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Biotech Ban

Mendocino County fights a preemptive fight against Frankenfoods

By Joy Lanzendorfer

Genetically altered foods have become more prevalent in the United States than most Americans realize. In 1999 half of U.S. soybean and cotton crops and one-third of the corn supply were genetically modified. Since no labeling is required of genetically altered foods, it's impossible to tell what exactly is going into your mouth (unless you buy organic).

While many people hail bioengineered foods as an improvement on nature with the potential to feed the world, some scientists say such crops raise more problems than they solve. Planting genetically altered crops brings up a host of questions over what happens when bioengineered plants cross-contaminate with wild plants, what the effect on insects and animals might be, and how far genetic drift travels.

Considering how interconnected everything in nature is, are we wise enough to anticipate the problems that might arise from such technologies, especially considering that there is no evolutionary history to help predict those problems? Are the potential benefits of these technologies worth the risks they bring with them?

For one community at least, the answer
to those last two questions may be no. Mendocino County is considering an initiative which, if it passes, would make it the first county in the United States to ban the planting of genetically engineered crops. The ordinance, which may be on the March 2004 ballot, was created through the efforts of the Mendocino Organic Network, a group that promotes sustainable organic agriculture. In addition to drafting the ordinance, the group gathered 4,147 signatures--about 20 percent of the voters in Mendocino County and more than enough for the required 2,579 signatures needed to get the initiative on the ballot.

"This ordinance has incredible support," says Els Cooperrider, co-owner of the Ukiah Brewing Company and one of the people who spearheaded the effort. "To give you an idea, we collected the signatures in six weeks' time without having to pay anyone to gather them. We have businesses, organizations, physicians, and church groups involved. An awful lot of individuals support this ban."

Some of the support comes from Mendocino County's high number of organic farms. In fact, 20 percent of the county's vineyards are organic, compared to 2.4 percent in Napa and less than 1 percent in Sonoma County.

Protecting the organic label, which is earned through a certification process that checks for pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and synthetic fertilizers in the food, is one of the reasons for the ban.

"The concern is that if someone came into the county and planted genetically engineered crops, they could potentially contaminate conventional organic crops," says Cooperrider. "Were that to happen, those farms might lose their organic certification."

The bill is intended to stop a problem before it starts. There are no genetically engineered crops in Mendocino County right now and there probably won't be any in the near future. Scientists have not targeted grapevines for improvements as much as they have targeted other crops. And the few technologies under development for grapes would still be allowed under the ordinance since it does not ban improvements within the species (for example, two soybean plants combined) but technologies developed between two different species (a soybean and a nut).

Still, banning these crops raises the question of whether Mendocino County could be cheating itself out of the potential benefits of these technologies. Supporters, though, say they would rather be safe than sorry.

"I haven't seen a model or an example that shows how a serious threat can be thwarted by biotech," says Mark Lappe, head of the Center for Ethics and Toxics. "And the environmental concerns are overwhelming."

If the initiative becomes an issue, the Biotechnology Industry Organization says it might devote resources to educating Mendocino County about genetically altered food.

But what some call education, others call spin.

"We expect the biotech industry to pour millions of dollars into Mendocino County to do what they call educating people," says Cooperrider. "We expect to be under fire by the biotech industry."

The last time the biotech industry launched an education campaign was in Oregon when the state voted whether to require labeling of genetically altered food. The bill failed by a three-to-one margin.

"The measure didn't pass because from the time the signatures were gathered to the time people voted on it, we conducted education in the state," says BIO spokesperson Lisa Dry. "We wanted to help folks voting for the initiative to understand what they were voting on."

But other groups have been educating the public as well. Activists and environmental groups are organizing a new set of protests against the biotech industry.

"The biotech industry is about to face a swelling of public antipathy and anger against the way they've handled their products," says Lappe. "We hope it will have a snowballing effect against genetically altered foods."

If that happens, he hopes Mendocino County will be leading the way.

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From the October 30-November 5, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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