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Transgenic Contamination Prevention Ordinance

Known as Measure M on the November ballot, it would make it unlawful for people or entities of any kind to “propagate, cultivate, raise or grow genetically modified organisms.”

The ordinance prohibits genetically engineered animals.

Violators would be subject to a fine of $100 for the first offense.

What the ordinance will not do:

The ordinance would not prevent the sale or purchase of bio-engineered food or seed in Sonoma County.

Forbid medical treatment for humans or animals using altered vaccines or medications.

Prevent research into genetically modified organisms within the county as long as it was conducted in secure labs.

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 passed, 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.

Some critics now accuse Measure M supporters of ignoring more recent studies in their single-minded pursuit of a ban. Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane referred to ban proponents as a “little band of zealots” who she said are putting forth bad public policy at the expense of sound science.

“I believe in science. I believe in truth. I believe that’s the foundation of all policy development,” Zane said. “Not political opportunism or fear.”

But some Measure M supporters say the book is not yet closed on whether GMO technology is safe or beneficial.

“The science will be debated long past our lifetimes,” said Blair Kellison, chief executive officer of Traditional Medicinals outside Sebastopol. The company is the nation’s largest purveyor of wellness teas.

Kellison made the case that a ban on GMOs is necessary for Sonoma County to market itself as a place of “purity.”

“As a county, we’re in a very unique position to be able to, economically, brand ourselves as that pure, GMO-free place,” he said.

Technically that’s not true, as the “Transgenic Contamination Prevention Ordinance” would not prevent the sale or purchase of bio-engineered food or seed in Sonoma County. Rather, the measure would make it unlawful for people or entities of any kind to “propagate, cultivate, raise or grow genetically modified organisms.”

Seated at a conference table at the Petaluma offices of Straus Family Creamery last week, founder and CEO Albert Straus made the case that a GMO ban is critical to the renowned business maintaining its organic status. He said he found contamination in organic feed he purchased for his cows in 2006, the year he began independently testing feed for GMOs.

“I’m very concerned that if we don’t keep the organic integrity of our products and the organic industry, we’ll lose our customers, and our customers’ trust,” said Straus, whose farm and dairy in the Marin County community of Marshall was the first west of the Mississippi to be certified organic in 1994.

Today, 80 percent of the dairies in Marin and Sonoma counties produce certified organic milk, which both allows them to charge a premium for their products and protects them against volatility in the conventional milk market. A total of 88 dairies exist in both counties. Statewide, organic milk comprises less than 2 percent of total dairy production.

West Santa Rosa dairy farmer Doug Beretta converted to organic production in 2007. But he opposes a GMO ban on the grounds that it would take away “tools” from the conventional farmer and is not necessary for his farm to maintain its organic designation.

“It does not threaten my status because I’m not the grower,” he said.

Beretta said he’s not concerned about cross-pollination of his crops because there are few, if any GMO crops being grown in Sonoma County. He said the risk would still be there even with a ban, which as he noted, would not apply to cities and other incorporated areas of the county.

Two Sonoma County farmers reportedly have been growing or selling genetically altered Roundup-ready corn, a term that refers to plants that are engineered to resist the effects of glysophate, an herbicide the World Health Organization says is “probably carcinogenic.” Monsanto, the seed giant that is being taken over by German chemicals giant Bayer, has challenged those findings.

“To me, what this measure will really help to do is prevent the planting of crops that require glysophate for their bounty,” said Claire Herminjard, CEO and co-founder of Mindful Meats. The Point Reyes company works exclusively with pasture-based organic, non-GMO verified dairy producers in Sonoma and Marin counties to harvest retired milk cows, including those from McClelland’s Dairy.

Tony Linegar, Sonoma County’s agricultural commissioner, said he recently was informed the two farmers in question had discontinued their use of Roundup-ready corn. But he said Roundup-ready bluegrass for use in turf lawns may soon hit the local market.

Regardless, Linegar said a certified organic farm cannot lose that designation as a result of inadvertent cross-pollination with GMOs or by using seeds or feed later discovered to contain such organisms.

