A radical environmental group based in Minnesota and linked to the destruction of student project crops several years ago on the University of California, Davis campus has succeeded in getting initiatives to ban genetically modified crops on the November ballots in at least four California counties.

Efforts in at least five other counties could spawn similar initiatives by an organization called Organic Consumers Association (OCA), based in Little Marias, Minn. OCA spearheaded a highly emotional campaign that led to Mendocino County voting last spring to ban biotech crops.

The campaign there, led by a semi-retired health care worker, Doug Mosel, who moved to Mendocino County five years ago, was largely a symbolic vote since there are no biotech crops grown in Mendocino County.

Bolstered by that win, similar ballot initiatives will be on the ballot this fall in Butte, San Luis Obispo, Marin and Humboldt counties. It is more then symbolic in at least two of those counties because there is herbicide-resistant crops being grown or evaluated in Humboldt and Butte counties.

Environmental radicals in Sonoma, Alameda, Santa Cruz, Trinity, Santa Barbara, Placer and Napa counties backed by OCA California splinter group, BioDemocracy Alliance, are trying to get similar initiatives on ballots in those counties.

Statewide ban

Ryan Zinn, OCA-paid campaign coordinator for the new group, said the goal is to ban biotech crops in California where there are already 600,000 acres of herbicide-resistant or insect-resistant corn or cotton being grown. OCA wants the state legislature to ban biotech crops and are using county ballots to try and force the issue in Sacramento.

Zinn was quoted in the San Jose Mercury News: "California is the nation’s largest agricultural state. If it were to decide to ban these crops, it would have a huge impact throughout the nation."

While largely symbolic, it is no joke to California agriculture.

"This whole thing is very serious. It is a political power play by someone who wants to control America’s food supply like a third world dictator," said Jamie Johansson, an Oroville, Calif., olive grower who is spearheading the effort to defeat the anti-GMO initiative in Butte County.

The anti-biotech radicals cloak their campaign against such things as insect-resistant and herbicide-resistant crops by saying biotech crops will harm organic crops.

"There is no threat to organic farming — that is a red herring," said Johansson. "I have friends who are organic olive oil producers and they are opposed to this. However, they are caught in a Catch 22 situation if they come out in opposition. They are afraid.

"Two wineries in Mendocino County came out in opposition to the biotech ban initiative there, and they were threatened with physical violence. An organic grower there who opposed the measure was intimidated and threatened until she changed her position," said the Butte County farmer.

"I used to live in Humboldt County, and I experienced first hand what these people did to the timber industry there," he added.

"This whole anti-GMO movement in California spearheaded by the Minnesota group is very unnerving to a lot of people," said the olive grower.

Crops destroyed

The group involved in the anti-GMO movement has been linked to the destruction crops at the University of California, Davis several years ago. Their target was GMO crops, but they destroyed non-biotech student project crops.

Mosel, the semi-retired health care worker, who was the chief spokesman for the Mendocino County initiative said that report is "absolutely inaccurate."

In interview with Western Farm Press, the soft spoken 61-year-old Mosel calls himself "first and foremost a Nebraska farm boy who spent the first 20 years of his life on a farm," he said.

He admits he has no formal education in agricultural science; has not visited a farmer growing biotech crops nor has he talked personally with any university or other government scientist who has researched biotech crops.

"I do not count my having no formal ag education as a disadvantage. It would be an extraordinary feat for anyone to emerge from any of our ag school programs without a pro-biotech, pro-industrial ag bias.

"Without such a background, but with my direct experience of smaller scale, diversified dryland farming, I believe I can see more clearly the threats of biotech-dependent farming as well as the long-term advantages of GE-free agricultural practices," said Mosel.

"I have talked to people who have talked to farmers growing biotech crops and they say a lot of farmers do not want to grow biotech crops. I have also read reports from scientists who have researched these crops, but I have never talked with one personally," he said.

