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County ballot measure to ban genetically engineered crops draws national interest -- and big money -- from both sides

(Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Mike Lee, Sacramento Bee, 02/21/04:

UKIAH - Mendocino County airwaves are filled with the sound of money these days, mostly from big biotechnology companies warning the county's famously maverick residents not to invite government inspectors to snoop in their gardens.

As of Friday, CropLife America, a national trade group for farm chemical and biotech companies, had poured $300,000 into polling, countywide mailers and a barrage of radio commercials - all aimed at guiding Mendocino County away from becoming the first place in the nation to outlaw growing genetically engineered crops.

One ad warns of "greater government intrusion into our private lives" - an unlikely scenario even if voters approve Measure H on March 2.

But CropLife - with members including leading developers of biotech crops such as Monsanto Co., Bayer CropScience and Dow AgroSciences - wants to stop what could be a national precedent, short-circuiting copycat campaigns across the nation.

"Regulations of this type ... would have a very chilling effect on the advance of the technology," said Allan Noe, spokesman for CropLife in Washington, D.C. "Whether it's Mendocino County ... or the entire state of California, it's a concern to us."

It remains to be seen whether Mendocino can stomach that message from that messenger. Wine grape grower Tyler Nelson, 32, is a designated spokesman for the opposition to Measure H, but even he is edgy about being linked to the corporations funding the campaign.

"I hate to feel like a whore for the big companies," said Nelson, who's trying to reduce his own use of Monsanto's flagship weedkiller Roundup as he moves toward organic farming. "We happen to have the same goals. We have different motivations."

Biotech crops ought to be strictly regulated by the federal government, Nelson said, not by a counterculture county armed with confusing rules.

Organic activists pushing the biotech ban have amassed a larger war chest than they dreamed possible just a few months ago. They've collected $67,000 since Jan. 1 from an estimated 1,400 contributors, including nearly $24,000 from the biotech watchdog group Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C.

Locals say the combined spending is easily the most ever for a campaign in Mendocino. It's putting Measure H references everywhere, from bumper stickers and yard signs to community forums and newspaper ads.

Farmers, mothers and doctors are lining up on both sides of the issue. Campaign coordinators eagerly disseminate each new endorsement to a county where most politics are personal.

Still, the Measure H backers are outspent roughly 4 to 1 - lagging far behind the nearly $7 per voter that the biotech lobby is spending. They are counting instead on their broad countywide organization and a deep-seated anti-corporate sentiment.

Biotech companies "can keep throwing away their money and we'll see what happens," said Libby Uhuru, produce manager at the cooperative grocery store, Ukiah Natural Foods.

A makeshift scoreboard in the store's office shows that Natural Foods customers have donated $4,260 of their member discounts to the biotech ban in the last three weeks. A little of that money came from Greta de la Montagne, 35, of nearby Humboldt County.

"As a parent, the whole concept of genetically modified food freaks me out," she said while shopping for organic carrots and mushrooms with her daughter.

Gut-level reactions like that are why even some of those who oppose the ballot measure concede it's got a good chance of passing - only to land in court, where companies likely will argue that Mendocino County has overstepped its legal authority.

"It's pretty hard to beat anything that pulls at the emotions of the voting public," said Carre J. Brown, executive administrator of the Mendocino County Farm Bureau. "People seem to lose all common sense."

The 1,500-member county Farm Bureau opposes Measure H on the grounds that it is poorly written and could have unintended consequences, such as higher taxes, if the county starts a biotech inspection program.

Some farmers also are leery about city folk - in this case, people from Ukiah, pop. 16,000 - telling them what to do. The biotech ban would apply to unincorporated county land, not cities or the region's massive chunks of state, tribal and federal land.

Wine grape grower Nelson's former high school biology teacher, Jerilyn Harris, helped write the voters' pamphlet statement against Measure H. She says its backers are trying to scare voters who don't know how biotechnology could help the county's farmers fight plant pests and diseases.

"I understand it well enough to know the potential benefits to mankind," she said. "Why was it necessary to set this (technology) up as the bogeyman coming out of the bushes?"

Eight donors have kicked in for Citizens Against Measure H, according to campaign records, but 94 percent of the money raised came from CropLife. The "no" campaign has spent tens of thousands of dollars on legal expertise in Sacramento, polling by a Texas company and campaign consultants in Burlingame.

Records show three paid campaign workers, including campaign coordinator Elizabeth Brazil, a former CEO of the Ukiah Chamber of Commerce. She declined to discuss strategy or polling results, saying she didn't want to tip off her opponents.

"We are doing what is possible to educate the voters," Brazil said. "If we get our message out, we win."

The anti-Measure H campaign has spent an estimated $33,000 in the last month to run 10 radio spots a day on Mendocino radio stations, according to campaign records and radio executives.

"We don't take a position," said Justin Briggs, news director for rock music stations KMKX and KWNE. "We just take their money."

Radio spots against the ban do touch on the promise of biotechnology to help growers ward off crop diseases, but they focus on predictions that the county will have to raise taxes to pay for sending inspectors into gardens in search of biotech plants.

David Bengston, Mendocino's agriculture commissioner, said he certainly doesn't plan to send his troops to spy on backyard gardeners. However, under Measure H he said his staff would be obligated to follow up on any complaints they deemed valid.

The fear of invasion of privacy may resonate particularly well in a county well-known for marijuana cultivation - some legal, some not. Rumors that pot growers are antsy about the prospect of more government inspections buzzed through one recent meeting of biotech ban supporters.

Whether or not such fears affect the election, Measure H backers have at times found themselves on the defensive.

"You hear that and say that is totally not true and nobody is going to buy it, but the fascinating thing is that it resonates and people will quote it right back to you," said Laura Hamburg, publicity coordinator for Measure H.

Hamburg, whose father, Dan, is a former U.S. Congress member and Green Party icon, tries to stick to her message about the unknown risks of genetic engineering and the ways the county's wine grape industry could capitalize on a "biotech-free" distinction.

The Yes on Measure H slogan is "It's good for our health." Publicizing that message has cost the campaign $21,000 at local sign shops and an additional $28,000 on radio in recent weeks, according to campaign records.

The grass-roots feel of the campaign was enhanced by a week of rallies with Percy Schmeiser, the Canadian canola farmer who has become an international celebrity for fighting back against biotech giant Monsanto.

Nearly 200 farmers and other residents of sparsely populated Anderson Valley packed the Grange Hall Wednesday night to hear Schmeiser's David-vs.-Goliath tale. Then they got to reminiscing about how the Grange started in the 1870s to counter big railroad companies.

Organic orchardist Tim Bates said it's time for rural America to flex its might again on biotechnology. "We now have a great and rare opportunity to stand up and fight back against corporate bullying," Bates said.

As national media crews converge on Mendocino to cover the March 2 vote, Bates and others slip easily into the role of homegrown underdog. "They have the money," Laura Hamburg said, "but this is our community."