Genetically modified potatoes can vaccinate consumers against hepatitis B and cholera. Flounder genes render strawberries and tomatoes more resistant to frost. At least that's the line of the biotech industry. But critics across the globe say there's a potentially disastrous flipside -- like vaccine plants getting into the general food supply, or pollen drift and crossbreeding creating herbicide-resistant weeds.
On March 2, Mendocino County voters may make their county the first in the nation to ban the "propagation, cultivation, raising, and growing of genetically modified organisms." The fate of Measure H will affect a raft of similar measures, now in the signature-gathering phase, in Marin, Sonoma, Humboldt, and other California counties.
"We're confident but nervous," says campaign coordinator Doug Mosel. Confident because Mendocino County is famously liberal, even radical. Nervous because an Oregon state measure that demanded GE products be labeled, which had the support of 70 percent of the electorate before the election, went down to a resounding defeat after a $5.53 million blitz of anti-labeling advertising, nearly half of it in the last few weeks before the election. The big spenders in Oregon were Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, Dow Agrosciences, and similar corporations, banded together under the name "Coalition Against the Costly Labeling Law." Monsanto alone ponied up $1.5 million, according to Oregon's Money in Politics Research Action Project.
But the Mendocino measure doesn't go as far as Oregon's attempt -- in Oregon all GE products coming into the state, like cereals, snacks, and animal feeds, would have had to be identified. Products like these are not covered under the Mendocino proposal.
The county Farm Bureau opposes any attempt to block what it describes as future life-saving techniques. More practically, says bureau president Peter Bradford, "We feel this measure is inappropriately addressed at county level. These issues should be developed at a state or federal level. We're already strapped for cash. This would only deplete resources sorely needed in other areas." The ballot argument against Measure H, submitted by Bradford to the county registrar, is slyer: "All plants -- whether grown in your backyard or on a farm -- could be subject to regulation and enforcement if Measure H passes. Does the government need to know what's growing in your garden?" In a county with an estimated $2 billion pot industry -- compared to $156.4 million in above-board agriculture -- those are fighting words.
Mosel calls the measure an application of the precautionary principle. "The citizens of this county could decide any time in the future to rescind it once the technology is proven safe. I see a ban as putting a stop to this uncontrolled experiment whose consequences we don't know." Mosel points to evidence of GM pollen contamination -- two recent studies in the UK reported that bees carried GM rapeseed pollen to conventional plants more than 16 miles away. Studies by UC Berkeley's Ignacio Chapela, recently denied tenure (allegedly) over the GMO controversy, found traces of genetically altered material contaminating heirloom corn varieties in isolated Mexican villages.
The first legal shot was fired in Mendocino on December 19, when fertilizer and pesticide industry advocate California Plant Health Association, which represents Dow AgroSciences, HydroAgri, and others, brought suit to prevent the printing of pro-H ballot arguments. On December 30, Superior Court Judge Leonard J. LaCasse refused to change any language in the ballot material. The suit might have backfired on industry advocates -- it was revealed in arguments before the court that there are a couple dozen trials of GM grapevines now under development in California.
Both sides agree that there are no GM organisms growing in Mendocino at present, and both foresee that wine grapevines genetically engineered to resist Pierce's disease, caused by a bacteria borne by insects like the glassy-winged sharpshooter, would be the likeliest target of the new measure.
That's about the extent of the accord: Proponents see the measure as easily enforceable by agriculture officials who already inspect incoming plants, while county agricultural commissioner Dave Bengston, speaking at a Board of Supervisors meeting in December, called the measure "unenforceable" and said passage would place a burden on local farmers, who wouldn't be able to compete "on an even scale" with growers of GMO crops elsewhere. Proponents counter that being GM-free would give Mendocino farmers a marketing advantage.
Ukiah Brewery owner Els Cooperrider, one of the originators of Measure H, believes the fight is worth it: "People feel so unempowered in the world, and this is something they can do on their own and make their own issue. That's helping us."