Two key efforts to ban biotech crops stumble

By Mike Lee -- Bee Staff Writer

Published Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2004

CHICO - Voters in two key California counties Tuesday night were soundly rejecting ballot measures that would ban the growing of genetically engineered plants. The votes slow the momentum of anti-biotech activists, who plan to seek more bans on the controversial crops.

In the main battleground of Butte County, Measure D was trailing 63 percent to 37 percent with 59 of 183 precincts reporting.

At election headquarters in Chico, Measure D opponents spent the night huddled around the computer waiting for the county to post election results on its Web site. Campaign spokesman Ryan Schohr said the apparent victory was the result of county farm leaders putting aside differences. "We've never come together before like this," he said.

Down the street, a handful of subdued Measure D supporters were holding out hope that results would turn around when urban ballots were counted. Campaign coordinator Susan Sullivan promised to try again. "If we can pull out these numbers in spite of their lies, we have had a phenomenal success," she said.

Butte County is deemed critical by both sides in the national tussle over genetic engineering because it's in the heart of the state's farm country and one of the state's leading rice counties. Biotech companies are looking at rice as one of their next major products.

The other hotly contested anti-biotech plan, in San Luis Obispo County, was losing 58 percent to 42 percent with 84 percent of precincts reporting.

An anti-biotech measure in Marin County was on its way to victory, 61 percent to 39 percent with 94 percent of precincts reporting. Biotech backers never mounted a campaign in Marin, and the county was widely expected to adopt the ban.

Anti-biotech activists in Humboldt County pulled their support of a proposed ban after questions were raised about the legality of sending someone to prison as one of the punishments for growing genetically engineered plants. Measure M was soundly defeated with nearly 65 percent of the vote counted.

The defeat of the three proposed biotech bans is expected to stem, but not stop, anti-biotech activities in California. Residents in at least eight other counties are talking about similar measures, though some may rethink their tactics in the wake of the election.

Biotechnology allows scientists to move genes around in ways not possible in nature by cutting and pasting DNA. Some genetically engineered plants are resistant to weedkillers, and others grow medicinal compounds.

Commercial biotech crops, while never proved 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, despite a $600,000 campaign mounted by biotech companies. A few months later, Trinity County supervisors followed suit.

About the writer: