Mendocino is home to 150 organic farms and wineries, representing about one-sixth of all agricultural land in the mountainous, California coastal county. Growers of organic wine grapes support the proposition, arguing that high value crops could become contaminated with DNA from GE crops, risking organic certification as well as their hopes for new markets in Europe and Japan where GE food and wine are a major consumer concern. A recent report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, Gone to Seed, confirms the difficulty of preventing cross-pollination from engineered DNA in GE crops that are already gown in large quantities. According to analyses by two independent laboratories commissioned for the study, even corn, soy and cotton seeds certified as pure enough for commercial grade contained traces of GE DNA in 5 out of 6 samples, a finding the biotech industry admits is inevitable. The report warns that if the rules for segregating GE crops are not tightened as the number of engineered varieties grows, the entire U.S. food supply will soon be contaminated.
Meanwhile in Vermont, where organic agriculture is also becoming increasingly important, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted unanimously for the Farmer Protection Act, a bill that would place a two-year moratorium on planting GE crops throughout the state. Two other statewide GE bills are also under consideration in Vermont, including one requiring labeling of all GE seeds. Seventy towns in Vermont have already passed resolutions against GE crops, and several more have local regulations on the March 2nd ballot.
Working through the California Plant Health Association, a politically powerful trade group of pesticide, fertilizer, and biotech seed companies, sued to change the ballot language submitted by backers of the initiative. One of their complaints concerned the list of damages that might result from GMO contamination. Among them was the risk of losing access to markets for wine in Europe and Japan, as more than one third of Mendocino County's wine grapes are organic. Industry attorneys argued that since wine containing GMOs was not yet for sale, the ballot could not claim that it wasn't marketable. However, it was revealed in court that at least 30 laboratory trials of GE grapes are now proposed in California, adding weight to fears of GMO contamination. The original ballot language was allowed to stand.
In 2003, agrochemical and biotech corporations spent more than $6 million to defeat an Oregon ballot measure that would have required consumer labeling for GMOs. The backers of Mendocino's Proposition H understand what they are up against. "These are some of the same industry giants, armed with high-powered law firms and vast resources, that have successfully squelched recent grassroots attempts around the nation aimed at resisting the spread of GMO crops and food products," said Els Cooperrider, a former university scientist and a local owner of the Ukiah Brewing Co. & Restaurant. "This is Mendocino County vs. hundreds of corporations."
If the voters of Mendocino County choose a GE ban on Super Tuesday, Proposition H will add momentum to other local initiatives against GMOs in North America, and will send a clear message to biotech giants that money will not always defeat informed local action.
Sources: "Mendocino To Vote on Banning GMOs," California Report, KQED FM Radio (San Francisco, Sacramento), February 27, 2004; Press Releases, GM Free Vermont, February 26 & 27, 2004, http://www.gefreevt.org; "Ruling lets language of Mendocino County ballot measure stand for March 2 election," The Press Democrat, December 31, 2003; "Engineered DNA Found in Crop Seeds," Washington Post, Feb 24, 2004, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A486-2004Feb23.html; Gone to Seed, Union of Concerned Scientists, http://www.ucsusa.org; Press Release, Yes on Measure H, GMO Free Mendocino, December 30, 2003, http://www.gmofreemendo.com; Press Release, Organic Consumers Association, Feb 27, 2004, http://www.organicconsumers.org/ge/mendocino-ballot.cfm.