Biotech critics gain a victory

Mendocino voters may decide on local ban of altered crops.

By Mike Lee -- Bee Staff Writer

Published Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Voters in Mendocino County will have a chance to be the first in the nation to ban the raising of genetically engineered crops.

Mendocino elections officials said Tuesday that backers of a biotech crop ban have submitted enough valid signatures to earn a spot on the March ballot.

The announcement marked a victory for a handful of organic enthusiasts who started building support months ago, hoping to energize Northern California anti-biotech activists and to draw out opposition on a topic of worldwide debate.

The Mendocino Organic Network proposed the ban as a way to protect the purity of the county's large and growing organic wine-grape industry from genetic contamination. The nucleus of the signature drive was a couple who run Ukiah Brewing Co., one of the nation's few all-organic brewpubs.

"It's very exciting to set the pace and not only protect our own county but maybe set a precedent for other counties to follow," said Allen Cooperrider, one of the owners.

The initiative is largely symbolic because no biotech crops are currently grown in Mendocino, nor are there commercial genetically modified versions of Mendocino's major crops, which include wine grapes and pears.

It's no surprise that the initiative took root in Mendocino, given the county's history of organic farming, its large Green Party registration and the pride many residents take in bucking corporate-driven movements.

"I think it will spawn other efforts in the state," said Dave Henson, director of the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, a Sonoma County-based environmental organization.

"People will see that there is an opportunity to take this issue into their own hands," said Henson, who is working with environmentalists and farmers to shape Sonoma's response to genetically engineered crops.

Even though Mendocino's signature drive succeeded, a vote might be delayed until next fall if county supervisors decide at their Dec. 2 meeting to further evaluate the impact of the proposed law. Supervisors could enact the initiative themselves, but that seems unlikely at this point.

While county lawyers and politicians assess the initiative, opposition is forming. The Mendocino County Farm Bureau has come out against the ban, saying that it's bad policy for the county to undermine a technology regulated by the federal government.

It's still not clear whether the biotech industry will try to defeat the measure, as it did last fall when Oregon citizens unsuccessfully tried to force labeling of biotech foods.

At the Sacramento-based California Plant Health Association, a large association of fertilizer and pesticide companies, and at the Biotechnology Industry Organization in Washington, D.C., officials are monitoring the Mendocino initiative, but no action is planned.

The main concern of both organizations is that the initiative could limit farmers' crop choices.

Genetic engineering involves moving genes among species in ways that can't be done with traditional cross-breeding.

Studies show that Americans are largely ignorant about the use of biotech ingredients in an estimated 75 percent of all processed foods. So far, their inclusion has not proved harmful.

Sporadic opposition to biotechnology has surfaced in the United States, including a protest that shut down Sacramento streets last summer and spirited campaigns from Hawaii to Vermont to keep out biotech products. None, however, has led to a ban on the growing of genetically engineered crops.

Opposition is stronger in the European Union, where the government has approved a strict labeling policy for genetically engineered foods, and in developing countries. A few developing countries have refused biotech grain donated by the United States.

Major concerns include the environmental and human health uncertainties inherent in tinkering with nature. Proponents say the technology offers a way to reduce pesticide use and, potentially, a way to grow healthier foods.

In a sign of the increasing import of the worldwide debate, the Vatican last week convened a panel of experts on biotechnology to help shape church policy.

Closer to home, Bay Area anti-biotech activists are watching to see if Mendocino's landmark ban prevails.

"I think it would be pretty inspiring," said Devi Peri of GE-Free Marin in Fairfax. "It seems like in a place like Marin, which is pretty progressive, it's got a lot of possibilities."

Even if all Bay Area counties followed Mendocino's lead, however, it would have little immediate effect given that major biotech crops -- corn, soybeans, cotton and canola -- aren't agricultural staples in Northern California.

But genetically modified fruit and nut trees are being developed, and the ecology center's Henson said Mendocino's initiative could generate important discussion before they arrive.

"We need literacy," he said. "Our task is to keep it in the public eye."


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