Seeds of dissent: Anti-biotech effort takes root

Foes aim to put ban on Mendocino County ballot

By Mike Lee -- Bee Staff Writer

Published Friday, September 26, 2003

UKIAH -- A campaign to make Mendocino County the first in the United States to ban genetically modified crops is brewing inside a century-old building in downtown Ukiah.

There, at the nation's only certified organic brew pub, owners Allen and Els Cooperrider are collecting signatures for an initiative they hope will resonate in a region best known for artisans, aging hippies and alternative farmers.

Their goals are both local and global -- preventing genetic contamination of Mendocino County's robust organic produce industry and defying the seemingly unstoppable worldwide spread of genetically engineered crops.

"What we know so far from genetically engineered crops is that they create more problems than they solve," said Els Cooperrider, 58, a retired medical researcher.

Already, similar efforts are taking root in neighboring counties, drawing Northern California deeper into the international debate about the benefits and dangers of crops engineered to resist pests or withstand herbicides.

The Mendocino movement -- aimed at the March ballot -- likely will draw opposition from the biotechnology industry, which doesn't want crop bans to get a foothold in the nation's largest farm state.

"It appears that people are using some kinds of fear-mongering and scare tactics in support of ... organics," said Lisa J. Dry, spokeswoman for the Biotechnology Industry Organization in Washington, D.C., which represents more than 1,000 biotechnology companies, academic institutions and related groups.

Although Dry was unaware of the Mendocino effort until contacted by The Bee, she said her organization might well get involved if the initiative qualifies for the ballot. "It looks like some education would be helpful," she said.

Even within Mendocino County, some farmers wonder whether it's wise to reject a whole realm of technology that could eventually protect and enhance the county's crops while reducing pesticide use.

"There are a lot of people out there who want to hedge their bets; they don't want to give up one of their tools," said Greg Lolonis, who grows organic grapes in one of the many valleys that bisect the county's rugged, tree-covered terrain.

Resistance to genetically modified foods has spurred protests from Switzerland to Sacramento -- where a few thousand demonstrators rallied in June against the advance of biotechnology.

Opponents of biotech foods fear that tinkering with genes could create long-term environmental and health problems.

Nonetheless, farmers around the world have embraced crops developed by moving genes around in ways that can't be done through traditional cross-breeding. Genetically engineered crops covered more than 145 million acres worldwide in 2002, mostly in crops such as corn, canola, soy and cotton.

Biotech backers say the new varieties have dramatically reduced the need for an array of farm chemicals, and that California stands to slash chemical use more than any other state with the widespread adoption of biotech varieties. On the horizon is another wave of products that promise to deliver more nutrients than conventional crops.

Europe remains one of the strongest holdouts against biotechnology, though events this summer have whittled its resistance. For instance, in early September, the European Commission denied attempts in Austria to bar genetically modified crops.

Similar anti-biotech sentiment has popped up in the United States, too, from San Francisco, where supervisors in 2000 urged a temporary nationwide moratorium on genetically modified food, to Vermont, where several townships have passed resolutions calling for mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods.

But no county has done what's being considered in Mendocino County, population 87,000, where timber has given way to tourism and small-scale agriculture as primary industries.

It's not entirely surprising in a county that has long attracted free thinkers, that now boasts the second-largest Green Party registration in the state, behind neighboring Humboldt County.

The Cooperriders, for instance, live deep in the woods west of Ukiah in a tiny, decades-old loggers' cabin without electricity or phones. To cool off, the couple set lawn chairs in the nearby Big River and play cards.

The Mendocino Organic Network, a loose-knit group the Cooperriders belong to, reports it has 3,100 of the 4,000 signatures it set as its goal. To qualify for the March ballot, the network must file 2,579 valid signatures by Wednesday.

If the current effort falls short, the organic network will target next fall's ballot. "We plan to win," said Allen Cooperrider, a retired federal agency biologist.

Out in front of the Ukiah post office on a recent Friday morning, about one in five passers-by stopped to sign his initiative.

