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Vote against gene-altered food historic

(Thursday, March 4, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- John Nichols commentary in the Madison Capital Times: The most historic voting on Super Tuesday may not have been in the Democratic presidential contest between John Kerry and John Edwards, in which Kerry simply traded his "front-runner" title for that of "nominee-in-waiting."

Indeed, there's a good case to be made that the most historic voting Tuesday took place in northern California's Mendocino County, where voters passed the nation's first ban on the raising of genetically engineered plants and animals.

Opposition to genetic modification of food is widespread in Europe, where public policy debates about how to control it are common. But the debate has been slow to come to the United States, until now.

Activists in Mendocino County, a coastal area with a long history of support for organic farming and winemaking, wrote the referendum proposal despite the fact that genetically modified crops are not known to be grown in the region. But this was not just a symbolic gesture.

Biotechnology corporations are rapidly expanding their push to extend the use of genetically engineered seeds. And they do not want any limits on what they see as a coming cash crop of revenues. That's why the biotechnology industry, in conjunction with agribusiness interests, spent more than $500,000 to defeat the proposition. In the end, the industry's campaign outspent that of supporters of the ban by 7-1. But the initiative still won by a solid 56 percent to 44 percent margin, with one of its most prominent backers, organic brew pub owner Els Cooperrider, declaring, "They had the money, we had the people."

Cooperrider was not the only local business owner who called for a "yes" vote on the ban proposal, which was on the ballot as Proposition H. Despite the fact that the ban was condemned by the biotech industry's anti-proposition campaign as backward and a threat to economic development and growth, farmers, vintners and local business owners formed a core of supporters for Proposition H.

The argument was that, as more and more Americans become ill at ease with the genetic modification of food products, Mendocino County's ban on raising genetically engineered plants and animals would make its products more attractive to consumers. They're right. And other communities in northern California are moving quickly to pass bans that would allow them to slap "No GE" labels on their agricultural products.

California's Sonoma and Humboldt counties are likely to vote on similar propositions in November. And don't think this is just a California thing.

A number of Vermont town meetings have endorsed a proposal, currently being considered by that state's legislature, enacting a two-year moratorium on the use of genetically engineered seeds.

Small farmers and business people from California to New England are figuring out that it makes good sense, from a health standpoint and from a business standpoint, to restrict the spread of genetically engineered crops.

This is the wave of the future, and despite the pressure from some at the University of Wisconsin who cling to the fantasy that genetic modification would be good for this state's working farmers, Wisconsin ought to get ahead of the wave by enacting restrictions here.