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.