Biotech bans finally arouse farm industry

Opposition gears up to fight county ballot measures.

By Mike Lee -- Bee Staff Writer

Published Monday, Aug. 16, 2004

California's agricultural establishment is gearing up for a ballot-box brawl this fall.

Worried that county bans on biotech crops could spread throughout the state, mainstream farm groups from the California Cattlemen's Association to the national Farm Bureau are marshaling their resources.

It's a change in tactics for biotech backers, who until now have left the ban issue mostly in the hands of biotech companies.

The stakes are higher than ever. November ballot measures in Humboldt, Marin, San Luis Obispo and Butte counties could determine whether the state embraces the new seed technology or makes its mark as free of genetically engineered crops.

Two counties - Mendocino and Trinity - already have outlawed such crops, citing a desire to protect organic crops from genetic pollution and to oppose the control of farming by a few multinational biotech companies.

Several other counties also are being targeted, mostly in areas with strong organic sympathies and the kinds of crops that won't have biotech options for years.

For conventional farmers, the issues are twofold: preventing counties from regulating what they can grow and preserving the possibility of genetically engineered crops for the future.

"It's going to wreak havoc on the state if every county passes ordinances to regulate" genetically modified organisms, said Don Bransford, a Colusa County grower and chairman of the California Rice Commission.

The key November battleground is rice powerhouse Butte County, where Measure D convinced ag leaders that the biotech backlash was a real threat, not just a political statement.

If biotech crops are barred from Butte, some fear it would send an anti-technology message about California, and companies would hesitate to develop biotech varieties here. Herbicide-tolerant rice, which allows farmers to chemically kill weeds without harming crops, is expected to be one of the next major biotech crops.

The board of the rice commission - the industry's dominant voice in California - voted 28-1 last week to fight Measure D. It's developing a "communications plan" to influence Butte voters along with a backup litigation plan in case the measure passes.

The commission didn't take a position on genetically engineered crops, which growers both support and oppose. Instead, Bransford said state law, not county mandates, should control how rice is planted.

Genetic engineering typically protects plants from bugs or makes them resistant to herbicides. The trick is accomplished in laboratories by cutting and pasting DNA.

Many farmers around the world embrace the technology, which allows for easier pest and weed control. However, consumer advocates and organic growers worry about the potential health and environmental consequences of tinkering with the genetic code.

California has an estimated 600,000 acres of biotech crops, split between corn and cotton. That number has grown steadily over the years, but remains small compared to Midwest states. Much of California produces specialty crops that don't yet have biotech options, though several are being developed.

David C. Nunenkamp, deputy secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, last week told county agriculture commissioners that local ordinances could have a "chilling effect" on a core state industry.

That's a common feeling in farm country, though many acknowledge concern about federal regulatory gaps and a state policy on biotechnology that hasn't been updated in two decades.

In July, the California Cattlemen's Association became one of the first statewide ag groups to publicly oppose all county biotech bans. They say such measures set a dangerous precedent that could someday threaten ranchers.

"It's inappropriate for local governments to dictate what tools may be used by agriculturalists now or in the future," cattlemen's president, Darrel Sweet, said in a statement.

The cattlemen have dispatched a top official to lead opposition to the Butte measure. Their efforts will be backed by American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman, who plans to speak at an Aug. 23 fund-raiser for Measure D opponents.

In Sacramento, biotech backers are widely rumored to be shopping legislation that would stop counties from regulating biotech crops. Even the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the main regulator of biotech crops, reportedly is scouring county initiatives to build a legal case against them.

The mounting opposition has the attention of anti-biotech activists who for months pushed ballot measures with relatively little resistance. "All of the ag world is lining up against Butte County," observed Renata Brillinger at Californians for GE-Free Agriculture in Occidental.

Butte activist Scott Wolf remains defiant despite his opponents' daunting political and financial force. "We are definitely not going away," said Wolf, chairman of Citizens for a GE-Free Butte. "We are hoping our personal relationships and educating people about the issues will make the difference."


Related link

Measure D [PDF]


About the Writer
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The Bee's Mike Lee can be reached (916)321-1102 or mflee@sacbee.com.