Capital Press Agriculture Weekly (Salem, Oregon), June 16, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: Santa Cruz county (California) supervisors on June 20 unanimously adopted on "first reading" a "precautionary moratorium" on the use of genetically-engineered crops anywhere in the county. You can listen to the June 20 supervisors' meeting here and read a hefty set of background documents here. The "precautionary moratorium" ordinance is scheduled for a final vote by county supervisors in August. Some other Calfornia counties favor genetically-modified crops.]

By Ali Bay

Santa Cruz is set to become the fourth California county to ban the planting and production of genetically modified crops.

Last week the county Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to develop an ordinance placing a "precautionary" moratorium on genetically modified organisms until there is better regulatory oversight, health testing, labeling requirements and safeguards in place to prevent GMOs from contaminating other crops.

Although no genetically engineered crops are currently grown in the county, the ordinance, which will be considered on June 20, concludes a 10-month effort by the county to study the technology.

A genetic engineering subcommittee, comprised of supervisor appointees, prepared an extensive report outlining the group's "critical issues of concern" for genetically engineered foods. The report cites inadequate regulations of genetically engineered crops, lack of studies on the health effects of GE foods, absence of labeling requirements and adequate safeguards to prevent contamination of other food crops.

"For organic farmers I see (the moratorium) as a victory because they will not need to be worried about contamination of their crops through drift or the mixing up of seeds," said Peggy Miars, executive director of the Santa Cruz-based California Certified Organic Farmers. "Non- organic farmers who do not want GE cross pollination are in the boat."

Miars said she was amazed at the reaction supervisors gave after reading the subcommittee's report. They called the conclusions in the 58-page report "frightening" and "shocking."

Although the ordinance has yet to draw any criticism at the Board of Supervisors meetings, some local farmers and several minority subcommittee members who helped prepare the county report don't believe a moratorium is necessary.

"I don't feel it's necessary to call a moratorium on something that is not happening in the county at this time," said Steve Bontadelli, a Santa Cruz brussel sprouts grower and subcommittee member. "I kind of felt that it was a premature reaction to something we may or may not even be facing."

Still Bontadelli and others who wrote a minority report do agree with the subcommittee's basic findings that the technology should be labeled and other safeguards should be in place to help prevent contamination.

"There need to be methods, procedures and protocols in place to prevent that from happening," Bontadelli said.

Three other California counties, Mendocino, Trinity and Marin, have also passed anti-GMO ordinances, either by a local government initiative or public vote.

But according to, a statewide biotechnology workgroup associated with the University of California's Division of Agricultural and Natural Resources, more than a dozen counties across the state have either rejected similar ordinances or passed pro-GMO measures.

Voters in Humboldt, Sonoma, Butte and San Luis Obispo counties rejected ballot measures that would have banned the technology, while more than 10 counties, many in the Central Valley, have passed measures that support genetic engineering.

State lawmakers have also jumped into the mix, last year attempting to pass legislation that would give the state stronger authority to regulate seeds, effectively voiding the county bans of genetically engineered seed.

Senate Bill 1056, written by state Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, didn't make its way out of the Legislature last year, but is expected to be heard again this month by the Assembly Agriculture Committee.

Organizations that have fought the county bans believe farmers and consumers should have the right to reap the possible benefits of genetically modified crops.

"More than 70 percent of the processed foods at grocery stores today have benefited from a science that improves food quality and offers the promise of medical solutions to life threatening diseases," said Marko Mlikotin, spokesman for the California Healthy Foods Coalition. "This is why voters in many counties oppose biotech crops bans. Family farmers should not be denied access to a science that improves the quality of life for their consumers."

In Santa Cruz, a moratorium would give consumers a choice to decide what they want to eat, Miars said, adding that the ban would be eliminated once labeling and other protections are in place.

"All the consumers I've heard from are supportive, are behind this," she said. "People want to have a choice and that's fine. But if you're going to be selling GE crop, I would say label it so people know and they have a choice."

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Ali Bay is based in Sacramento. Her e-mail address is

Copyright 2006 Capital Press