Nevertheless, Mosel said biotech crops "harm people and the environment." He says he opposes "industrial agriculture" and calls biotechnology a "threat to the farms of the future."

‘Biotech bullies’

The Mendocino County initiatives and the ones on the ballot this fall are cloaked as needed to protect organic growers, it is mostly an anti-corporate campaign against what the organizers have called "biotech bullies."

CropLife America and the Western Plant Health Association poured $600,000 in to the effort to defeat the Mendocino County initiative. This time the corporate face of the biotech industry is taking a less visible role and opting to let California Farm Bureau, and its county chapters and local farmers take up the fight.

However, there is a bit of disunity within the agriculture community on the biotech issue. While Johansson said the Butte County Farm Bureau has come out officially opposed to the biotech ban, the FB chapter in Mendocino County was divided on the initiative there and so is the Humboldt FB chapter.

Several Mendocino County wineries supported the Mendocino measure, including one of the more well-known wineries in the state, Fetzer. Fetzer has embarked on a transition to organic wine grape production in recent years.

California Association of Winegrape Growers reportedly also is divided on the biotech issue.

Some believe the current drive to create fear frenzy over biotechnology is an effort by OCA and other to raise money to support itself since biotech crops are now a permanent part of agriculture in California and Arizona and the world and growing each year. It is unlikely that a ban could be enforced or that the state legislature would outlaw 600,000 acres of California crops.

Last year 52 percent of the California’s cotton acreage was planted to either herbicide or insect resistant varieties. In Arizona it was 94 percent.

Nationwide, 76 percent of the cotton acreage is in biotech varieties; 45 percent of the corn acreage and 85 percent of the soybeans.

All those numbers represent increases from the year before.

There are no figures for herbicide resistant corn in California, but that acreage has reportedly been growing significantly in recent years with new low-input, herbicide-resistant varieties grown under minimum tillage for silage corn for the dairy industry.

Mosel acknowledges that biotechnology is "pervasive" in cotton, corn, soybeans and canola, but he wants to stop it at there.

He cited the reluctance of wheat farmers in the Northern Plains to embrace herbicide-resistant wheat for fear of losing overseas markets as an example of stopping the biotech expansion.

"There has been no new biotech crop introduced in the past four or five years," he said. That is not true because new stacked gene cotton, corn and soybeans are being introduced each year and new generations of herbicide resistant and insect-resistant crops are expected within the next few years.

Biotech popular

Thousands of farmers nationwide have embraced biotech to reduce costs insect pests and weed control costs, only after exhaustive testing and evaluation by several government agencies before biotech crops were approved for commercial production.

However, the public still has doubts spawned by organizations like OCA and that uncertainty is being exploited by environmental radicals, according to agricultural leaders.

"This whole thing is about power and money," said one ag leader. OCA is already canvassing the Bay area for money.

OCA claims 500,000 members and 90,000 in California. However, unlike the Sierra Club and the Environmental Defense Fund, most ag leaders in California had not heard of OCA until the Mendocino initiative.

The oldest environmental group in the nation, the Sierra Club claims a membership of 700,000. EDF says it has 400,000 members.

OCA’s Web site calls itself a grassroots organization dedicated to a three-point "Food Agenda 2000-2010:"

-- A global moratorium on genetically engineered foods and crops.

-- A phase-out of the most dangerous industrial agriculture and factory farming practices.

-- The conversion of American agriculture to at least 30 percent organic by the year 2010.

The Organic Consumers Association claims to be a non-profit organization. It lists no paid staff on its Web site, but lists the following as advisory board members:

-- Maude Barlow-Council of Canadians (Canada).

-- Jay Feldman-National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides (D.C.).

-- Jean Halloran-Consumers Union (N.Y.).

-- Tim Hermach-Native Forest Council (Ore.).

-- Ellen Hickey-Pesticide Action Network (Calif.).

-- Julia Butterfly Hill-Author & Forest Activist (Calif.).

-- Annie Hoy-Ashland Community Food Store (Ore.).

