March 1, 2004

Californian County Votes on GE Crop Ban

Intense Lobbying by Monsanto, Bayer, DuPont and Dow

Voters in a rural county in Northern California will decide on "Super Tuesday" (March 2) whether to become the first county in the U.S. to ban the cultivation of genetically engineered (GE) crops. In late 2003, activists in Mendocino County qualified Proposition H for the ballot, which proposes to ban the "propagation, cultivation, raising and growing of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Mendocino County."

Mendocino is home to 150 organic farms and wineries, representing about one-sixth of all agricultural land in the mountainous, California coastal county. Growers of organic wine grapes support the proposition, arguing that high value crops could become contaminated with DNA from GE crops, risking organic certification as well as their hopes for new markets in Europe and Japan where GE food and wine are a major consumer concern. A recent report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, Gone to Seed, confirms the difficulty of preventing cross-pollination from engineered DNA in GE crops that are already grown in large quantities. According to analyses by two independent laboratories commissioned for the study, even corn, soy and cotton seeds certified as pure enough for commercial grade contained traces of GE DNA in 5 out of 6 samples, a finding the biotech industry admits is inevitable. The report warns that if the rules for segregating GE crops are not tightened as the number of engineered varieties grows, the entire U.S. food supply will soon be contaminated.

Meanwhile in Vermont, where organic agriculture is also becoming increasingly important, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted unanimously for the Farmer Protection Act, a bill that would place a two-year moratorium on planting GE crops throughout the state. Two other statewide GE bills are also under consideration in Vermont, including one requiring labeling of all GE seeds. Seventy towns in Vermont have already passed resolutions against GE crops, and several more have local regulations on the March 2nd ballot.

The agricultural biotech industry has gone on the offensive in response to these local actions. A consortium of the biggest corporations in the highly-consolidated pesticide and GE seed industry, including Monsanto, Bayer, DuPont and Dow AgroSciences, have spent more than $300,000 to defeat Measure H in Mendocino, bringing the opposition total to over $400,000 -- a record for the county -- while proponents have raised just over $72,000, mostly through small donations.

Working through the California Plant Health Association, a politically powerful trade group of pesticide, fertilizer, and biotech seed companies, sued to change the ballot language submitted by backers of the initiative. One of their complaints concerned the list of damages that might result from GMO contamination. Among them was the risk of losing access to markets for wine in Europe and Japan, as more than one third of Mendocino County's wine grapes are organic. Industry attorneys argued that since wine containing GMOs was not yet for sale, the ballot could not claim that it wasn't marketable. However, it was revealed in court that at least 30 laboratory trials of GE grapes are now proposed in California, adding weight to fears of GMO contamination. The original ballot language was allowed to stand.

In 2003, agrochemical and biotech corporations spent more than $6 million to defeat an Oregon ballot measure that would have required consumer labeling for GMOs. The backers of Mendocino's Proposition H understand what they are up against. "These are some of the same industry giants, armed with high-powered law firms and vast resources, that have successfully squelched recent grassroots attempts around the nation aimed at resisting the spread of GMO crops and food products," said Els Cooperrider, a former university scientist and a local owner of the Ukiah Brewing Co. & Restaurant. "This is Mendocino County vs. hundreds of corporations."

If the voters of Mendocino County choose a GE ban on Super Tuesday, Proposition H will add momentum to other local initiatives against GMOs in North America, and will send a clear message to biotech giants that money will not always defeat informed local action.
source: Pesticide Action Network Updates Service

March 3 2004

Voters in N. Calif. Vote for Biotech Ban

UKIAH, Calif. (AP) - Voters in Northern California's Mendocino County on Tuesday passed a first-in-the-nation measure banning the raising of genetically engineered plants and animals. With 97 percent of precincts reporting, the measure won 14,384 votes, or 56 percent, to 11,148 votes, or 44 percent, opposed.

Legislation restricting biotechnology has been passed elsewhere, but nothing as sweeping as the proposal in Mendocino County, a place with a frontier spirit where the biggest cash crop is marijuana.

The biotechnology industry lost the fight to stop Measure H despite spending five times as much as supporters during the campaign. Biotech foes hope the measure will galvanize similar efforts from Vermont to Hawaii.

Farmers and businesses pushed for the ban, which would not prevent processed food made with genetically modified ingredients from being sold in stores. They claim genetically modified plants and animals could carry unintended health risks, although biotech supporters argue that no negative effects have been reported since the Food and Drug Administration first approved genetically engineered crops for human consumption 10 years ago.

There are no known genetically modified crops raised in Mendocino County, but farmers said they would use the law as a marketing tool, especially in Europe, where opposition to genetically engineered foods is fierce.