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Sonoma Voters Reject Ban on Genetically Modified Crops

In one of California's prime wine regions, organic growers and environmentalists failed in attempt to halt bioengineering

Lynn Alley
Posted: November 10, 2005

In Sonoma County, voters defeated a ballot measure that would have placed a 10-year moratorium on genetically modified livestock and crops, including grapevines.

According to Sonoma County officials, the controversial Measure M accounted for record voter turnout on Nov. 8. In the end, 55.6 percent of voters opposed the measure, compared with 44.4 percent in favor.

A coalition of environmentalists and organic farmers, under the banner "GE-Free Sonoma," has been pushing since 2004 to make Sonoma the fourth county in the state to ban genetically modified organisms. Mendocino, Marin and Trinity counties enacted bans last year.

Measure M would have prevented the cultivation, raising, growing, sale or distribution of genetically modified plants, livestock and fish in unincorporated areas of Sonoma County, where wine grapes are the leading agricultural commodity. The initiative would not have banned the sale of foods containing GMOs, nor would it have prohibited agricultural or medical research under controlled conditions. It would have also allowed the Board of Supervisors to exempt any item from the law—for example, a genetic cure for the vine-killing Pierce's disease—if deemed necessary.

Supporters of the measure, which also included California Certified Organic Farmers, claim that bioengineered organisms have not been sufficiently studied and may threaten human health, natural biodiversity and markets abroad for farm products.

The measure was opposed by the Sonoma County Farm Bureau and its sponsored committee, the Family Farmers Alliance. "The benefits of biotechnology far outweigh any of the perceived risks," said Lex McCorvey, executive director of the farm bureau and a cattle rancher. "And farmers and ranchers would have been put at a competitive disadvantage with their peers in other counties or states."

Supporters of a GMO ban aren't giving up. "I'm encouraged that so many people in the county expressed concern," said Preston Vineyards owner Lou Preston, an organic grower. "I think that it's just the beginning of awareness about genetically modified organisms for many people, and I would expect to see an active conversation about the issues involved and what the impact would be for farming in Sonoma County, our health and environment."

Meanwhile, the battle will continue in other areas of California. "There is definitely going to be some kind of 'to be continued,'" said Dawn Pillsbury, media coordinator for the supporters of Measure M. "I got a call on election night from Humboldt County, and they are planning to go ahead with a GE-free measure next year."

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