California County Enacts Nation’s First Biotech Ban

Published May 1, 2004

Voters in Mendocino County, California, about one hundred miles north of the San Francisco Bay, on March 2 approved the nation’s first ban on genetically modified crops and animals.

The new law will make it “unlawful for any person, firm, or corporation to propagate, cultivate, raise, or grow genetically modified organisms in Mendocino County.”

“We’re part of a growing grass-roots movement of people all over the world standing up to the biotech industry,” said Laura Hamburg, spokesperson for the “Yes on Measure H” campaign.

According to San Joaquin Valley farmer Ted Sheely, who serves on the board of directors for Truth About Trade and Technology, supporters of the ban have “turned back the clock with a ban on one of the most useful environmental tools available to farmers: biotechnology.”

Other California counties are being targeted by anti-technology groups, and anti-biotech legislation is being considered in Vermont and North Dakota.

“Measure H isn’t an isolated event,” observed Sheely. “It’s part of a small but growing national effort to stamp out agricultural biotechnology.

“Agricultural biotechnology has helped farmers around the world boost their productivity and grow crops in cleaner fields while allowing much more efficient use of resources,” added Sheely. “That’s good for growers, consumers, and anybody who cares about the environment. Increasing yields on existing acreage reduces the pressure to convert forests in the U.S., and in other countries, into farmland. Isn’t that a worthwhile benefit?”

In 2002, activists failed in an attempt to make Oregon off-limits for biotechnology. Seventy percent of Oregonians voted against the initiative.

“The Oregon vote,” reported Sheely, “was so lopsided that the enemies of biotechnology decided they needed to achieve a political victory somewhere, no matter how small the locality. So they went shopping for an ideal venue. They thought they found it in Mendocino County because of its liberal reputation. But is it liberal to ban a tool that has helped us fight diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, AIDS, cancer, and other afflictions? Not in my book.”

Safe Technology

“Scientists worldwide agree that gene-splicing is merely a refinement, or improvement, over less precise and predictable genetic techniques that have been used for centuries,” said Henry Miller, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, a think tank on the campus of Stanford University in Stanford, California.

“A recent report summarizing the conclusions of 81 different European Union-funded research projects spanning 15 years shows that, because gene-spliced plants and foods are made with highly precise and predictable scientific techniques, they are at least as safe, and often safer, than their conventional counterparts,” added Miller.

“Moreover,” he continued, “the technology has been given a clean bill of health by dozens of scientific bodies around the world, including the French Academies of Science and Medicine, U.K. Royal Society, U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and the American Medical Association.”

“While literally thousands of studies show the risks of gene-splicing plants and foods to be minimal, their benefits are legion and their potential extraordinary,” added Gregory Conko, a senior fellow and director of food safety policy with the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “Globally, the adoption of gene-spliced crops has reduced pesticide use by tens of millions of pounds annually (resulting in less occupational exposure and less runoff into waterways) and saved millions of tons of topsoil from erosion.

“In less-developed countries,” Conko continued, “gene-spliced crops have increased yields and raised the incomes of resource-poor farmers. Future advances promise to improve human nutrition, reduce the land and water needed to produce food, and save ecosystems from fragmentation and development.”

“I don’t think we can afford to let [Measure H] stand,” said Allan Noe, spokesman for CropLife America, a trade group that is considering a legal challenge to the ban. Noe said voters were not given enough time to learn about biotechnology before they were asked to vote on it.

“The tactic of creating fear of the unknown was, in this short time frame, difficult to disarm,” said Noe.

“It’s sending a negative message in a state where we rely on science to create the technology and the jobs of the future,” said Joe Panetta, president and CEO of BIOCOM San Diego.

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News. His email address is [email protected].