Eleven years ago, voters were at the center of a food fight over whether genetically engineered crops should be banned in Sonoma County. Proponents sought to scare voters with claims that GMO foods jeopardized the health of children while opponents argued that, given how the ballot measure, Measure M, was worded, it put children at risk by preventing common vaccinations. As we noted at the time, both arguments pandered more to fears than facts.
In the end, voters rejected the measure by some 17,000 votes — 55 percent to 45 percent.
But the GMO ban is back, and it is once again on the ballot as Measure M. But this time it is more carefully worded to make clear it does not apply to vaccinations and wouldn’t prohibit any research involving genetically engineered organisms, as long as it is done in a secure environment. The alarmist tactics also seem to have subsided, for now, as proponents are putting more of an emphasis on protecting farmers who chose to produce organic and/or non-GMO products. They contend that without a ban, the livelihoods of these Sonoma County farmers and dairy owners would be at risk of “contamination” from neighboring farmers who use GMO organisms. They believe Sonoma County should protect its organic brand by joining Mendocino County to the north and Marin County to the south in prohibiting such crops outright.
Adopting such a tactic for marketing purposes would appear to have merit, if not for three fatal flaws.
First, there’s no evidence that GMO crops are actually being used in Sonoma County. It’s also unlikely that any farmer or dairy owner would suddenly start employing them given the high upfront cost of using such crops, which are usually employed on large-scale operations more common in the Midwest. Meanwhile, market forces are already taking care of this issue, as evidenced by Petaluma-based Clover Stornetta Farms announcement that starting next year all its dairy products will be free of genetically modified organisms. The demand for non-GMO products is growing. Meanwhile, the National Organic Program has made clear that inadvertent tainting of crops by a neighboring operation is not grounds for losing one’s organic label. In fact, despite the worst-case scenarios claimed by opponents, there’s no evidence of any organically certified farm ever having lost its certification in such a way.
Second, while a GMO ban may not have much of an impact on current operations, it could tie the hands of local farmers or grape-growers in being able to take advantage of future technologies such as the development of a rootstock that protects vineyards from Pierce’s disease. Opponents also note it could prohibit the use of developments to stop the spread of such mosquito-borne viruses as West Nile.
Finally, a GMO ban simply isn’t supported by the science. Earlier this year, the National Academies of Sciences & Engineering & Medicine released a report that found, based on a two-year study involving 20 experts in academia, there is no evidence of people or animals being harmed by genetically engineered crops. Researchers said the purpose of their study was to provide some clarity given the massive amount of confusion that exists in the public and among policy- makers about GMOs. It’s the kind of confusion from which Measure M has emerged.
“We took our job very seriously because we know how contentious this issue is,” said Research Chairman Fred Gould, a professor of entomology and co-director of the Center on Genetic Engineering and Society at North Carolina State University.
If farmers or consumers choose to devote themselves to non-GMO foods, more power to them. But their preference doesn’t warrant a blanket countywide ban that in the end is more about fear than farming. The Press Democrat recommends a no vote on Measure M.