Biotech ban may sprout others

Mendocino County's action rattles genetic engineering industry.

By Edie Lau and Mike Lee -- Bee Staff Writers

Published Friday, March 5, 2004

The 14,839 voters who this week banned genetically modified organisms in Mendocino County have shaken the establishment far beyond their small North Coast community.

Their success, the first in the United States, is encouraging voters in at least two, and maybe as many as nine, other California counties to consider pushing similar prohibitions on "GMOs," as the biotechnology products are called.

"We're next," exulted Martha Devine, a leader of the Humboldt Green Genes, which is gathering signatures for a ballot measure in November.

Fearful of growing anti-GMO sentiment in California and nationally, the biotech industry vowed to continue fighting Mendocino's initiative.

"I don't think we can afford to let it stand," said Allan Noe, spokesman for CropLife America, the industry trade group that almost single-handedly funded the No on Measure H campaign.

CropLife contributed $600,000 of the $621,566 raised to fight the ban. Supporters raised $93,525, a disparity of more than 6-to-1.

But the side with less money got more votes. Unofficial election results showed 14,839 yes votes to 11,420 no votes.

As returns came in Tuesday night, the Ukiah Brewing Co., an organic-foods restaurant and bar where Measure H was born, overflowed with celebrants, many of whom had given time to the campaign. Three blocks away, the opposition headquarters was dark, closed and empty, a "for lease" sign hanging outside.

Measure H makes it illegal to grow genetically engineered life forms in Mendocino County. Its power is not in the act itself - no known biotech plants or animals are being raised in the county - but in the statement it makes.

"Now people are going to realize, 'Wow, (if) Mendocino .. can say no, maybe we can say no,' " said Adam Gaska, 25, an organic farmer and Yes on H volunteer.

Genetically modified organisms are produced through gene splicing, a technique that enables scientists to move genes among plants, animals and microbes in ways that are impossible through conventional breeding.

The biotech industry and U.S. government maintain that genetic engineering is a benign tool that can be used to lessen agricultural pollution, including the use of herbicides and pesticides, and to improve crop yields, among other things.

Skeptics say the technology is too young to be sure of its safety, so its adoption should be slowed and monitored more closely.

The first biotech crop went to market in 1994. Today, 167 million acres worldwide are planted in biotech crops, chiefly corn, cotton, soybeans and canola engineered to produce their own insecticides or withstand treatment by herbicides. The United States is the world's top producer.

The biotech industry is expected to challenge Mendocino's ban on the grounds that it preempts federal regulations. It also may seek to override the ban through state legislation.

Surprised that the ban passed, CropLife's Noe speculated that opponents were hampered by the brevity of the campaign: The initiative qualified for the ballot three months before the election.

"The tactic of creating fear of the unknown was, in this short time frame, difficult to disarm," Noe said.

The issue of local control is one Dave Henson hopes will resonate in Sonoma County. Henson, director of the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center there, is eyeing a possible no-GMO ballot measure next year.

"Farmers and environmentalists have to beware that biotech corporations are going to try to take away our rights to control our local economies," he said.

Els Cooperrider, a brew pub co-owner and former scientific researcher who dreamed up the Mendocino initiative to educate the public about genetically engineered food, said on election night that voters from nine counties had contacted her about similar measures. Cooperrider declined to identify the counties, except for Humboldt, for fear of tipping off the industry.

Maverick counties could force debate in Sacramento over an issue that the state mostly ignores. Anna Blackshaw, a consultant for the state Senate select committee on international trade and state policy, said Mendocino's ban delivers a "political imperative" for more action by the nation's largest farming state.

"Cities and localities ... want to see California play a bigger role," she said.

Any prospective change in state role likely would be influenced by the biotech industry, whose leaders are particularly concerned about what they perceive as an undercurrent of anti-technology sentiment expressed in Measure H.

"It's sending a negative message in a state where we rely on science to create the technology and the jobs of the future," said Joe Panetta, president and CEO of BIOCOM San Diego, a major industry trade group.

Panetta and dozens more biotech leaders were in Sacramento this week for an annual visit with legislators. A special "Measure H working group" was dispatched to stem anti-biotech momentum.

"What we don't want to see is bad information getting into the hands of members of the Legislature who might decide that it would be appropriate to ban genetically improved crops in California," Panetta said.

In Mendocino, meanwhile, county Agricultural Commissioner David Bengston took steps to enforce the new ban. He directed an inspector to study a list of plants that have been engineered and to watch for those varieties during her routine morning checks of shipments arriving through carriers, such as FedEx.

He also asked the manager of the county's largest seed supplier to ask his sources which varieties are genetically engineered.

He said although most such crops are grown in the Midwest, he can't treat the ban as simply symbolic. "You can't do that with an initiative," he said. "... I'm not taking it lightly at all."

Moreover, the initiative could inspire a new rebellion - one against the ban. "I would guess there's GMO material in the county right now," Bengston said. "I've had people tell me, if it passes, they're going to plant GMO plants."

In other states, resistance to genetic engineering could cause immediate practical problems for an industry that has benefited from consumers' being ignorant or indifferent on biotech foods.

Perhaps the most important anti-biotech action is taking shape in the Dakotas, where Monsanto Co. aims to sell wheat that withstands the company's flagship weedkiller Roundup.

A proposal to ban genetically engineered wheat was defeated in the North Dakota Senate in 2001, but residents are pushing a ballot initiative, and farm groups are aiming for more legislation.

Bill Wenzel, national director of the Farmer-to-Farmer Campaign on Genetic Engineering, said Mendocino's success adds fuel to an anti-biotech movement from Hawaii to Vermont.

"So far, we have been looking at a few brush fires (of resistance) here and there," he said, "but increasingly this is becoming a bigger issue that could in all likelihood result in a prairie fire."


About the Writer The Bee's Edie Lau can be reached at (916) 321-1098 or elau@sacbee.com.