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
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
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
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
``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
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.
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
``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
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.