Mendocino Becomes First County in Nation to Ban Genetically Modified Crops

Many organic wine producers and farmers back measure, in effort to protect their future crops and their image.
Mar 3, 2004

Residents of California's Mendocino County voted yesterday to ban farmers from using genetically modified organisms (GMOs) after a protracted battle between the measure's supporters and biotechnology companies. Mendocino County, which has been a leader in the organic viticulture movement, is the first in the nation to prohibit GMOs.

The initiative, called Measure H, makes it illegal to propagate, grow or raise genetically engineered plants and livestock within Mendocino County, where the most widely planted crops are wine grapes and pears. The county agriculture commissioner will have the authority to confiscate and destroy GMOs and fine violators. The measure does not ban the sale of genetically modified foods, medicines or livestock feed.

"This sets an example of how empowering it is to take back control of something as essential as the food we eat and the food we grow," said Laura Hamburg, a spokesperson for Measure H supporters. Hamburg said there are already similar campaigns underway in nine other California counties, including Sonoma, Marin and Humboldt.

Supporters from the wine community included Fetzer and Frey wineries, which have been making organic wines in Mendocino since the early 1970s. The county's organic farmers were concerned that GMOs could accidentally contaminate their crops, hurt their image and cause unforeseen problems in the future.

Although Measure H passed 56 percent to 44 percent, the victory might be largely symbolic. Currently, no known GMOs have been introduced to the county, and none were planned for at least 10 years.

But the GMO-free status could be a useful marketing tool, if Mendocino producers are allowed to label their products as such.

In the months before the election, biotech companies campaigned heavily against the initiative. Industry groups such as CropLife America, which represents companies such as Dow, DuPont and Monsanto, poured more than $500,000 into efforts to defeat Measure H, breaking local campaign spending records, according to the Press Democrat, a local newspaper. In January, a similar industry group called the California Plant Health Association had asked a county court to block statements on the ballot written by Measure H supporters, but failed in its effort.

Opponents of Measure H argued that genetic modifications could help prevent disease and pests from destroying crops and vineyards, and that a ban on GMOs could cause Mendocino County to fall behind in the agricultural race.

Hamburg said that despite the first victory for Measure H supporters, there will be more battles to fight. She anticipates retaliatory legal action from the biotech interests. "We expect to be sued by the industry," she said. "We were sued going in, and we'll be sued going out ... but we feel confident that the ordinance will stand up."

The California legislature could also step in to exert control over genetically engineered crops. In the 1970s, a similar initiative in Mendocino Country banned the spraying of pesticides. The state legislature quickly quashed that move and stripped counties of the right to ban the pesticides.

# # #

Read more about this issue:

  • Dec. 31, 2003
    Judge Allows Mendocino to Proceed with Vote on Genetically Modified Crops

  • Dec. 4, 2003
    Mendocino May Say No to Genetically Modified Vines
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