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Hell No GMO

Yes on M: Protect Sonoma County's food

By Michael Shapiro

After taking a hard look at Measure M, which would implement a 10-year moratorium on the planting of genetically engineered (GE) crops in Sonoma County, we strongly urge a vote to approve it. This sensible measure calls for further study of potentially dangerous crops that could spread across the county, damaging heirloom varieties, sullying organic farms and causing economic harm to our growers, especially those who make a living with specialty crops.

Like the authors of Measure M, we are not categorically against GE. But we feel these new crops must demonstrate a clear benefit to people and must be proved that they're not destructive before they're embedded in our soil. We view genetic engineering as a genie capable of great harm and possibly great good, and we don't want to see this genie released until we know more about it.

Though it would not stop the consumption of GE-crops grown elsewhere, and would not stop them from being sold even within Sonoma County, passage of Measure M would send a strong signal to state and federal policy makers that local growers and consumers are concerned about the largely untested consequences of growing and consuming GE foods. Marin, Mendocino and Trinity counties have passed similar measures; this would create a GE-free corridor from the San Francisco Bay to the Trinity River--the largest bloc in the United States.

Opponents say Measure M would take away useful crops for farmers and stop research into genetic engineering. This is hogwash. Lab research is not halted by this measure, and so far only about 300 acres in Sonoma County are planted with GE crops. Some vintners fear they'll be barred from using GE grapes that could resist, for example, Pierce's disease, but these fears are unfounded. First, the county board of supervisors could grant an exception to allow introduction of specific GE crops if needed, and second, even GE advocates say genetically engineered vines are probably 10 or more years away.

Other misapprehensions are that the measure would prevent the use of vaccines and medications and stop research. That is simply not how the measure is worded or intended. M's goal is to keep living GE organisms off our soil and in the lab, where they belong, until further independent studies can determine whether these crops are safe. So far, most GE research has been done by GE crop producers like Monsanto. Naturally, they've found little to dissuade themselves from selling these altered seeds.

We are participating--without our consent--in perhaps the largest food experiment in the history of the planet. And because genetically engineered foods are not labeled, the only way to avoid ingesting GE crops (or packaged food made with them) is to eat organic. That's not always feasible and can be a strain on lower-income people. Though this bill wouldn't address these larger GE issues, it would preserve our county's farmland as a GE-free zone. And, as we discuss below, wineries have more economic stake in staying GE-free, for exports and image, than they do in using GE vines.

Among the many reasons to be concerned about GE crops:

Health and Environment: Independent studies--and there haven't been many--have shown that GE corn can kill the caterpillars that become monarch butterflies. Seven of 40 rats tested with a genetically engineered tomato died, many others developed stomach lesions. In 1999, a woman suffered a near fatal allergy attack after eating taco shells made from GE corn; that corn has been pulled from the market. An English scientist found that a GE potato caused damage to immune systems, and tellingly noticed that it wasn't just the new gene that caused problems but the process of genetic engineering that damaged cells.

Unchecked Propagation: Seeds are carried by birds, the wind and other natural factors that don't respect farmers' boundaries. A farmer who wants to keep GE crops off his soil has little protection against invasive GE crops. So far, the laws in the United States and Canada have favored seed producers, not small farmers. Locally, farmers who sell organic and other specialty produce will have no assurance they can keep their farms free of GE crops. If their farms are contaminated with GE seeds, they can no longer be certified organic.

Economics: This county stakes its reputation on having the best wine, fruits and specialty items, such as organic poultry and artisan cheeses, in the world. We consider ourselves on par with the storied gastronomy of Provence and Tuscany. Our tourism and economic livelihood depend in large part upon such careful boutique agriculture. Once any of these products is tainted with GE, our trading partners in Europe and parts of Asia will no longer buy these crops. England is the largest European importer of California wine but most of Europe and the United Kingdom shun the importation of GE crops; this could mean an immediate loss of business for county producers.

Most gains would be reaped not by local farmers but by the megacorps, like Monsanto, that sell these crops. One estimate says the United States is losing $300 million per year because European countries refuse to import GE corn. Within the United States, it could mean an immediate drop in the appeal of Sonoma County­produced products.

More Pesticides: GE proponents say GE farming uses less insecticide, but that's not true. Case in point: One of the most widespread GE crops is Roundup Ready corn. This corn is designed to be resistant to Roundup and thus encourages the use of the pesticide. Both Roundup and Roundup Ready corn seed are manufactured and sold by Monsanto.

Not Hybrids: Some say genetic engineering is merely the next phase of hybridization. To use another ag term, that's BS. Luther Burbank worked with similar plants to create new varieties; he didn't blast fish genes into tomatoes. GE-developed plants are not merely a variation on a theme but rather a lab-based organism containing elements as disparate as antibiotics and single-generation triggers.

Hunger Fallacy: Monsanto and other manufactuers claim GE crops can produce higher yields and diminish world hunger. Yet so far there's no evidence that long-term yields increase, and some GE seeds produce less food than their natural counterparts. If Monsanto really cared about addressing world hunger, why would it produce seed withthe "Terminator" gene that makes seeds produced by some GE crops sterile. Of course the answer is that Monsanto wants to sell seed, rather than have farmers save seed.

It really shouldn't have come to this. Farmers and consumers shouldn't have to blindly search out facts in a largely dark cupboard of research. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration should be testing GE crops before allowing them into our food system. The federal government, and to some extent the state government, has ignored its responsibility to safeguard the public. Because of this scandalous lack of oversight, it's up to us to do what we can to protect ourselves, our farmers, and our land, by voting for this utterly reasonable measure.

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From the November 2-8, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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