Albert Krauss, 71, a writer, eagerly endorsed what he called a symbolic initiative to stem biotechnology. "The problem isn't so much the genetic modifying of anything, it is not fully examining all the implications of environmental impacts," he said.

The Mendocino initiative would not prevent the sale of modified foods, just the planting of modified crops. Of special concern there are wine grapes, which for the first time two years ago topped timber as the county's most valuable farm product.

About a quarter of the county's 16,000 acres of grape vines are organic. Under federal standards, genetically engineered varieties cannot be sold as organic.

The trouble is, grape pollen is hard to contain because it's carried by the wind, which could allow biotech genes to migrate into non-biotech farms.

That's exactly what has happened with corn pollen, which in 2000 a University of California, Berkeley, researcher found had polluted remote corn fields in Mexico, even though genetically engineered corn is banned by the Mexican government. Scientists still are trying to determine what caused that contamination.

Such uncertainty is disheartening for the Frey family, which runs one of the oldest and largest organic wineries in the nation, north of Ukiah.

Like many organic farmers, the Freys oppose anything that could undermine a carefully cultivated organic status, a point of local pride that helps sell county wines around the world.

Everything about their 1,000-acre compound, home to 40 family members, is geared toward living lightly on the land -- from the massive dining room table hewn from a fallen redwood tree to the recycled french fry oil from Los Angeles that powers the tractor.

"There is something to be said about proceeding with great caution when dealing with something ... new and crazy," said Paul Frey, 41. "You may think people know everything there is about DNA and all the workings of the human body, but they don't."

While Mendocino's anti-biotech movement is homegrown, its leaders are not naive about the opposition they may face if their initiative makes it to the ballot.

The world leader in biotech crops, St. Louis-based Monsanto, pumped approximately $1.5 million into a campaign last fall that helped defeat an Oregon ballot measure to force labeling of genetically modified foods.

Among those behind the Mendocino movement is Marc Lappé, director of the Center for Ethics and Toxics in Gualala and co-author of failed California legislation in 2000 that would have required labeling of genetically engineered foods.

Lappe described opposition to his bill as an "incredible deluge." He predicted that if the Mendocino initiative makes it to the ballot, it will pass. "If it does so," he said, "it's going to rock the establishment."

At the industry organization, Dry expects just the opposite once the debate moves outside organic circles. "When something like this initiative begins, you have folks who are very passionate and committed to the issue. But as other points of view play into the mix, people become more objective and say 'Why would we want to do this?' "

The grape industry, for instance, stands to benefit from research aimed at producing vines resistant to Pierce's disease, which since the late 1990s has wiped out millions of dollars in California grapevines.

It's such a menace that the state's grape growers spend more than $3.5 million a year researching ways to defeat Pierce's disease and the glassy-winged sharpshooter that carries it.

From the University of California, Davis, to Cornell University in New York, scientists also are looking at genes for solutions to other viticultural problems, such as powdery mildew. Federal records show 11 current permits for genetically modified grape trials in California. So far, no biotech varieties are grown commercially in the nation.

About three-quarters of the California wine industry endorses gene-level diagnostic work on the fundamental nature of vines and diseases, according to preliminary results of a summer 2003 survey of 4,800 vintners and growers by the American Vineyard Foundation of Napa.

However, the same survey found little consensus about releasing genetically engineered vines into the marketplace, said the foundation's executive director, Patrick Gleeson.

"Some are very supportive: 'This is the wave of the future, we need to be considering all of these issues,' " he said. "Others say, 'Do not go down that path, this is the absolute wrong direction.' "

California's food crops remain mostly free of biotechnology, in part because biotech companies have focused on more Midwest-friendly field crops, such as corn and soybeans. Only a few modified fruits and vegetables -- papayas, cantaloupe and squash -- have been commercially released.

However, California is among the most popular places for biotech field trials and a hotbed of companies trying to genetically manufacture pharmaceuticals in plants.

The California Farm Bureau Federation backs biotechnology as a way to "improve the quality and marketability of our products and to solve environmental concerns," according to its 2003 policy handbook.

But in Mendocino County, farmers are watching the local Farm Bureau, which is loaded with organic producers and has yet to take a position on the proposed biotech ban initiative.


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