coast affiliate.

From the start, the measure has been a grass-roots effort in a sparsely populated county that grows none of the current varieties of biotech plants. Locals say Mendocino County's biggest cash crop is probably marijuana.

But the county is also home to a number of wineries and vineyards, including Fetzer Vineyards, the largest grower of organic grapes in the nation with plans to produce only organic wines by 2010.

Like a lot of backers of a ban on genetically modified crops, Fetzer President Paul Dolan says he worries about future vineyard contamination problems. There are no commercialized genetically modified grapes on the market, but researchers are experimenting with gene splicing to see if they can protect grapes against several devastating vineyard diseases.

''We have concerns for the impact on the quality of wine in general,'' Dolan said. ''And secondly, we're concerned with our ability to maintain organic certification.''

Also worried about contamination problems is Tim Bates, who runs the Apple Farm, one of the last remaining apple orchards in Mendocino County. His family's farm supplies organic apples to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco and Chez Panisse in Berkeley.

While there are no genetically modified apples on the market yet, Bates worries that the day is coming. Because of contamination problems, he said, ''All organic growers stand to lose big.''

In its numerous mailers and radio ads, the opposition campaign has not stressed the virtues of biotech crops and other products. Instead, it argues that the measure is poorly drafted and will be expensive for taxpayers to enforce, requiring the county agricultural commissioner to seek out and destroy genetically modified plants.

Opponents are quick to point out that the measure defines DNA -- the genetic material that is spliced into plants to create a genetically modified organism -- as a ''protein,'' which it is not.

Says Elizabeth Brazil, the campaign coordinator for Citizens against Measure
H: ''This document is poorly worded, will cost our taxpayers more than it will benefit them and needs to be taken back to the drawing board.''

In a memo to the Mendocino supervisors, the county agricultural commissioner, David Benston, fretted about resistance to any enforcement
efforts: ''A few growers have already stated that if such an ordinance passes, they would use weapons to protect their property, and we were warned that we would need to come in with deputies to gain access or risk getting shot.''

If it does pass, there is almost certain to be a legal challenge over whether federal law prevents local governments from banning genetically modified seeds and plants that have moved through interstate commerce.

Ground to a halt

''The nightmare that this represents to intra- and interstate commerce is ridiculous. We'd be ground to a halt,'' says CropLife's Noe.

The Center for Food Safety's Kimbrell points to a legal opinion from the Congressional Research Service that argues that such local bans would probably survive a constitutional challenge.

But there won't be a legal challenge unless the measure gets a majority vote.

Els Cooperrider sometimes seems worried. The opponents, she complains, ''basically bought up all of the airways.''

But whatever the outcome Tuesday night, the Cooperriders are throwing a party at their brew pub. Win or lose, the beer that flows will be organic.