Mendocino measure focuses debate over biotech crops

March 2, 2004 -- CropChoice news -- Paul Jacobs, San Jose 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.


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