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Efforts to ban genetically engineered crops spreading in California

(Wednesday, March 31, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Greg Lucas, Sacramento Bee, 03/30/04: Following Mendocino's lead, bans on genetically modified crops are being considered in nearly one-fifth of California's 58 counties, supporters say.

Mendocino's Measure H -- approved March 2 by 57 percent of voters despite a record-shattering $700,000 campaign against it by the biotech industry -- is the first voter-sanctioned ban on bioengineered crops in the country.

That success has fueled interest in similar initiatives from Humboldt to Santa Barbara. Humboldt activists are already gathering signatures. Similar efforts are beginning in Sonoma and Butte counties. And campaigns are being looked at for Marin, Contra Costa, Solano, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Placer counties, sources say.

"Our strategy is to win a ban and do so by bringing together a broad alliance of growers and businesses and environmentalists and city governments and health professionals," David Henson, executive director of the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, said of the Sonoma effort.

Makers of genetically altered crops like Monsanto and Dupont have yet to settle on a strategy to stop the local bans. "We're looking at a number of things to remedy the situation," said Allan Noe, a spokesman for Croplife America, a national trade association for companies manufacturing genetically altered crops.

Noe said among the options being weighed are a court challenge to Mendocino's ban, an attempt to pass state legislation to prevent counties passing such bans or persuade the federal government, which regulates biotech products, to halt local bans.

Biotech crops are mainly of two varieties -- they're engineered to either kill bugs or to withstand pesticides like Monsanto's Roundup. The bulk of the market is altered soy, canola, corn and cotton.

Manufacturers of the crops oppose local bans, arguing that extensive federal regulation ensures the safety of genetically altered foodstuffs. Use of such crops also saves farmers money and helps the environment by reducing the use of pesticides, the industry says.

But opponents contend the technology is too new to be proven safe and that cross-pollination between gene-altered crops and nearby organic crops could severely harm the organic food industry.

One of the arguments used by supporters of Mendocino County's measure was that certifying a product grown in the county as being free from genetic engineering would make it more salable, particularly in the Japanese and European markets, which for the most part oppose genetically altered foodstuffs.

Although no genetically altered crops are grown in Mendocino County, Croplife and a comparable statewide trade group contributed nearly all the money used to try to defeat Mendocino's anti-genetic engineering Measure H, which ultimately won with 57 percent of the more than 27,000 votes cast.

Els Cooperrider, co-owner of the Ukiah Brewing Co. and one of the leaders of the Measure H campaign, said initiatives are under consideration for 11 counties, based on her conversations with people who have called her seeking advice. She declined to name the counties.

"The reason I'm not saying anything right now is because they asked me not to. They're worried Monsanto forces will come in and undo them before they get going," Cooperrider said. "But I know who they are and I know they're working on it."

Other sources say activists are considering launching initiatives in Marin, Contra Costa, Solano, San Luis Obispo and Placer counties.

While Cooperrider isn't saying who is working on more local bans, she and her campaign brain trust are exporting their winning strategy. "We didn't run a top-down organization," Cooperrider said. "There was freedom for people to do what they thought was best to bring votes in their communities."

A Butte County group -- Genetically Engineered Free Butte County -- is also just beginning its efforts. "We need 6,000 signatures by May 13," said Mark Bracket, an Oroville construction worker backing a ban because of his belief genetically modified organisms aren't safe.

Farthest along is Humboldt County's effort, championed by the Humboldt Green Genes. Using the slogan, "We're mad as cows and we're not going to take it any more," the group has collected more than 2,000 signatures of the 4,500 needed by July 7 to place the measure on the November ballot.

"I do see genetic modification as a direct threat to organic farming. Cross-pollination happens. It's a fact," said Angela Flynn, a Green Gene who does piece work on area organic farms.

The first commercial genetically altered crops were sold in 1996. Since then, their use has grown sharply. In 1996, genetically engineered corn represented 4 percent of the acres planted. Last year, it was 40 percent. More than 70 percent of canola and cotton crops are genetically engineered. For soy, it's more than 80 percent.

Although most use is concentrated in the Midwest and the South, California's genetically altered crop count is increasing. Biotech crops in California are mainly cotton and corn. Their principal growing areas are the Central and Imperial valleys.

In 1999, 2 percent of the cotton grown in California was pesticide resistant. In 2003, that had grown to 29 percent. Insect-resistant corn is about 6 percent of California's crop, according to Croplife America.