August 17, 2004:
When I heard that the Mendocino effort to ban genetically
modified crops had won, the first successful effort in the
US, I was truly surprised and pleased. I knew that the biotechnology
industry had been pouring money into opposing the initiative
with slick advertisements and tricky sound bites. Oregonians
had tried to pass a GMO food labeling law and had been soundly
beaten with lots of disinformative advertising and questionable
arguments brought in too late in the campaign to be effectively
rebutted. So how did Mendocino do it?
The driving force behind the brilliantly carried out Measure
H campaign was Els Cooperider, a 50-something former biologist
who owns only the second certified organic restaurant in the
US and the first organic brewpub in the country, the Ukiah
Brewing Co. organic restaurant and brewpub.
Cooperider, and her husband, Alan, who has a degree in botany,
had followed the development of genetic engineering of food
crops as most informed northern Californians have - with dismay.
The huge flaws in the science of genetic engineering, the covered-up
animal feeding studies that show serious health problems, and
the utterly corrupt lack of oversight by the US Food and Drug
Administration (all detailed in the book “Seeds
of Deception” by Jeffrey Smith), was enough to give
Cooperider the impetus to start a campaign.
||“We knew what we would be up
against from reading and hearing about the Oregon experience,
but we decided that just getting a GM crops ban on the
ballot would at least educate people on the issue, even
if it failed.”
“We knew what we would be up against from reading and
hearing about the Oregon experience, but we decided that just
getting a GM crops ban on the ballot would at least educate
people on the issue, even if it failed,” says Cooperider.
Cooperider had run for local public office before and knew
a few things about campaigning and had good connections in
the community. This was a start. Most importantly, however,
she knew that most of the people in the county were firmly
against the genetic engineering of crops and foods. Home of
media like the Anderson Valley Advertiser, a small newspaper
known around Northern California for its incisive, in-depth
reporting on issues that don’t make the mainstream news,
Mendocino County was as good a county as any in the US to
try being the first to ban GM crops.
The campaign was well thought out from the beginning. Cooperider
was careful not to announce the campaign until as late in
the game as possible and kept the plans carefully limited
to circle of a few trusted friends. This way the opposition,
which she knew would hit hard, would have less time to build
their campaign. With an early November deadline to turn in
signatures, the signature gathering campaign wasn’t
announced until late August, about a two month timeline.
Committees were put together, advisors sought out, and area
coordinators appointed for each community in the county. The
failed Oregon campaign was intensively studied. When the actual
wording of the measure was developed, they took a big lesson
from the Oregon experience and kept the wording simple and
limited to less than one page. In layperson’s language,
the Measure H initiative prohibited the propagation of genetically
engineered crops and animals in the county. The measure limited
itself to crops and did not deal with microbial transgenics,
as bacterial genetics are distinct from plant genetics and
don’t have nearly the risk of pollen drift and ecological
contamination. Plus, many medicines are developed via bacterial
transgenics, and they didn’t want to deal with that.
a Mendocino Farmer
Matt Molyneaux of
Good Family Flowers
The gardens, which have been cultivated for almost
100 years, feature forty varieties of organically
grown flowers on 15,000 sq. ft. An additional
2+ acres is planted in mixed vegetables. The remaining
land is dedicated to agritourism. Guest facilities
and educational opportunities help connect families
and children to the land.
Nature of Operation:
organic, not certified
Markets Served: Farmers Markets,
Learn more about Good Family Flowers on their
A dozen forums were organized and speakers like Ignacio Chapela,
the UC Berkeley professor who uncovered the transgene contamination
of Mexican native corn, Marc Lappé, author of books
about the dangers of genetically altered foods, Percy Schmeiser,
the Canadian farmer who was fighting Monsanto in court at
the time, and Miguel Altieri, agroecology professor from UC
Berkeley. They even had a forum in Spanish. The forums were
very well attended, sometimes filling an auditorium to standing
It took the opposition a while to build a campaign, which probably won’t
happen in future anti-GMO campaigns anywhere else. For one
thing, Cooperider believes, they underestimated her, “They
thought I was just this organic housewife and restaurant owner,”
she says. But with two months to go CropLife America, the
main industry-sponsored pro-GMO organization, had started
their campaign and were helping dispense what would end up
amounting to nearly a million dollars from the pro-GMO side.
The pro-GMOers recruited scientists from the University of
California to present their views in the forums.
The slick pro-GMO advertisements claimed that county taxes
would have to be significantly raised in order to enforce
the ban, and that the privacy of people’s backyards,
cars, and houses would be intruded upon by inspectors. These
spurious claims were effectively countered in the forums by
the Measure H side.
