The Sacramento Bee
November 3, 2005


By Jim Wasserman

The newest showdown in a global cultural clash over genetically
modified food is set for Tuesday, when Sonoma County voters decide
whether to become California's fourth county to ban biotech crops.

Up to 241,026 voters in the scenic farm county famed for wines and
cheeses will mark ballots on Measure M, a proposed 10-year ban on
growing genetically modified organisms, known as GMOs.

If passed, Sonoma County would join Mendocino, Marin and Trinity
counties in banning crops used since 1996 to repel insects and
chemical weedkillers. Passage could fuel ballot showdowns elsewhere
next year, including Sacramento, Yolo, Nevada and Placer counties.

The Measure M campaign, while gathering attention in national farm
circles, has pitted conventional growers against their organic
colleagues in a county that produced $526 million in farm income last
year, mostly from wine grapes, dairy cows and poultry.

While traditional farmers say losing biotech options could cost
millions of dollars in losses from wine grape diseases, organic
advocates say biotech crops could derail the county's growing,
lucrative status for natural foods and farm tourism.

Many grape growers argue that genetic engineering could help their
grape vines resist Pierce's Disease, a deadly condition spread in
California by the glassy-winged sharpshooter. Dairy interests say
Measure M would ban biotech corn for silage and raise feed costs,
prevent use of some vaccines and prohibit genetically modified enzymes
for cheese making.

Votes like Tuesday's are illegal in 14 states because legislatures
don't allow counties the option of setting such agricultural rules,
and only in California have local voters banned crops enhanced by
transferring genes -the small biological units that shape life -
between plants and other species.

"For us, the bottom line right now is Sonoma County, except for a
couple of small corn growers, is GMO free. We have this one chance in
these next few years to keep it that way," said David Henson, an
organic farming advocate who gathered 45,000 signatures last year to
qualify Measure M for the ballot.

Measure M supporters have raised $388,192 for their campaign, the
Sonoma County Registrar of Voters Office reported. Opponents, led by
the Sonoma County Farm Bureau and its statewide federation, raised
$420,566. Last year, farm bureau fundraising contributed to defeats of
similar measures in Butte, Humboldt and San Luis Obispo counties.

The proposed 10-year crop moratorium on county farms is rooted in the
so-called "Precautionary Principle," a European idea that a new
technology must prove itself safe before being adopted.

Measure M backers say biotech agriculture has not proven its safety
and may eventually harm human health and contaminate conventional

Supporters of agricultural biotechnology say its safety is
demonstrated by a continuing absence of problems.

Farmers last year planted 200 million acres of genetically modified
crops worldwide, said the Biotechnology Industry Organization in
Washington, D.C.

California reportedly has about 600,000 acres of biotech crops, mostly
cotton that resists insects and corn that resists chemical weed

"There's been a billion acres planted around the world (since 1996),
and no health or safety issues have arisen," said Nick Frey, executive
director of the Sonoma County Grape Growers Association.

Frey and other opponents, including the county's three major
newspapers, its chamber of commerce and numerous farm organizations,
say Measure M limits potential options to fight disease and pests in
60,000 acres of wine grapes and other crops. Last year, wine grape
growers earned $309 million. Sonoma County dairy farmers earned nearly
$100 million.

Opposing newspaper editorials suggest lack of "hard evidence to
justify the fears of the anti-GMO proponents." Biotech backers also
cite studies claiming genetically engineered crops have helped the
global environment by curbing pesticide use and fuel consumption.

"This technology is considered safe by a whole host of scientific and
medical advisory councils," said Bob Stallman, president of the
American Farm Bureau Federation, before an August fundraiser in the
county. "The reality is the activists against biotech have tried at
the national level to put roadblocks up.

"They have failed there.

"They have tried in the state legislatures, and they have failed
there. The strategy and tactics is to come down at a local level to
work in counties where agriculture is a small part of the (population)

But a Sonoma County organic grape grower and winery owner, Lou
Preston, says biotech crops threaten an emerging style of agriculture
in the county.

"Sonoma County is at the cusp of a newer movement of healthy foods,"
he said. "Young people especially have family farms, they're doing
cheese, doing meats, doing wonderful things at the farmers markets.
It's vibrant. It's creative. If we take a stand of allowing GMOs, it's
going to diminish our reputation."

Supporters and opponents so far predict little beyond a probable close

"Turnout will probably be a little lower, but the people who turn out
will be those who care a lot about the issue," said Renata Brillinger,
Occidental-based director of Californians for GE-Free Agriculture. "If
that's any indication, that will favor the yes vote."

Said Frey: "It's an emotional issue for many, and who knows how many
and how they'll end up voting Nov. 8?"