Voters may set biotech future

The proposed bans in four counties may shape the path of farming in the state.

By Mike Lee -- Bee Staff Writer

Published Thursday, Oct. 28, 2004

This Election Day, California takes center stage in the worldwide debate over genetic engineering as voters in four counties consider bans on biotech plants.

The two most significant and hotly contested ballot measures - in Butte and San Luis Obispo counties, where more than $350,000 has been spent - still are up for grabs on Nov. 2.

That's not the case in Marin County, where even opponents expect the measure to pass. Humboldt County's initiative faces near-certain defeat after ballot writers reluctantly pulled their support because of questions about the legality of the measure's language.

Genetically engineered corn and cotton are planted on a few hundred thousand acres in California, and no one expects the crops to disappear no matter what happens at the ballot box next week. But this election will ripple through the nation's largest farming state, where more biotech bans could slow the release of herbicide-resistant rice and alfalfa in 2005 or 2006.

If nothing else, it will show whether farmers still carry enough weight to make their own choices about what they grow.

"Whatever happens in November could change the complexion of agriculture in California," Peggy Lemaux, a University of California biotechnology specialist, said in the current issue of the university's agriculture journal.

Residents in at least eight more counties - including Yolo, Placer and Sacramento - are considering copycat measures.

St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. runs a major research campus in Davis called Calgene, and company executives are wondering if Yolo residents will make a serious push to exclude biotech plants.

"It could have tremendous impact on our ability just to do basic research," said George Gough, Monsanto's manager of governmental affairs in Roseville.

By cutting and pasting DNA, biotechnology allows scientists to move genes around in ways not possible in nature, allowing, for instance, resistance to weedkillers or the growing of medicinal compounds.

Commercial biotech crops, while never proven dangerous for human health, have been rejected by some consumers around the world.

Biotech backers say the novel plants make farming easier and reduce reliance on toxic chemicals. Opponents say they pose environmental threats and give multinational companies control over the food supply through seed contracts.

In March, Mendocino County voters set a national precedent when they agreed to ban biotech crops by a margin of 56 percent to 44 percent. A few months later, Trinity County supervisors followed suit.

Both actions were largely symbolic - no biotech crops are known to be grown in either county - but the issue quickly took on larger significance when similar measures took root in the more mainstream farming counties of Butte and San Luis Obispo.

People on both sides of the issue in those counties are optimistic about their chances on Election Day.

In Butte County, opponents of the ban on biotech plants have raised approximately $150,000, almost entirely from local farmers and agriculture groups, and they are airing TV and radio commercials in the walk-up to the election.

"We're feeling pretty confident as farmers that Measure D is going to be defeated," said Ryan Schohr, a fifth-generation Gridley rice grower. "(Voters) are going to allow farmers to keep using science, technology and research."

At GE-Free Butte, however, a campaign that had been stuck in low gear now has more than $50,000. It's being spent on fliers and radio spots.

Spokesman Scott Wolf said a small informal poll by his volunteers shows residents who have made up their minds about Measure D support it heavily. However, he said that a big chunk of the electorate knows virtually nothing about the issue.

"The burden is very much on us to get the word out," he said. "And time is running out."

The situation is similar in San Luis Obispo. The Farm Bureau has powered the opposition to the anti-biotech measure, raising about $150,000, and is hopeful of winning. So are ballot measure supporters, who are running what some consider the best-organized campaign. Their finances were not immediately available Wednesday.

In Humboldt County, activists have dropped their campaign in hopes that the initiative can be rewritten and reintroduced.

At issue is language that makes violating the ordinance punishable by imprisonment, something the district attorney said was illegal.

There's been virtually no opposition to the proposed ban in Marin County, paving the way for anti-biotech success in at least one county.


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