With Measure M, Sonoma County’s GMO foes seek to bolster organic agriculture
At McClelland’s Dairy west of Petaluma last week, cows needed no prodding to line up alongside metal rails where workers attached pumps to teats on the animals’ swollen udders. Fresh milk flowed through tubes, the amounts registered on digital meters.
When the session ended, a long gate like that on a carnival ride automatically released to let the cows out. Another group plodded in, and the milking began again.
The ritual has been repeated at the Two Rock Valley ranch bordering Bodega Avenue for 51 years. But standing outside the milking barn in a warm afternoon sun, third-generation rancher Jana McClelland expressed concerns for the dairy’s future from a nearly invisible - some would say, imagined - threat.
McClelland fears the dairy could lose its coveted certification as an organic milk producer should pollen from a bio-engineered crop grown by a neighbor drift onto her family’s ranch. She and a number of other organic farmers in Sonoma County are supporting Measure M, a November ballot measure that proposes to ban genetically modified crops and seeds from being grown or used in unincorporated areas of the county.
“As an organic farmer, we want to use sustainable practices without the use of GMOs,” McClelland said. “This cross-pollination problem infringes on our right to be able to stay organic.”
A decade ago, Sonoma County voters overwhelmingly rejected a ban on GMOs following what likely was the most expensive ballot measure campaign in county history, with both sides spending a combined $850,000. So far, the 2016 campaign has not generated nearly the same heat.
Citizens for Healthy Farms and Families, the group formed to support Measure M, has reported campaign contributions of $63,348, according to county records. Nearly half of that amount came from the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria.
Tribal Chairman Greg Sarris said the contribution reflects the tribe’s environmental mission and concerns about the risks of GMOs contaminating organic crops, including a 200-acre organic vegetable farm behind the tribe’s casino near Rohnert Park.
“For us, it was a no-brainer,” Sarris said of the donation.
To date, no organized Measure M opponent has reported raising any money.
Nevertheless, passions remain inflamed on both sides of the controversial issue. If the measure passes, Sonoma County would join Mendocino, Marin, Trinity, Humboldt and Santa Cruz counties as the only communities in California to enforce bans on GMO seeds and crops.
This time around, there are some key differences in how proponents of a ban in Sonoma County are seeking support for the measure. That includes the focus on organic farming.
In 2005, possible adverse health effects from consuming GMO foods were more prominently featured in the campaign. The official ballot argument seeking support for that ban warned that children “should not be used as guinea pigs for genetic engineering.”
Now, whether or not GMOs actually represent a public health risk is being downplayed by ban proponents, who now present Measure M mainly as a defense of Sonoma County’s organic farming industry.
“It doesn’t focus on that (public health) purposely because we are focused on contamination of crops,” said Karen Hudson, the Rohnert Park-based coordinator of Citizens for Healthy Farms and Families.
Some prominent opponents of the current measure, however, essentially accuse Measure M backers of promoting junk science under the guise of saving family farms. Or, that some farmers are piggy-backing on the effort simply as a marketing strategy.
“It’s a marketing ploy, and that’s fine. I get it,” said Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, a ban opponent whose district includes McClelland’s Dairy. “But it’s a marketing ploy for someone to get a niche over others.”
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. Most corn, soybean and cotton crops grown in the United States today have been bio-engineered.
The federal government, many scientists and food producers say such foods are safe. In May, the National Academy of Sciences released a nearly ?400-page study that concluded there currently exists no “persuasive evidence” of human health risks or adverse environmental effects directly related to genetically engineered foods.
Proponents of the 2005 GMO ban measure in Sonoma County stated their goal was for science to catch up to safety concerns, hence the failed measure’s expiration date of 10 years. The current measure has no such expiration date.