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Mendocino County initiative on genetically modified crops gets nod for March 2004 ballot

(Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- From a news release: A packed Board of Supervisors chambers erupted in applause late Tuesday afternoon when the Board voted unanimously to place the “GMO Free Mendocino” initiative on the March ballot. The initiative, if passed by voters, will prohibit the “propagation, cultivation, raising and growing of genetically modified organisms in Mendocino County.” It is not a labeling law. It leaves alone products found in the aisles of grocery stores.

County Counsel Peter Klein led off the discussion by describing the “limited discretion” that the Board had in this matter. He explained that the Board had no authority to change the language of the initiative, but could choose to adopt it outright or place it on one of the next two general election ballots (March or November 2004). He further stated that though the initiative might be challenged after passage, its current language satisfied legal requirements.

Klein made reference to a letter from the California Plant Health Association (CPHA) which charged that the initiative violated several provisions of the US Constitution, including the “commerce clause” and “equal protection statutes.” Klein disputed both contentions. His top deputy Frank Zotter pointed out that CPHA, an “industry front group”, is highly partisan. In fact, he stated, it seemed that their basic objection was that Mendocino County agriculture would gain an “economic advantage” by disallowing the propagation of GMOs!

During the course of a two hour public hearing, speaker after speaker rose to defend the need for the initiative and to urge the Board to either pass the measure immediately or place it on the March ballot. John Norris of Farmer’s Food Express, an organic food distribution business in Leggett, told the Board that “GMOs are being rejected worldwide” and GMO crops have in many cases proven “unsalable.”

Tim Bates, a 20-year member of the Mendocino County Farm Bureau and president of the Mendocino-Lake Chapter of the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), compared GMO agriculture unfavorably with organic agriculture. “Organic is an ag success story, and a fast-growing worldwide trend,” he stated. Bates pointed out that organic products now constitute a $10 billion industry with double digit annual growth without significant government support. In contrast, GMO farmers “have suffered multibillion dollar losses and taxpayers have wasted billions in subsidies and contamination costs.” Bates also contended that GMOs actually use more chemicals than conventional agriculture. A strong indication of the dangers associated with GMOs, Bates told the Board, is that insurance companies refuse to insure GMO crops and manufacturers refuse to accept liability for GMO products. He concluded by urging the Board to help protect Mendocino County’s stellar reputation as a “center of sustainable, organic excellence with multimillion dollar exports of these products.”

Fred Marshall, a long-time gardening instructor at Mendocino Community College, urged the Board to “shut the barn door before the horses get out.” Referring to a recent study by the prestigious Independent Science Panel (www.indsp.org ), Marshall warned of “transgenic contamination” and the inability of GMO and non-GMO agriculture to coexist. He stated that once GMOs were introduced to Mendocino County, damage to existing agriculture would be “unavoidable” and “irreversible.”

Els Cooperrider spoke for the Mendocino Organic Network, the principal proponent of the initiative. A former university scientist, she objected to any portrayal of the initiative effort as “anti-science.” Instead, she claimed that “global giants are taking control of our food supply in the interest of profit rather than the well-being of humans.” She strongly urged the Board to be mindful of the more than 4,000 county voters who signed petitions to place this measure on the ballot. She also referred to over 200 individual endorsements received to date from prominent local farmers, ranchers, physicians, scientists, and teachers.

The motion to place the initiative on the March ballot was made by Hal Wagenet and seconded by David Colfax.