-- Mika Iba-Network for Safe & Secure Food & Environment (Japan).

-- Pat Kerrigan-Youth and Farm Market (Minn.).

-- John Kinsman-Family Farm Defenders (Wis.).

-- Al Krebs-Agribusiness Examiner (Wash.).

-- Bruce Krug-Dairy Farmer (N.Y.).

-- Frances Moore Lappe Howard Lyman-EarthSave (Va.).

-- Charles Margulis-Greenpeace (Md.).

-- Victor Menotti-International Forum on Globalization (Calif.).

-- Robyn Seydel-La Montanita Co-op (N.M.).

-- Vandana Shiva (Research Foundation for Science, Technology, & Natural Resource Policy (India).

-- John Stauber-Center for Media and Democracy & Author (Wis.).

There is one organic farmer OCA need not attempt to recruit: Fresno County farmer Don Cameron, who has been growing organic and conventional crops for several years.

Cameron, chairman of the California Tomato Growers Association and chairman of California Planting Cotton Seed Distributors, has produced organic cotton, tomatoes and lettuce along with conventional crops, including herbicide-resistant cotton, on his farm.

Co-exist well

"Organic and conventional co-exist now without contamination and problems. We have done it for several years," said Cameron.

That is what Cameron offered up on a San Francisco radio talk show recently that featured backers of the Mendocino anti-biotech initiative.

"They were trying to tell me I was contaminating my organic cotton. When I told them cotton was self-pollinating, they had nothing to say. It was obvious they had no scientific background on the issue," he said.

Cameron said the anti-biotech movement is operating on emotions and very little factual information.

"Biotech represents the future of farming and these people want to take it away," he said.

"They have no idea that biotech is not only a money-saving issue for farmers, but because of it we are producing a safer food supply than ever before. We need this technology to stay in business and compete worldwide," said Cameron.

"We have reduced the use of herbicides; cut down on dust and there is less diesel exhaust because we cultivate less. This organic group is missing the boat," he said.

Kings County, Calif., producer Michael Boyette called into the same program and all he got was silence after he tried to detail the benefits of biotech cotton.

"These people want to attack corporations and could not care less about organic production or the science and regulation of biotechnology," he said.

‘Cheaper, safer’

"Technology is bring cheaper and safer food to Americans — some say safer than every before," he said.

The challenge in confronting this anti-biotech movement is convincing the majority of votes that biotech is safe, according to Boyette.

"I think they will listen, but we have got to get the message out," he said.

Butte County is the heart of California rice country and is likely to be the pivotal county that could stem the anti-biotech tide.

The rice industry has been embroiled internally with the biotech issue. Considerable California rice is shipped to Japan, which so far has banned GMO-rice. This prompted the rice industry to recently oppose rice being planted in California that was genetically modified to produce pharmaceuticals. This rice was to be planted in Southern California, far from the rice producing area of Sacramento Valley. Nevertheless, it was opposed in fear of losing overseas markets.

However, this proposed GMO ban in Butte County hits closer to home. If passed, Johansson said it would hamper the research work at the Rice Experiment Station in Biggs, Calif., in Butte County.

"I am hopeful that a lot of the rice groups that opposed the rice pharmaceutical plantings will join our side in opposing the Butte County initiative," he said. "We think they will."

The California Cattlemen’s Association has voted to oppose the Butte County ban, according to Johansson.

Legislative battle

The anti-GMO initiatives are expected to attract widespread news coverage, but court challenges are expected if they pass. The real battle will likely come in the State Legislature where agricultural groups believe they can void local anti-GMO initiatives. They also believe that they can turn back any attempt to legislatively ban biotech crops statewide.

USDA and the Food and Drug Administration evaluate and approve all biotech crops in the U.S., and agriculturists believe that is where the regulation should remain. Biotech crops have probably been the most thoroughly evaluated technology every introduced into American agriculture.

e-mail:hcline@primediabusiness.com