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Four California counties to vote on modified crops ban

(Wednesday, July 14, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Lisa M. Krieger, San Jose Mercury News:
A network of anti-biotech activists has succeeded in placing initiatives banning genetically modified crops on the November ballots in four California counties as part of a plan to create a patchwork quilt of GMO-free regions.

Following the example of Mendocino County, which in March passed the first sweeping ban on genetically modified organisms in the nation, groups in Marin, Humboldt, San Luis Obispo and Butte counties have gathered enough signatures to put their own initiatives before voters.

It remains to be seen whether county governments are legally entitled to set stricter standards for biotech crops than the federal government. And even if they are, the efforts now are largely symbolic because none of the crops -- scientifically altered to make them resistant to insects or herbicides -- are being grown in the four counties.

But activists, who believe altering the genetic blueprint of plants is dangerous, note the four counties grow rice, timber and wine grapes, three crops that scientists are researching.

``If we work county by county, it will end up forcing the hands of state officials and the California Farm Bureau to really start to address this issue,'' said Ryan Zinn of San Francisco, campaigns coordinator of the Organic Consumer Association, which is working with Mendocino County activists to take the ban statewide.

``California is the nation's largest agricultural state. If it were to decide to ban these crops, it would have a huge impact throughout the nation,'' Zinn said.

Activists in Alameda, Sonoma, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz counties say they are building support for future initiatives or regulations, but they will not qualify for the November ballot. No efforts are under way in Santa Clara, San Mateo or Contra Costa counties.

It is estimated that as much as 70 percent of processed foods on grocery store shelves contain an ingredient or oil from biotech crops. But these foods, such as soybeans and corn, are grown outside California.

Three federal agencies -- the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture -- already regulate the production and consumption of biotech foods and drugs.

The state also has some authority. Last spring, the California Secretary of Food and Agriculture blocked a permit sought by Ventria Biosciences to grow genetically engineered rice, saying that he wanted more time to hear from the public.

Conventional farmers, represented by the California Farm Bureau, fiercely oppose the county-by-county effort, saying that federal oversight is enough.

``All of the biotech crops out in the marketplace have been tested and are regulated and we are supportive of that process,'' said Emily Robidart of the California Farm Bureau in Sacramento.

Industry groups such as the Biotechnology Industrial Association and the Western Plant Health Association, which represents the fertilizer industry, also resist the effort.

``If these bans pass, they will take away valuable agricultural tools from California farmers,'' said Sara Miller of the Western Plant Health Association.

``We feel that the grower is the best person to choose which technology fits their farming practices best,'' she said.

The anti-biotech activists, who have formed a coalition called the BioDemocracy Alliance, combine the resources and staff of two groups, the Organic Consumers Association and GMO Free Mendocino.

In March, the Mendocino group successfully passed the county ban by 57 percent of the vote, even though the trade group CropLife America ran a $700,000 campaign to defeat it.

A draft ordinance similar to Mendocino's is being adopted elsewhere. It makes it unlawful for any person, firm or corporation to propagate, cultivate, raise or grow genetically modified organisms.

Violators would have their crop confiscated and destroyed, and they would face fines.

It fears that genetically modified crops could spread to the surrounding environment.

And because Japan and European nations do not buy genetically modified crops, organic farmers fear that they would lose their overseas markets if their crops are contaminated by pollen from altered crops that might be growing close by.

The group says it aims to help 15 to 20 California counties go ``GM-free.''

In Santa Cruz and Alameda counties, there was not time to get the thousands of signatures needed by August to win a spot on the November ballot, activists said.

Santa Cruz activist Ryan Sarnataro said he and others are considering other strategies, in addition to ballot measures.

``County initiatives are just one small corner of the puzzle,'' said Sarnataro of the Ecological Farming Association. ``There are other approaches, maybe in the legislative and administrative arenas, as well.''