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,” 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
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, Wholesale
Learn more about Good Family Flowers on their Farm
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 room only.
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.”
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
Els Cooperider can be contacted via their web page