Measure H and the War Against Biotech

Published April 1, 2004

Voters in Mendocino County, about a hundred miles north of the San Francisco Bay, are being asked to turn back the clock with a ban on one of the most useful environmental tools available to farmers: biotechnology.

Measure H Results
Update: On March 2, Mendocino County voters became first in the nation to ban genetically engineered crops and animals. Measure H was approved by a margin of 56 percent to 44 percent.

On March 2 they will vote for or against Measure H, which would make it “unlawful for any person, firm, or corporation to propagate, cultivate, raise, or grow genetically modified organisms in Mendocino County.”

I don’t live in Mendocino County, so the outcome of the vote won’t affect me or my personal decision to grow biotech enhanced cotton–at least not right away. Yet Measure H isn’t an isolated event. 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. 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?

Although agricultural biotechnology is widely used and accepted throughout California and the nation, nobody in Mendocino County actually grows genetically enhanced crops. Their crops aren’t yet available in genetically enhanced form. But one day they will be, and just as biotechnology saved Hawaii’s papaya industry from a devastating disease a few years ago, it may come to help Mendocino County’s grape growers and pear farmers. Is it really wise to ban something with such amazing potential?

People tend to overlook long-term consequences during a political campaign, but Measure H presents short-term problems as well. The authors of Measure H didn’t bother to identify any sources of funding for monitoring what people are planting in their backyards. This is fiscally foolish because it may require the county to raise taxes or divert resources from other, more important, public services. It may also lead to more government intrusion as inspectors invade personal privacy to make sure everybody’s in compliance with the ban.

A year and a half ago, activists tried to convince Oregon voters to approve a complicated system of labels for grocery products and restaurant items containing biotech ingredients, which an overwhelming number of our foods do. Oregonians wisely rejected this idea because it would have been confusing and expensive–all in the service of achieving something of no value.

The Oregon vote 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.

My immediate concern is that if Measure H passes in Mendocino County, its supporters will try to build upon their success and pass bans elsewhere–perhaps in my own county or for the whole state. That would be a terrible development for everybody. It would mean a less “environmentally friendly” system of farm production, higher prices in stores, and an increased temptation to plow more fields just to maintain our existing level of productivity.

That just doesn’t make sense. I hope people in Mendocino County decide to nip this problem in the bud and vote no on Measure H.

Ted Sheely raises cotton, tomatoes, wheat, pistachios, and garlic in the San Joaquin Valley and lives in Lemoore, California. He is a board member of Truth About Trade and Technology, a national grassroots advocacy group based in Des Moines, Iowa, formed by farmers in support of freer trade and advancements in biotechnology.