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Saturday, December 27, 2003
 
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From:
Date: Sat Dec 27, 2003 2:28 pm
Subject: Organic Farmers Oppose Monsanto Tyranny in Mendocino California

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2003/12/23/BAGTL3T1NO1.DTL

Organic farmers' initiative plants seeds of dissent
Mendocino County debates ban on genetically altered
organisms

Glen Martin, Chronicle Environment Writer Tuesday,
December 23, 2003

If local organic farmers have their way, Mendocino
County will become the first county in the nation to
ban genetically modified organisms --

corn that contains toxin-producing genes from
bacteria, salmon crossed with flounder, goats
harboring spider DNA, and other plants and critters
not seen on earth in 2 billion years of evolution.

Earlier this month, the Mendocino County Board of
Supervisors authorized an initiative prohibiting the
cultivation or raising of genetically modified seeds,
plants and animals. Residents will vote on the issue
on the March 2 ballot. The development is being
closely tracked by commercial farming interests and
the large corporations that produce genetically
modified organisms, or GMOs.

In a preliminary legal shot across the bow Monday, an
agribusiness interest group filed suit in Mendocino
County Superior Court to quash the initiative.

The county's organic growers -- who eschew pesticides
and artificial fertilizers, and cultivate only
old-fashioned, unmodified crops -- say the ban is
needed if they're to maintain their organic
certification. They note that genes from modified
crops have been known to drift with pollen and infuse
related unmodified plants with foreign DNA.

Under certification standards adopted last year by the
U.S. Department of Agriculture, any food that is the
product of genetic engineering cannot carry the
"organic" label.

"We're definitely supporting (the initiative), and so
are a lot of other growers we know," said Jonathan
Frey, the proprietor of Frey Vineyards near Ukiah.
Frey cultivates 110 acres of organic vineyard and
produces about 50,000 cases of organic wine annually,
both from his own grapes and from the vineyards of 15
other organically certified growers.

GMO producers say the initiative is much ado about
very little. GMO crops are the future of agriculture,
they say, and serve as a boon for both the economy and
the environment.

"These crops provide huge benefits, including greatly
reduced pesticide use," said Shannon Troughton, a
spokeswoman for Monsanto, the country's leading
producer of genetically modified food plants. "What's
important is that consumers have a choice."

The initiative would have little immediate effect.
There are no commercially available genetically
modified versions of Mendocino's major crops,
including wine grapes. But opponents of the technology
say it is only a matter of time, and that once those
crops are introduced, contamination of organic
products is a possibility.

"Grapes are wind-pollinated like corn, and genetic
drift can occur," Frey said. "Farmers elsewhere have
lost their organic certification from GMO
contamination -- particularly in the instance of
canola. We just want to make sure that doesn't happen
here. Our reputations are basically our insurance
policy."

Organic farming was a cottage industry until the late
1970s, when it began to attract serious practitioners
in numbers. It has always had a major base in the Bay
Area. By the mid-1990s, the movement had acquired
critical mass. Today, about one percent of
California's farmland is devoted to organic, yielding
produce worth $263 million.

"In the last five years or so, we've seen some really
large producers moving in,'' said Kristin Rosenow,
executive director of the Ecological Farming
Association in Watsonville.

Many top organic producers are closely watching the
outcome of the Mendocino initiative.

Supporters of the ban say that is needed because too
little is known about the long-term effects of
genetically engineered organisms. "No one is really
sure about the impacts," he said. "Two recent issues
of Scientific American specifically addressed the
great lack of specific knowledge about how genes work.
This is an industry crying out for regulation."

For Els Cooperrider, who spearheaded the initiative
effort, the bottom line is a big part of the beef with
GMOs.

"If we use ingredients in our beer or serve food in
our restaurant (affected by GMO crops), we could lose
our certification," said Cooperrider, who with her
husband, Allen, owns the Ukiah Brewing Co., the only
organically certified brew pub in the country.

"Organic food, wine and beer are extremely important
to the county's economy," she said. "If organic food
production is going to remain viable, we have to
safeguard it -- and this is one way to do that."

But Al Beltrami, a spokesman for the Employers Council
of Mendocino County, said there was plenty of local
opposition to the initiative. "We oppose it because
the issue is broader than Mendocino County," Beltrami
said. "It should be addressed by the state or federal
governments, not county governments."

Beltrami said the ban could also result in increased
government intrusion.

"The (county) agricultural commissioner could come
onto a property at will (to determine if genetically
modified organisms are being grown) and fine the
owner," he said. "This simply seems like a rush to
judgment -- we're not sure how it's going to affect
agriculture. The whole thing needs to be thought out
to a greater degree."

Though the initiative has not necessarily pitted
brother against brother, it has divided the wine
community.

"We have members on both sides of the fence," said
John Enquist, the executive director of the Mendocino
Winegrowers Alliance. "Our group hasn't taken a formal
position at this point. We're going to look at it
again in January, and we may or may not make a
decision then."

There are some signs that the debate is heating up.
Earlier this month, some environmentalists said
Monsanto was conducting "push polling" in the county
-- calling up residents and asking questions about GMO
crops phrased in a way that elicited answers favorable
to the biotech industry.

Monsanto spokeswoman Troughton vigorously denied the
contention.

"We are not doing polling of any kind," she said.
"Certainly, the industry at large is monitoring the
situation. The reality is that (GMO) crops have been
grown since 1996. The country's food commodity system
is working very well -- we've demonstrated that
organic and (bioengineered) crops can coexist."

Steve Beckley, the president of the California Plant
Health Association, the agribusiness group that filed
suit Monday to stop the initiative, said his
organization simply wants the debate conducted
honestly.

"The ballot as it stands is false and misleading,"
Beckley said. "It states that crops with some GMO
traits can't be sold as organic. That's just not true
-- federal guidelines specifically ban GMO crops, but
not those that may contain some (incidental) GMO
traits."

E-mail Glen Martin at glenmartin@sfchronicle.com.

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