The Sacramento Bee November 3, 2005 BIOTECH BALLOT DEBATE: SONOMA COUNTY IN AG SPOTLIGHT 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 crops. 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 sprays. "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) base." 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 vote. "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?"