The board of supervisors in Kern County, Calif., the fourth largest agricultural county in the nation, has followed the lead of Fresno and Kings counties in the agriculturally rich San Joaquin Valley, passing a resolution supporting agricultural biotechnology.

In early April, Kern supervisors, in recognizing the importance of the county's $2 billion agricultural economy, affirmed “the environmental and health benefits of biotechnology” as important to the long-term sustainability and enhancement of its agricultural industry and “the county's way of life.”

The resolution affirmed “the right for farmers and ranchers to choose to utilize the widest range of technologies available to produce a safe, healthy, abundant and affordable food supply, and that the safe, federally regulated use of biotechnology is a promising component of progressive agricultural production.”

The unanimously passed resolution said the county “will make every effort to preserve the choice of using biotechnology in agriculture.”

These resolutions from the largest agricultural counties in the nation are non-binding, but they put on notice the radical anti-biotechnology elements operating in the Bay Area and Northern California that any attempt to get an anti-GMO initiative on the ballot in the heart of California's $28 billion agricultural industry, San Joaquin Valley, will be met with resistance. Fresno County is the largest agricultural county in the nation with almost $3 billion in annual agricultural income. Kings County ranks ninth with more than $1 billion in ag income.

Anti-GM0 factions were turned back last fall in the efforts to ban biotechnology crops with ballot initiatives in agriculturally-significant Butte and San Luis Obispo counties and in Humboldt County. They have been successful in getting anti-GMO initiatives passed only in Mendocino County, where there is significant agriculture, primarily wine grapes, and in Marin County just north of San Francisco, where there is basically no agriculture. An anti-GMO county ordinance was hastily passed by Trinity County, but it can be modified or tossed out by the board of supervisors. It was passed partly to stave off a costly county ballot initiative. The same group also had an anti-GMO city ordinance passed in Arcata, Calif., a redwood coastal town of about 20,000 people 275 miles north of San Francisco. Arcata is the home of Humboldt State University.

University towns

The anti-GMO activists target university towns in hopes of drawing liberal support from academia. That backfired in Butte County, home of California State University, Chico. Although there were campus rallies in support of the anti-GMO county initiatives, there was also strong support from university scientists and administrators.

The only upcoming anti-GMO initiative scheduled in California is on the November general ballot in Sonoma County, and opposition is already lining up.

More than 45,000 signatures were gathered by a group associated with the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, an 80-acre organic farming commune near Bodega Bay in Sonoma County, to force the county to put an anti-GMO ordinance before voters. The petition passers did not get enough signatures on petitions to get the measure on the spring 2004 ballot, but continued collecting signatures. They presented the petitions to the county earlier this year and attempted to get supervisors to call a costly, special spring single-issue election. Supervisors rejected that and also turned back attempts by the group to force the supervisors to pass an anti-GMO ordinance in lieu of calling a special election. The supervisors instead voted to put the initiative on the regular general election ballot this November.

Although there are six months until the vote, several prominent groups have announced opposition to the initiative which would ban biotech crops in Sonoma County for 10 years.

The Sonoma County Farm Bureau is heading what is expected to be an aggressive effort to turn back the anti-GMO proposal, according to Tito Sasaki, a vineyard and orchard farmer in the southern Sonoma County community of Schellville, Calif. Farm Bureaus in Butte and San Luis Obispo counties led successful efforts there to defeat anti-biotechnology initiatives.

Wine growers opposed

Sasaki is a board member of the North Bay Agriculture Alliance (NBAA), which has also come out in opposition to the initiative along with United Wine Growers and Russian River Valley Winegrowers in Sonoma County. Russian River Winegrowers represents more than 65 wineries and almost 150 vineyards in the Russian River Valley.

Sasaki said NBAA has about 50 members representing 15,275 acres of farmland and another 46,000 acres controlled by Sonoma Land Trust, California Fish and Game and U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

NBAA was formed almost 10 years ago to fight efforts by environmental groups to enlarge the bureaucratic jurisdictions of diked farmland in Southern Sonoma County.

“Most of our members are landowners and farmers in the San Pablo Bay area,” he explained. “NABB was formed to establish farmers' rights against onerous government intrusion.”

Sasaki said the anti-GMO initiative represents the same type of political battle.

The anti-GMO group heralded the collection of the record 45,000 signatures calling for the initiative. Sasaki said the signature-gathering campaign was based on misinformation.

“They were telling people that biotechnology was crossing tomatoes with fish and who wants to eat a fishy-smelling tomato. Sure people will sign something like that,” he said.

“Many of the people behind the anti-GMO moratorium are people looking for a cause…any cause,” said Sasaki, who is confident an “enlightened public will see what this is all about.”

Prey on emotions

Proponents of GMO bans often prey on the emotions of the public to win support; using terms like “Frankenfoods” and the illogical fish/tomato cross to scare people into supporting biotechnology bans. The majority of the scientific community says biotechnology is safe to humans and the environment.

Sonoma County administrators have put a price tag on those emotions. If the ordinance is passed, it will be costly, according to a report presented to supervisors, including:

  • $250,000 in additional costs for the county agricultural commissioner for staffing and legal and investigation costs, about the same amount money spent to monitor and control glassy-winged sharpshooter to protect the county's 60,000 acres of wine grapes with an annual value of more than $300 million.

  • More than $90,000 in costs to remove dispose and replace soil on one acre “contaminated” by GMO.

The proposed Sonoma ordinance contains the right to sue the agricultural commissioner to “compel compliance” with the ordinance. There is no due process detailed in the ordinance and the county administration said “if we are not sued by third parties demanding that we comply with enforcement deadlines, we will likely be sued by alleged violators for lack of due process — adding to our costs.”

If the ordinance were in effect today, at least a half dozen dairies in the county growing herbicide-resistant corn for silage would be in violation and their crops subject to destruction.

There are currently 11 biotechnology firms in Sonoma County employing more than 1,600 people. The ordinance would place more restrictions on these firms and could force them out of the county because of the high cost of compliance in Sonoma.

Immunizations

The ordinance also could preclude the use of immunization vaccines used to combat West Nile virus in horses, rabies, distemper and feline leukemia because they contain living GMOs. It could also impact human health or the livestock industry by limiting sale, distribution or use of currently used or emergency vaccines.

One of the primary arguments used by proponents of the ban is that it would protect organic farmers from pollen drift from GMO crops. According to the county, there are 164 organic crop producers farming about 7,000 acres and producing $9.9 million in gross sales. The county's total agricultural income is more than $515 million annually, primarily from wine grapes.

However, according to the county report, USDA under the National Organic Program, there is no decertification procedure based on GMO drift to an otherwise compliant certified organic producer. “To the best of our knowledge, USDA has not decertified any organic farmer due to ‘drift’ of transgenic materials,” according to the report.

Although several state and federal agencies regulate bioengineering, there are no laws in many states, including California, that prohibits anti-GMO county ordinances like the one on the ballot in Sonoma.

However, legislatures in several states have passed bills preventing counties, towns and cities from introducing ordinances, resolutions, or other legislation relating to agricultural seeds.

According to another Northern California-based environmental group, Environmental Commons, bills preempting local ordinance banning biotechnology already have been signed into law in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Idaho, North Dakota, and South Dakota, and are rapidly working their way through the legislatures in Arizona, Oklahoma, Ohio, and West Virginia. Similar bills in Indiana and Kansas have passed both houses of the legislature and are awaiting the governors' signatures. Additionally, the Maine Department of Agriculture is seeking to forestall local action around genetically modified organisms (GMOs) via an interpretation of the state's “Right to Farm” Law.

Environmental groups are opposed to these bills.

e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com