“You would have to purposefully plant a GMO or introduce a GMO into your operation for you to potentially lose your organic certification,” Linegar said.

Mark Squire, a main Measure M supporter and owner of Good Earth Natural Foods in Fairfax in Marin County, concurred with Linegar’s analysis. But Squire said a GMO ban is still necessary because the rules for organic certification, set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, are subject to change. He also said consumers are demanding food free of bio-engineered ingredients.

“The dilemma is that all growers, both organic and not organic, have suffered economic losses because of contamination simply because consumers don’t want to eat GE Foods,” Squire stated in an email.

In August, President Obama signed legislation requiring all food labels to declare whether the item contains genetically modified ingredients. The labels will have to state plainly whether the item was “produced with genetic engineering,” or provide a QR code, 1-800 number or website for consumers to visit for more information.

Mendocino County became the first in the nation to ban bio-crops in 2004. The county since then has investigated a single case of suspected GMO use, a Hopland farmer who was growing corn for use as bio-fuel. A field test on the suspected organism turned up negative.

Chuck Morse, Mendocino County’s ag commissioner, said the GMO ban there was driven more by ideology than practical concerns about such organisms destroying the region’s main agricultural commodities, including wine grapes.

“Even if a grower wanted to go down that road, the populace would be opposed to it,” he said.

At Sebastopol’s Taft Street Winery last week, partner and general manager Mike Martini used a forklift to help unload 10 tons of pinot noir grapes that had arrived at the winery that morning.

Martini, a former Santa Rosa mayor, is among vintners and grape-growers in Sonoma County who remain opposed to a GMO ban on the grounds that it could limit their ability to combat vineyard pests and diseases using bio-engineered rootstock and vines. Martini specifically referenced perennial battles with powdery mildew and Pierce’s Disease.

“Here’s an opportunity where you get to significantly reduce pesticides and herbicides if you can have a plant that naturally resists these things, and we’re not going to be able to use them,” he said.

Sonoma County has 62,135 acres planted in grapes. Of those, 1,578 acres are organic, according to the 2015 crop report.

Linegar, the county ag commissioner, said “there’s no question that down the road this (ban) could close the door to some potentially beneficial technology.”

The Sonoma County Farm Bureau has again come out against Measure M. But unlike in 2005, the organization is not planning to mount a formal campaign, according to executive director Kim Vail.

“We honestly think that raising those sums of money is money better spent elsewhere,” he said. “We’ve got issues that are much larger that need to be tackled than having an argument over whether GMO crops are good or bad.”

Vail said that stance does not reflect a generally held view that Measure M stands a good chance of gaining voter approval this time around.

Some political observers predict that interest in local elections, particularly in the 5th District race to decide Supervisor Efren Carrillo’s successor, could bring out voters who support environmental causes. Both of the front-runners to succeed Carrillo — Noreen Evans and Lynda Hopkins — support the GMO ban.

Linegar said several farmers have told him they feel the measure will make it through.

Measure M would not forbid medical treatment for humans or animals using altered vaccines or medications. Such concerns were highlighted by opponents of the 2005 measure. Hudson, who was not part of that campaign, said proponents drafted the current ordinance with those concerns in mind.

The ban also would not prevent research into genetically modified organisms within the county as long as it was conducted in secure labs.

The current measure still includes a prohibition on genetically engineered animals, raising concerns among some health officials that it could limit the county’s ability to combat vector-borne illnesses, including the Zika virus, should it ever manifest here.

Nationally, researchers are developing bio-engineered mosquitoes that can decimate wild populations by interfering with the mosquitoes’ ability to reproduce. Federal officials last month approved a plan to release millions of the mutant mosquitoes in Florida in a bid to combat the spread of Zika.

At McClelland’s Dairy last week, such threats seemed distant considerations against the backdrop of the milking operation and workers putting final touches on an organic pumpkin patch set to open to the public Sept. 26.

But Jana McClelland said failing to enact a ban on GMOs would take away her choice “when your species invades my species.”

The fact that none of her neighbors are growing such crops didn’t faze her.

“At any point, they can,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 707-521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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