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Biotech industry gives record $150,000 to fight proposed altered-crop ban

(Monday, Feb. 2, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Mike Geniella, The Press Democrat, 01/31/04:

UKIAH -- A consortium of the world's largest producers of genetically engineered crop products has pumped $150,000 into a campaign to defeat a Mendocino County ballot measure that would be the first in the nation to ban such products.

It is the largest contribution ever funneled into a Mendocino County campaign, county election officials said.

"We just don't see contributions of this magnitude," County Clerk Marsha Wharff said.

The donation by CropLife America, a Washington-based industry lobbying group representing Monsanto, Dow and DuPont corporations among others, so far is the only financial support reported by a citizen committee opposing Measure H on the March 2 ballot.

The committee, set up by the Sacramento-based California Plant Health Association, has hired the former manager of the Ukiah Valley Chamber of Commerce to orchestrate the anti-Measure H drive.

Until now, the largest contribution ever made in a local election was $80,000 in 1994 by former timber giant Louisiana-Pacific Corp. to bankroll a committee supporting two candidates for the county Board of Supervisors.

CropLife's $150,000 contribution dwarfs the $18,000 raised so far by local supporters of Measure H. With a month left before the election, the anti-Measure H group is positioned to spend at least $3 per registered voter on direct mail and local radio and newspaper ads to convince them the ballot initiative is a "dangerous precedent." As of Jan. 2, there were 46,480 registered voters in Mendocino County.

In 2002, CropLife contributed $3.7 million to a successful statewide campaign in Oregon to defeat a measure that would have required the labeling of foods produced from genetically engineered crops. Mendo-cino's Measure H does not require labeling.

More funds possible

CropLife spokesman Allen Noe said Friday the organization is prepared to pump more money into the anti-Measure H campaign if necessary.

"Measure H in our view is a dangerous precedent. It's poor public policy to let a political subdivision like a county dictate standards for the industry," Noe said.

Measure H backers cried foul.

"There's no way we can match dollar-for-dollar the huge amount of money these multinational corporations are going to put into this campaign," said Els Cooperrider, co-owner of a Ukiah organic brew pub and key organizer of the Measure H campaign.

Cooperrider said she's convinced, however, that Measure H will win despite the campaign war chest being assembled by critics.

"They're underestimating the intelligence of Mendocino residents, who know corporate bullying when they see it," she said.

Measure H, if approved in the March 2 election, would ban the "propagation, cultivation, raising and growing" of genetically engineered crops.

For decades, growers, seed companies and researchers largely relied on cross-breeding of closely related plants to develop new agricultural products and to enhance old favorites.

But since the 1970s, a fast-emerging biotechnology that allows genes to be taken from anywhere and inserted into another plant or animal species has eclipsed traditional breeding practices and forever altered certain species.

96.3 million acres

Since 1996, farm land in the United States devoted to genetically engineered food crops, such as corn, wheat, tomatoes and soybeans, has grown from 3.7 million acres to 96.3 million today, according to the Pew Initiative on food and biotechnology. The nonprofit research organization is funded by the Pew Charitable Trust and administered by the University of Richmond in Virginia.

Researchers today are exploring a variety of new genetically altered crops, including developing wine grape plants that would be resistant to troublesome diseases, such as Pierce's disease.

Monsanto, Bayer CropScience, Dow AgroScience, DuPont and other agricultural biotechnology companies contend that genetically engineered crops are safe and subject to adequate regulatory review.

Cautionary report

Critics, however, cite a report released Jan. 20 by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences that found it may be difficult to completely prevent genetically engineered plants and animals from having unintended environmental and public health effects.

On Jan. 22, the U.S. Agriculture Department announced it will consider regulatory changes to keep up with rapidly changing technology.

Noe said that is why Measure H isn't needed. "There's already a coordinated framework in place to address the concerns," Noe said.

Cooperrider said Mendocino County is currently free of genetically engineered agricultural crops.

"That's the way we want it to stay. As a former scientist, I know these companies can't adequately protect our food chain from errant genes," said Cooperrider, a retired medical research scientist.