E-mail this article to
yourself or a friend.
Enter address:


Anti-GMO measure draws concern over constitutional rights

(Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- James Tressler, The Times-Standard, Eureka, Calif.:
EUREKA -- It sailed easily onto the November ballot -- and seemed to have relatively little opposition.

But as if suddenly attacked by a swarm of locusts, a proposed measure banning genetically modified crops in Humboldt County has fallen on hard times.

First the Humboldt County Democratic Party last month held off on supporting Measure M after a leading Humboldt Statue University professor found errors in some of the scientific language of the measure.

Then this past week District Attorney Paul Gallegos attacked the teeth of the measure as unconstitutional and said that it could be thrown out by the courts if ever challenged. Gallegos even reportedly called on the measure's backers to abandon their support.

Gallegos pointed to a clause in the proposed ordinance, which voters will decide on Nov. 2, that allows the county agricultural commissioner to impose jail sentences on anyone caught growing or producing genetically modified crops should the ban go into effect. The measure also calls on the agricultural commissioner to impose fines on would-be violators.

Such punishment measures could be in conflict with the U.S. and state constitutions, which leave the power to jail people exclusively with the court system.

"There is no due process rights connected with the ordinance's means of imprisonment, and that, in my eyes, is unconstitutional," the district attorney was quoted as saying in a news report earlier this week.

Gallegos could not be reached for further comment in time for this story, but his counterpart, Public Defender James Steinberg said he's inclined to agree with Gallegos' assessment.

"I haven't read the measure, but it's obvious that an agricultural inspector can't do that (jail people)," Steinberg said.

However, Steinberg said such initiatives often have what is called a "saving clause" written into the language of the ballot measure that says if parts of the law are stricken by the courts the remainder of the law will stand. That could mean that genetically modified crops would still be illegal in the county, even if courts find the enforcement tools unlawful.

But the ordinance, which can be viewed at the county Elections Office website ( www.co.humboldt.ca.us/ elections), has no such disclaimer -- which could throw the entire ordinance in jeopardy.

"Without the severability clause, they do have problems -- fortunately they're not my problems," said County Elections Manager Lindsey McWilliams.

The elections manager added, "It's on the ballot and it's staying there."

Earlier this year, county Agricultural Commissioner John Falkenstrom, who has since retired, didn't take a position on the measure -- but he did indicate he saw problems enforcing such a ban. He also said he predicted such a ban could face court challenges.

The recent controversy has reportedly thrown the measure's authors, the Humboldt Green Genes -- a coalition of environmentalists and organic farmers -- into confusion over whether or not to keep supporting the ordinance.

Martha Devine, co-chairwoman of the Green Genes, told the Times-Standard that the group is in the process of deciding what to do next. That decision could be announced at a press conference the group may hold early next week, Devine said.

The Green Genes are trying to follow in the footsteps of Mendocino County, which in March became the first county in the nation to pass a ban on genetically modified crops. Supporters of such bans argue the nation's food supply must be protected from genetically altered foods, in part because they argue the long-term health risks of such altered foods aren't yet known.

In July, the Green Genes easily surpassed the roughly 4,300 valid signatures to qualify the measure for November. Locally, no groups have formally opposed the measure. The Humboldt County Farm Bureau has remained neutral, while the North Coast Growers' Association supports the ban.