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Sonoma County supervisors delay decision on proposed anti-GMO ballot measure

A proposed initiative to ban genetically modified crops and seeds in Sonoma County appears headed to voters this November, more than a decade after a similar proposal failed under intense political opposition.

The county’s top voting official has validated 20,065 of the 24,072 signatures collected by supporters, surpassing the minimum requirement to qualify a measure for the ballot.

The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, however, postponed a decision on the measure, instead electing to analyze costs associated with enforcement of a ban, as well as potential impacts on land use regulations and local businesses.

The county expects to spend $30,000 to $60,000 for the University of California Cooperative Extension to study the issue, according to William Rousseau, the county’s Registrar of Voters.

Supervisors must decide in the next 30 days whether to adopt the ordinance outright as is or place it on the November ballot.

“The law is very clear,” Rousseau said.

“They don’t have a choice. They have to put it on the ballot or adopt it.”

The board is unlikely to decide such a divisive issue on its own.

A majority of the supervisors signaled a preference to advance the question to voters at the end of the study period next month.

“It’s important for us to understand what the fiscal impact of this will be, how it interacts with the general plan, and the impact on agriculture,” said Board Chairman Efren Carrillo, who was joined by Supervisors Shirlee Zane and David Rabbitt in calling for the study.

Supervisors Susan Gorin and James Gore voiced early support for placing the measure on the November ballot on Tuesday before joining the majority in the final vote.

Gore said he was concerned about spending taxpayer dollars to study the issue when the five-page ordinance crafted by ban supporters cannot be altered by supervisors.

“Is this an appropriate use of money?” Gore asked.

“My preference would be to put it on the ballot as it is right now.”

Organizers behind the proposed measure expressed disappointment with the board’s action, one they said would cut into the momentum of their campaign.

“We are losing valuable time to raise money and educate voters,” said Karen Hudson, a Rohnert Park-based Citizens for Healthy Farms and Families, which is taking the lead on the initiative.

“And what are we supposed to say when we’re out there asking for endorsements? We don’t know where we stand.”

Signature-generated ballot measures are rare in Sonoma County. The last time voters gathered enough signatures for an ordinance to qualify for the local ballot was in 2005, when county voters rejected a similar measure to ban GMOs.

That year, supporters and opponents spent a combined $850,000, likely making it the most expensive ballot measure campaign in county history.

The issue is expected to heat up again this year, with agricultural and environmental groups already seeking to influence candidates running for local office, with the tightest focus on the race for 5th District supervisor.

Lynda Hopkins, an organic farmer and front runner in the contest, said Tuesday that she now backs the ban - a position she has previously balked at taking, though her farm was listed by Citizens for Healthy Farms and Families as a supporter.

Hopkins said she had not read the proposed measure until recently and needed to do so before endorsing it.

Former state Sen. Noreen Evans, the other 5th District front runner, supports the ban on GMO crops and seeds. She was unsuccessful in a 2014 bid to pass legislation requiring all foods containing genetically modified organisms to be labeled in California.

The Sonoma County Farm Bureau, which opposes the ban, is planning to campaign against it, said John Azevedo, the group’s president.

Azevedo said the ban would restrict farming rights in the county, and he pressed Hopkins, who the group endorsed, to reconsider her decision.

“Banning GMOs is a ban on agriculture, and banning any type of agriculture is not something we’re going to do. There are people who are using that technology, and a ban would take them backwards,” Azevedo said. “We aren’t happy that Lynda Hopkins supports the ban, and we are probably going to have a talk with her. But we don’t always agree with the people we support 100 percent of the time and that’s OK.”

The federal government, many scientists and food producers argue that genetically modified 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.

Most corn, soybean and cotton crops grown in the United States today have been genetically modified. There is no reliable data on whether such crops or other genetically modified plants are being grown in Sonoma County as that information does not have to be reported, according to Tony Linegar, the county’s agricultural commissioner.

As part of the report, supervisors are seeking more information on the extent that GMO plants and seeds are grown and used in Sonoma County.

Anti-GMO campaigners say genetically modified plants and seeds pose crop-contamination risks for farmers, a point they intend to highlight in their campaign.

“Pollen and seeds know no border,” said Hudson. “They threaten local farmers from growing what they choose to grow.”

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.”

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 medication.

It also wouldn’t prevent research into genetically modified organisms within the county as long as it was conducted in secure labs, according to supporters of the ban.

Hudson said she has been working for years to convince supervisors to ban genetically modified plants. With allies, she petitioned supervisors last year to take up the proposed ban.

“They said no. They said go out and get public support, and that is what we have done,” Hudson said. She said the ease of that process was a sign to supporters that greater footing exists now for their proposal.

“It was not difficult at all to gather the signatures we needed,” Hudson said.

The board is expected to vote May 24 on whether to place the measure on the November ballot, or simply adopt the ordinance.

The addition of a ballot measure to the November election is expected to cost the county up to up to $491,820, according to Rousseau.

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.

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