The Frey family, local makers of organic wines, played a
prominent role in the campaign. Katrina Frey was the Measure
H fundraiser, raising $130,000 by the end of the campaign.
Jonathan and Paul Frey played an important role in the debates,
having learned a good deal about the immensely complex world
of genetics and transgenes, as well as the history of bad
science and no science, cover-ups, the silencing and firing
of government and university scientists, and the biotech industry
sponsored viral PR campaigns attacking researchers whose work
shows negative results in experiments on transgene products.
By the time the UC scientists came to the forums the Frey
brothers, whose quiet intelligence is obvious to anyone getting
into a conversation with them, were prepared. “The Freys
pretty much blew the UC scientists out of the water”
said one local source. The UC people were simply unprepared
for the amount of information the Freys had command of and
could not answer effectively. After the usual pro-GMO arguments
like “the precision of gene insertion” were exposed
as deeply flawed and shockingly under-researched as to safety,
and after arguments like “reducing pesticide use”
were also rebutted, the GMO proponents brought up, as they
usually do, the “need to feed the world with biotechnology”,
giving the example of “golden rice” (transgene
rice which produces vitamin A). A few facts exposed golden
rice for what it is: a $100 million boondoggle more for saving
the biotechnology industry than for saving third world children.
A two-year old child would need to eat seven pounds a day
of the golden rice to get the vitamin A available in a serving
of garden greens. The money spent on developing golden rice
would have been better spent teaching people how to grow greens.
Cooperider was advised by a former PR professional on how
to respond to attacks by the opposition, “We were advised
not to respond at all to most of the attacks and claims.”
This was difficult and counter-intuitive, according to Cooperider,
but it apparently worked. For example, the Measure H people
had made a mistake in the text of the initiative by using
the term “protein” when referring to DNA. It was
a small flaw that didn’t affect the basic premise of
the measure, but it opened them to attacks. In the forums,
when this was brought up by the pro-GMO side, Cooperider simply
said nothing and waited for the next question, since nearly
all of the people there knew the wording didn’t make
any difference in the larger scheme of things.
Another tactic the Measure H campaigners took was to not use
the word “organic” anytime in the campaign. They
really needed to get all of the farmers and agriculture people
on board, not just the organic people. “I really worked
hard to keep everyone in the campaign on the same page,”
says Cooperider, “we didn’t want to have the same
experience as in Oregon, where the campaign split into two factions.”
||“I really worked hard to keep
everyone in the campaign on the same page,” says
Cooperider, “we didn’t want to have the same
experience as in Oregon, where the campaign split into
The campaign became intense. Personalities had to be managed.
People were working on little sleep.
Strategic endorsements from well-known citizens and organizations
of the county’s communities were sought out and won.
The county sheriff came on board, a mayor, realtors, public
health officials, and the Fetzer winery, a big one.
One of the big pluses for the Measure H campaign was that
people, in voting, really felt they were going to make a difference.
It was an issue with national and global importance that a
few thousand local voters would decide.
In the end Measure H won easily, 57% to 43%. Cooperider took
several months to recuperate, having put in easily 60-80 hours
a week in addition to her business.
The successful Mendocino campaign has catalyzed similar anti-GM
crops campaigns in another five or six counties in California
and a dozen around the US. The Measure H veterans recently
hosted a workshop for anti-GM crop campaigners or potential
campaigners in nine other counties.
In nearby Butte County, where rice farming is big, there
is an anti-GM crops campaign in full swing, and the disinformative
tactics of the pro-GMO lobby are already evident. Back in
the 1950s plant breeders used radiation to induce mutations
in rice and went on to develop cultivars that are currently
still grown. The pro-GM crops campaign is calling these cultivars
“genetically engineered”, which would mean they
would be banned.
This argument is spurious. Anyone familiar with biology knows
that in nature there is a lot of radiation, especially from
the sun, and that plants and microbes have evolved mechanisms
to adapt to this destructive energy, including to genetic
mutations caused by radiation. Induced mutations are a far
cry from the genetic engineering practice of literally shooting
(via using gold-coated genetic particles) a taxonomically
foreign gene into the genome of a plant, something no organisms
have ever been exposed to. Jeffrey Smith’s book details
the many serious flaws in this practice.
These are watershed years in the development of humanity’s
approach to food, and the Mendocino anti-GM crops campaign
is a major step in the direction of keeping the integrity
of our food and agriculture.
Els Cooperider can be contacted via their web page