Sonoma County Nears Biotech Vote

Published November 1, 2005

Residents of California’s Sonoma County head to the polls on November 8 in one of the most nationally important county ballot initiatives in recent memory. Voters will decide the fate of a large organic farming organization’s efforts to prevent growers in the county from using biotechnology to improve crops.

November’s ballot marks the fifth time voters will determine the fate of biotechnology in a California county. Biotech bans have been defeated in Butte, Humboldt, and San Luis Obispo counties. In San Francisco-area Marin County, a ban was passed but carries little economic weight, as the county has very little agriculture.

Sonoma Vote Closely Watched

Both sides of the issue view the Sonoma County initiative, Measure M, as tremendously important.

“A defeat in Sonoma County would have a major impact [on future potential initiatives], since it would mean a defeat on the home court of the anti-biotech group,” reported the September 3 Western Farm Press. “Californians for GE-Free Agriculture is heavily funded by and based at Occidental Arts and Ecology Center (OAEC) in Sonoma County.”

Because Sonoma County is largely urban yet has a strong agricultural presence, the county is seen as a broadly representative bellwether for other California counties.

“A victory against biotechnology here in Sonoma County would not just be symbolic, it would do real damage to agriculture and a treasured way of life,” American Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman observed in an August 24 American Farm Bureau news release.

Wine Makers Want Biotech

Sonoma County is home to numerous wine-grape farms. “Farmers are looking to biotechnology to help them combat everything from Pierce’s disease to powdery mildew in their vineyards,” observed Lex McCorvey, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau.

“There are already genetically engineered grapevines being grown in France and South Africa,” McCorvey explained. “There are test plots in the United States, and the prospect of having those tools available to us could be really critical in the survival of the wine-grape industry in Sonoma County.”

“Pierce’s Disease, which threatens California’s multibillion dollar wine and table grape industries, should be of special concern to Sonoma County, which produces some of the world’s best wines,” said Henry Miller, research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. “Genetic improvement of grapevines may well prove to be the definitive solution–one that should not be denied to California farmers merely because of the willful ignorance of the voters.”

Polls Show Biotech Support

A majority of Californians support biotechnology. According to a poll of 900 likely California voters, 54 percent of state residents believe farmers should be allowed to grow biotech crops, while only 31 percent oppose it. Among likely voters who indicated they were very knowledgeable about biotechnology, support jumped to 72 percent.

The poll was jointly conducted by Republican pollsters McLaughlin & Associates and Democratic pollsters Hart Research Associates.

“It is clear from these (poll) results that biotech agriculture is here to stay in California,” pollster Stu Polk told the Western Farm Bureau. “Those who seek to ban this technology will have an uphill climb, because the majority of Californians are supportive and accepting it. And the more the public learns about the benefits of biotechnology, the more supportive they are.”

Biotech Crops Pronounced Safe

“The more California consumers learn about the benefits of biotech crops, the more confident they are that California’s family farmers will continue to provide them safe and affordable foods,” Marko Mlikotin, spokesman for the California Health Foods Coalition, told the Western Farm Bureau.

“Biotechnology’s potential is not just theoretical,” explained Miller. “By inserting a single gene into squash, sweet potatoes, and other crops, scientists have made them virus-resistant. Gene-spliced papaya varieties have resurrected Hawaii’s $64 million-a-year industry, which was moribund a decade ago because of the predations of papaya ringspot virus.

“More than 3,500 scientists, 25 Nobel Prize-winning scientists, the National Academy of Sciences, the European Union, the American Medical Association, and the Food and Drug Administration have all concluded that commercial biotech crops are no different than traditionally grown crops and are safe for human consumption, animal feed, and the environment,” Western Farm Bureau observed. “Biotech crops have been supported by the United Nations and the Vatican because of their potential to help cure malnutrition and starvation in developing nations.”

Modernization Called Essential

“Sonoma County would be isolating itself from the most modern methods in agriculture,” Mike Strunk, a spokesman against the anti-biotech campaign, told the Santa Rosa, California Press Democrat. “Genetic engineering is working to get rid of diseases. Why deny local farmers use of it?”

“Genetic engineering is not going to kill you,” Dave Henson, executive director of Occidental Arts and Ecology Center and author of the ballot measure, conceded to the Press Democrat, “but the basic research has not been done. It is reasonable, prudent, and necessary for Sonoma County to have a moratorium.”

“I can’t emphasize enough the importance of biotechnology and why it is so critical that we stop this initiative before it makes any more headway,” Stallman countered.

James Hoare ([email protected]) is managing attorney at the Syracuse, New York office of McGivney, Kluger & Gannon.

For more information …

For more information on the American Farm Bureau’s stance on biotechnology and California’s Measure M, visit its Web site at and the Sonoma County Farm Bureau Web site at

The Western Farm Bureau’s statement on biotech is available online at

Truth about Trade,, covers biotechnology issues across the country.