California County Rejects Biotech Ban

Published December 1, 2005

Sonoma County, California voters on November 8 soundly rejected a measure that would have banned cultivation in the county of genetically enhanced crops. The defeat, 56 percent to 44 percent, was devastating to anti-biotech activists, whose best chances for biotechnology bans are in counties such as Sonoma, where genetically enhanced crops are virtually nonexistent.

Sought Symbolic Ban

Sonoma County is largely urban, but it also hosts a sizable wine-grape farming community. Currently, wine grapes in California are cultivated without the benefit of biotechnology, but geneticists foresee a future role for biotechnology in eliminating Pierce’s disease and powdery mildew, both of which can take a heavy toll on grape crops.

Biotechnology opponents in Sonoma County, led by Californians for GE-Free Agriculture and heavily funded by Occidental Arts and Ecology Center (OAEC), had hoped the ballot measure would preclude grape farmers from genetically modifying their crops. Opponents also hoped a Sonoma County ban would help build momentum for biotechnology bans in other counties.

Limited Success Achieved

Fourteen states have laws that preclude individual counties from banning genetically enhanced crops. California has no such state law, and it is the only state where any counties have banned biotechnology.

Voters in Mendocino and Marin counties, both in the San Francisco area, voted in 2004 to ban agricultural biotechnology. The Board of Supervisors in Trinity County, a sparsely populated northern California county consisting almost entirely of national forests, also passed a biotechnology ban in 2004.

Sonoma County voters joined voters in Humboldt, San Luis Obispo, and Butte counties, who have already rejected biotechnology bans. Anti-biotech activists seeking bans in other California counties will face an uphill struggle, as most remaining counties have a greater agriculture and biotechnology presence than the counties where battles already have been fought.

Turnout Left Little Doubt

Voter turnout in Sonoma County was remarkably strong, with county officials estimating 70 percent participation among registered voters despite this being an off-year election. Lex McCorvey, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, told the Contra Costa Times voter turnout and the margin of victory represented a “strong show of support for local agriculture.

“To place our local farmers and ranchers at a competitive disadvantage to their peers in our state would have been devastating,” McCorvey added.

“We got out-barraged by the opposition’s messages and out-lied by their ads,” GE-Free Sonoma’s chief spokesman, Dave Henson, complained to a group of campaign workers as election results were reported, according to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. “We hoped the voters would see through the lies and they didn’t.”

Competitive Disadvantage Averted

Countered Gregory Conko, director of food safety policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, “Those of us who favor freedom, progress, and technology have to thank the Sonoma County Farm Bureau and scientists from California universities for debunking a lot of the myths surrounding food biotechnology. The Sonoma County ballot victory is significant because it shows that when they put some effort into it, a coalition of scientists and farmers can defeat the massive money and manpower advantage of the environmental scare-mongers and the organic food industry.”

Henry Miller, a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and former director of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Biotechnology, said, “The week before Sonoma County citizens voted against anti-biotechnology Measure M, the U.S. Congress allocated $42.6 million in funds for combating Pierce’s disease, a bacterial infestation of grapevines carried by the glassy-winged sharpshooter [a voracious flying insect that has spread through California in the past 15 years].

“Measure M would have blocked sophisticated genetic approaches to the eradication of these and other blights such as powdery mildew,” Miller continued. “The crafting and cultivation of new varieties of plants genetically resistant to pests and pathogens is an approach that is both more definitive and more environmentally friendly than the use of chemical pesticides.

“It is noteworthy that even in technophobic and risk-averse France, there are field trials of gene-spliced grapevines under way–vines designed to resist infection to grapevine blight,” said Miller. “Measure M would have condemned Sonoma County wine producers to a perpetual competitive disadvantage versus French farmers.”

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