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GMO crop vote off in North Dakota, on in California

(Monday, Aug. 2, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Charles Abbott, Reuters, 07/30/04:
North Dakotans will not vote this year on regulating biotech wheat, a leader of the "Go Slow with GMO Committee" said on Friday, shifting the election-year debate over genetically modified crops to California.

Four California counties will vote on Nov. 2 whether to ban planting of GMO seeds. Mendocino County, north of San Francisco, voted in March to bar farmers from growing biotech crops, the first local prohibition of its kind.

Activists have placed no-GMO measures on the fall ballot in Marin, Humboldt and Butte counties in northern California and San Luis Obispo County on the central coast.

As a leading rice grower, Butte County will be the first major U.S. farming county to vote on the issue.

U.S. farmers have embraced GMO corn maize, soybeans and cotton varieties for their higher yields and easier control of weeds and insects. But some environmental and consumer groups say the long-term safety of the crops is not proven, so shoppers should have the chance to buy non-GMO foods.

In North Dakota, the Go Slow committee warned that biotech wheat could jeopardize farm income by driving away customers in Europe and Japan. It wanted a state-wide vote to create a law requiring state approval before GMO wheat could be planted.

North Dakota is the top U.S. grower of durum and hard red spring wheat and often challenges Kansas as the No. 1 wheat state.

"Right now, we do not expect to file" for a spot on the general election ballot, said Go Slow committee Chairman Karl Limvere, leaving open the the possibility of getting on a later ballot. It has a year to gather the 12,844 signatures needed to qualify.

There was less urgency, Limvere said, with the May 10 decision by biotech pioneer Monsanto Co. to shelve introduction of herbicide-tolerant GMO wheat. "The long-term issue is the same," he said -- creating a mechanism to protect the interests of farmers.

The four no-GMO referenda in California are a step toward making the state a GMO-free zone, say leaders of the BioDemocracy Alliance, created by GMO opponents and the Organic Consumers Association to help win the county votes.

In Butte County, the local Farm Bureau, with 2,400 members, opposes the no-GMO measure. The group says it would take away a farmer's freedom to choose crops. The California Farm Bureau Federation supports biotechnology.

As in Mendocino County, no GMO crops are grown in the four counties. Butte County is home to a rice research station, however. Some growers say the wording of the no-GMO proposal is ambiguous enough to potentially block some rice research.

Two national trade groups, Croplife American and Biotechnology Industry Organization, were steering clear of the referenda. Anti-GMO activists regularly assail big-company "biotech bullies."

"In areas that have farmers, they are getting engaged," said Lisa Dry, a spokeswoman for BIO.

California is the top U.S. agricultural state, growing $26 billion of farm goods a year. It is known for its wines, fruits, vegetables, horticulture and livestock, as well as growing row crops like rice and cotton.