Mendocino County's Board of Supervisors agreed unanimously on Dec. 4 to let voters decide in March whether to ban farmers from planting and cultivating genetically engineered crops and from raising genetically engineered animals. If the measure passes, the county will become the first in the nation to ban genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
The initiative, which would not ban the sale of genetically modified foods in the county, was spearheaded by the Mendocino Organic Network, a small group of farmers and businesspeople who gathered the 4,000 registered-voter signatures needed to put the measure on the ballot.
"Knowing the political climate of Mendocino County, I think the initiative's got a good chance of passing," said Glenn McGourty, the University of California Cooperative Extension viticulture adviser for Mendocino and Lake counties.
But whether California will allow Mendocino to enforce a GMO ban is in question. Frank Zotter, chief deputy county counsel, pointed out that Mendocino County adopted an initiative to ban aerial spraying of pesticides back in the 1970s. "The state legislature actually passed a law that took authority to regulate 'economic poisons' away from the counties and cities within two weeks after the ban passed," he said. A similar fate could await the proposed GMO ban if other parties in California, such as the biotechnology industry, marshall enough opposition to it. "The state can take the right away at any time with the stroke of a pen," Zotter observed.
Mendocino County has long been a leader in the organic viticulture and farming movement, so it's no surprise that a movement to ban GMOs should take root here. Thirty years ago, the Fetzer and Frey families pioneered organic viticulture techniques in Redwood Valley, blazing the trail for the generation of environmentally concerned winegrowers to follow. Today, out of 321 farms in Mendocino County, 168 are organic, said Els Cooperrider, a member of the Mendocino Organic Network and co-owner of the organically certified Ukiah Brewing Company.
Genetically engineered crops have made inroads in California agriculture, but widespread use of them has to date been limited to crops such as cotton and corn, which are not cultivated in Mendocino. Wine grapes are the county's most important agricultural commodity.
Experimentation with grapevines' genetic makeup has been underway for a number of years. For example, antibacterial genes from a silkworm have been inserted into vines in an effort to give them resistance to the bacteria that causes vine-killing Pierce's disease. (According to a database compiled by Rutgers University, there are currently 41 different field tests of genetically modified vines in the United States.)
Opponents of genetic engineering say the effects of such techniques, both direct and indirect, have not been studied carefully enough. They point out that organisms are often modified by having genes from a completely unrelated species inserted in them -- something that would never happen in nature or through conventional breeding techniques -- and that unforeseen results could damage human beings or the environment.
"[GMOs] should be under controlled research," said French-born Arnaud Weyrich, winemaker for Roederer Estate in Anderson Valley, who stressed that he was not opposed to ongoing studies, but to commercial cultivation. "If we find, 50 years from now, that we are not putting people or vineyards at risk, this may be the future."
Other supporters of a GMO ban in Mendocino -- such as the Mendocino-Lake County chapter of California Certified Organic Farmers -- expressed concerns that the presence of genetically engineered crops in the county could damage its reputation and its blossoming organic wine and food industries. They also fear that inclusion of genetically engineered vines would limit the marketability of their wines in Europe, where genetically engineered products must be labeled as such.
Katrina Frey, director of sales for Frey Vineyards, called the initiative "an insurance policy to protect Mendocino County's multimillion-dollar exports of conventional and organic agricultural products."
Not everyone in the county, however, is sold on the GMO ban. The board of the Mendocino County Farm Bureau, a nongovernmental organization of farm and ranch families, voted to oppose the initiative. "They took the position that it was not a good policy for the county," said executive administrator Carre Brown. "They questioned the cost to the county of implementation and enforcement of the plan."
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Fight Against Genetically Modified Vines Gaining Momentum