Ban on GMO crops sought again for Sonoma County

One of the most contentious political issues in Sonoma County history is likely to come before voters again in November: whether the county should impose a ban on genetically modified crops and seeds over consumer health concerns.

Proponents of such a ban delivered to the Sonoma County Registrar of Voters on Wednesday 24,039 signatures - nearly 9,500 above what is needed to qualify their proposed measure for the Nov. 8 ballot. County officials now are working to validate the signatures.

The step escalates a conflict that has simmered since 2005, when county voters rejected a similar measure following a bruising campaign in which supporters and opponents spent a combined $850,000, likely making it most expensive ballot measure campaign in county history.

Political observers expect a similar battle over the renewed effort. The issue is certain to play a role in local political races this year, notably in the race for the west county supervisor’s seat. The district is a hotbed of organic farming and activism for environmental causes. But powerful agricultural and business interests also hold influence there, groups that in general resist efforts to impose additional regulations on crop production.

Proponents say they are advancing a revised initiative now because they feel the political landscape has improved their chances, with greater public awareness of the debate surrounding GMO foods. Mendocino, Marin, Trinity, Humboldt and Santa Cruz counties have enacted similar bans on GMO crops and seeds.

“It’s constantly in the news,” said Karen Hudson, a Rohnert Park-based coordinator of Citizens for Healthy Farms and Families, which is taking the lead on the initiative.

But grape growers responsible for the county’s $445 million crop - the largest and most lucrative in local agriculture - have argued that a ban on altered crops could limit their ability to battle threats such as Pierce’s disease, which is spread by insects and can kill vines.

In general, genetically modified plants are grown from seeds engineered to resist insecticides and herbicides, add nutritional benefits or otherwise improve crop yields and increase global food supply.

Kim Vail, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, said the group hasn’t yet taken a formal position on the proposed ballot measure since it has yet to be certified for the election. The group helped spearhead opposition to the 2005 initiative.

“In general, we view biotechnology as another tool that we can use to help the quality and marketability of our products,” Vail said.

Most corn, soybean and cotton crops grown in the United States today have been genetically modified.

The federal government, many scientists and food producers say such foods are safe, while critics contend the crops pose health risks, citing research purportedly showing that GMOs can cause problems ranging from allergies to cancer.

Limitations of ordinance

The proposed “Transgenic Contamination Prevention Ordinance” for Sonoma County would make it unlawful for people or entities of any kind to “propagate, cultivate, raise or grow genetically engineered organisms.”

Hudson said the ordinance would not prevent the sale or purchase of genetically engineered food or seed, or forbid medical treatment for humans or animals using altered vaccines or medications.

The measure also wouldn’t prevent research into genetically modified organisms within the county as long as it was conducted in secure labs, Hudson said.

“None of those things would have been prevented (by the 2005 measure) either,” Hudson said, “but we clearly stated that because the opposition said it would.”

The proposal could prove divisive within the local farming industry, which takes in corporate- and family-?owned vineyards to small plots for fruits and vegetables sold only at local markets.

Paul Kaiser, who owns Singing Frogs Farms in Sebastopol, said he worries about pollen from genetically modified plants drifting onto his crops, which he and his wife grow using organic methods.

“That’s terrifying, honestly. Once you begin to cross-pollinate, there’s no going back,” he said.

He also made the case that a ban would be good from an economic and social standpoint by promoting smaller-scale farming.

“Really, it comes down to localization, and distribution of wealth across the whole community,” he said.

There is no reliable data on how many scientifically altered crops are being grown in Sonoma County, as that information does not have to be reported. Tony Linegar, the county’s agricultural commissioner, said he has heard of two dairymen in the county growing genetically altered Roundup-?ready corn as feed for the herd. But he has not confirmed those reports.

“Roundup-ready” refers to plants that are altered to resist the effects of glyphosate, a herbicide commonly used for weed eradication. One argument for banning such modified plants is that it would curb the use of glyphosate, which the World Health Organization says is “probably carcinogenic.” Monsanto, the seed giant that manufactures Roundup, has challenged that finding.

Thorny ballot measure

The potential ballot measure could prove a thorny political issue especially in western Sonoma County, where candidates for a coveted Board of Supervisors seat are squaring off for support among farmers and environmentalists.

One of the several rivals, Lynda Hopkins, an organic farmer, on Wednesday expressed opposition to GMO crops and support for labeling of products that contain the altered organisms. She said she also signed the petition seeking to put the proposed county ban before voters.

But she stopped short of endorsing a ban, saying she wanted to read through “every single line” of the proposed ordinance before stating her position on it. Supporting the ban would likely put Hopkins at odds with many of her own supporters, including influential and deep-pocketed farming interests. Hopkins did not express concerns about that potential conflict, saying county politics are not “black and white.”

“People try to pigeonhole and assume because you receive support from some organizations that you agree with them lock, stock and barrel,” she said.

The political veteran in the 5th District race, former state Sen. Noreen Evans, was unsuccessful in a 2014 bid to pass legislation requiring all foods containing genetically modified organisms to be labeled in California. The state’s voters in 2012 narrowly turned down a ballot measure that would have essentially accomplished the same thing.

Evans was careful to note back then that her proposed legislation was only about labels, telling fellow lawmakers during a committee hearing that her bill didn’t “ban anything.”

She said Wednesday she now supports a ban on GMO plants and crops in Sonoma County, saying there’s no proof that altered crops are completely safe and that there’s potential for such material to “invade other farms.”

“I think there’s been a lot of science developed since 2005 and a lot more public awareness of the issues,” she said.

A majority of European countries already ban production of GMO crops.

Linegar, whose office would be tasked with enforcing bans on GMOs in the county, has taken no formal position on the potential harm such organisms pose. He’s intimately familiar with the issues, however, having served as Mendocino County’s ag commissioner in 2004 when the county became the first in the nation to enact a ban on growing altered crops.

Marin County followed suit later that year.

Sonoma County voters rejected the 2005 measure by a margin of 44 percent in favor to 56 percent opposed.

That measure was given a 10-year time limit, ostensibly to give the scientific community more time to reach a consensus on whether altered plants and crops presented true health risks. Hudson, however, contends the case is settled, and that urgent action is needed to protect public safety. The current proposed ban does not have an end date.

The proposed ban would apply only to unincorporated areas of the county, according to county officials. Linegar said one concern raised by opponents of bans is that such “checkerboard” areas of enforcement defeat the intended purpose of the prohibition.

“Pollen doesn’t tend to stop at city limits and drop from the air,” Linegar said.

Advantages for proponents

Ban proponents have some political advantages this year versus in 2005, when voters seemed overwhelmed by the number of measures on the November ballot and as a result voted most of them down, said David McCuan, a political scientist at Sonoma State University.

McCuan said local voter interest in national and local elections - particularly the 5th District race to succeed Supervisor Efren Carrillo - could spark higher turnout among people who support environmental causes. Such voters could be further drawn out by a measure on the November ballot seeking an extension of community separators, which are buffers against urban growth.

“I think the ground is ripe to pass a GMO measure,” he said.

But McCuan predicted ban proponents will be in for another major fight if opponents decide to invest heavily in trying to affect the outcome.

“What is going to drive much of this is the degree to which the opponents carpet-bomb the airwaves and mail boxes of voters,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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