Anti-biotechnology initiatives in 3 California counties were soundly defeated Nov. 2 .by surprisingly wide margins.

Even in Marin County north of San Francisco where an anti-biotech initiative passed without organized opposition, almost 40 percent of the voters voted against it.

The anti-biotechnology measure in Butte County failed by a 61-39 percent margin. In San Luis Obispo County it was defeated by a 59-41 percent margin and in Humboldt County, where initiative proponents asked a few weeks before balloting that voters reject what they admitted was a “flawed proposal, it went down by a 72 to 28 percent margin. Humboldt anti-biotech elements say they will come back with a petition for another initiative later.

In Marin County where there is no significant agriculture, an anti-biotech initiative passed by only a 61-39 percent margin.

The rejections of proposed bans on genetically modified crops in Butte and San Luis Obispo were major victories not only in those counties, but for agriculture statewide.

Before the Nov. 2, anti-biotech groups were claiming major victories in Mendocino and Trinity counties en route to an avowed goal of banning biotech crops in California statewide. This despite the fact that there were more than 600,000 acres of transgenic crops grown in the state in 2004. That number is expected to grow significantly in the next few years.

Anti-biotech groups expected to pass the 4 initiatives on Nov. 2 after voters in Mendocino last spring passed an anti-biotech initiatives and Trinity County accepted a watered down version of the Mendocino County initiative as a county ordinance, which can be rescinded by a vote of the board of supervisors. It would take another vote to rescind the Mendocino county law.

Won't go away

Despite what can clearly characterized as a stunning defeat, no one expects the anti-biotech groups to go away. However, the Mendocino momentum before Nov. 2 is gone and agriculture has the upper hand.

The victories in the major agriculture counties of Butte and San Luis Obispo were significant because there are large universities in both counties where liberal anti-biotech groups expected and did receive some support.

“I think our successful efforts to communicate with our urban and suburban neighbors were a major reason we won,” said Dana M. Merrill president of Mesa Vineyard Management Inc. in San Luis Obispo County.

Rather than support the anti-biotech movement, Merrill said Cal Poly was “helpful in explaining just what GE is and to put the prospective risks in perspective to real risks that we do already know about in our daily lives. It is a respected local institution with voters.”

Merrill agreed defeat of the initiative was a “great victory — especially given how the YES folks got off to a fast start with harvest under way for grape growers and many others.

“In the end we were able to connect with the voters and to exploit the clear flaws in Measure Q,” he said.

In Butte County more than $100,000 was raised to defeat the anti-biotech movement. All of it was raised locally, unlike in Mendocino County where more than $600,000 in corporate funds were spent in a failed attempt to defeat the initiative there.

Major corporations like Monsanto became a lightning rod for anti-biotech groups in Mendocino, and they stayed out of the fights in Butte, San Luis Obispo and Humboldt where it was grassroots efforts spearheaded largely by local county Farm Bureau brought home the victories.

Discussions valuable

Jackie Crabb spokesperson for the San Luis Obispo County Farm Bureau, said in the San Luis Obispo Tribune that the discussion of biotech crops before the public in the county proved valuable for agriculture, adding that there's still “a lot of education that needs to be done.”

The fact that the anti-biotech movement was dealt resounding defeats in 3 California counties will effect the out-of-county and out-of-state contributors to the GE-element. More than 90 percent of the initiative support money that flowed into Butte County came in the form of very large contributions from San Francisco, Minnesota, and Canada. They could not raise money locally and had to use the Internet to solicit donations.

“We convinced local non-ag business people that their local farmers were united against the ordinance and that an outside radical element was threatening our livelihood,” said Tom Dowd, Butte County pest control adviser and almond grower.

”We blanketed the county with NO signs so even if the voter knew nothing about the issue at least they knew someone was against it. We also got organized early and went to all the opposition's presentations, questioning their data and statements so they knew we'd be there and they started omitting some of their more outrageous claims because they knew they'd be called on them,” said Dowd.

Nevertheless, Dowd admits he was surprised by the wide margin of victory.

On election day, Dowd said he was apprehensive. “The anti-GE crowd was strong in Chico and Paradise, but we think we changed some minds there. Some people who signed the petition to call the initiative actually signed in support of us.”

Three debates

Initiative opponents had three major debates with the proponents. “We learned what their main points would be and were able to counter them effectively,” said Dowd.

“I don't think they expected the level of opposition they received. I think they thought it was going to be another Mendocino where they had some grower support. In Butte they had a few organic growers — five or six — but the ag community was virtually united in opposition and showed it in donations and volunteerism.”

According to Merrill, the anti-biotech forces will not likely fade away even with their loss.

“They will oppose GE crops in SLO County and other places any way they can. Lawsuits over pollen drift, changes in liability laws over drift, GE patents, etc., will likely be in our future,” he said.

“With this victory, however, we do have a chance to set the tone and to act proactively to influence the future. We do need to realize that 40 percent of the voters did support the anti-GE initiative,” noted Merrill.

“In our region, we need to take advantage of this victory. While there may be no real discussions with the most strident extremist factions, we do want to communicate with any of the more reasonable, middle of the road county residents. We got their vote of confidence in this election and we want to maintain and enhance their understanding to obtain their continued support in the future,” he said.

If a county does not have a university or college it will be a lot more difficult for the GE Free folks to gain a foothold and run a campaign, according to Butte County grower Les Heringer Jr.

“Farmers in Butte County came together in a unified effort to educate the Butte County residents and run a solid local campaign. Local farmers have to do it. The local county Farm Bureaus have to take the lead. It can't be run or funded from out of the county. It is also very important to bring the local media in early and let them know how critical the issue is for farmers in the county. They need to fairly report both sides of the issue to their subscribers,” observed Heringer.

e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com