A majority of Californians say farmers in their state should not be denied the right to plant biotech crops.

Fully 54 percent of registered voters in California say farmers should be allowed to grow biotech crops and just 31 percent say no. Support for biotech crops skyrockets in the Central Valley, where 68 percent support the planting of biotech crops, and just 24 percent oppose.

The survey of 900 likely voters was conducted May 3-5 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.3 percent. The bipartisan study was conducted by Republican pollsters McLaughlin & Associates, and Democratic pollsters Hart Research Associates.

The release of this poll comes about two months ahead of a November general election ballot to ban biotech crops in Sonoma County. Sonoma is viewed as a key county in California biotech battle because it is largely urban, yet has a strong agricultural industry.

Strong opposition to the Sonoma ban has been mounted by a group formed through the Sonoma County Farm Bureau.

Fifth ban attempt

The Sonoma vote will be the fifth ballot box attempt to ban biotech crops in a California county. The score is currently 3-2 in the biotech battle with pro-biotech/agricultural groups winning in San Luis Obispo, Butte and Humboldt counties and the anti-biotech group winning ballot measures in Mendocino and Marin counties. The anti-biotech faction claims victory in Trinity County where the board of supervisors voted to ban biotech crops via a county ordinance, which can be rescinded. The ordinance was also passed to avoid a costly single-issue county ballot initiative.

Resolutions supporting biotechnology have been passed by 11 county boards of supervisors. These include Fresno, Kings, Kern, San Diego, Stanislaus, Merced, Madera, Tulare, Solano, Sutter and Imperial. These resolutions are non-binding, but they send a clear signal that the leadership in those counties do not support costly attempts to ban biotech crops.

The majority of the 600,000 acres of biotech crops grown in California last season were in those counties.

The anti-biotech faction, backed largely by Minnesota-based Organic Consumer Association, are targeting Sacramento, Yolo, Lake, Nevada, Contra Costa, San Francisco, Alameda, Placer, Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara for anti-biotech initiatives or ordinances in 2006.

However, a defeat in Sonoma County would have a major impact on those initiatives since it would mean a defeat on the home court of the anti-biotech group. Californians for GE-Free Agriculture is heavily funded by and based at Occidental Arts and Ecology Center (OAEC) in Sonoma County. OAEC is a communal, organic farm near Bodega Bay.

Combat ledgers

According to an article in the Sacramento Bee, the anti-bio tech campaign in Sonoma County has raised about $155,000 and the Family Farmers Alliance representing many of the major wine grape growers and dairymen in the county have raised almost $138,000 to defeat the initiative.

In that same article, Renata Billinger, director of Californians for GE-Free Agriculture, dismissed the poll showing support for biotech crops saying poll “answers depend on how questions are phrased.” She said more people are opposed to biotech when it is called generically modified.

“It is clear from these (poll) results that biotech agriculture is here to stay in California,” stated pollster Stu Polk. “Those who seek to ban this technology will have an uphill climb, because the majority of Californians are supportive and accepting of it. And the more the public learns about the benefits of agricultural biotechnology, the more supportive they are.”

Among those voters who say they know “a lot” about biotech agriculture, fully 72 percent support a farmer's right to plant them. Sixty-six percent of those who know a lot about biotech crops say they would purchase foods containing them for their families, compared to 53 percent of the public at large.

“The more California consumers learn about the benefits of biotech crops, the more confident they are that California's family farmers will continue to provide them safe and affordable foods,” said Marko Mlikotin, spokesman for The California Health Foods Coalition, a newly formed grass-roots coalition of leading agricultural organizations and community leaders.

“Clearly, California voters recognize family farmers as a trusted source for information on food safety and that they should be allowed to use progressive farming practices that also benefit the environment.

“California's family farmers serve an important role in providing safe and healthy food to consumers throughout the world,” said Marko Mlikotin, spokesman for the coalition. “When family farmers speak to farming practices that ensure food safety and protecting California's agricultural economy and jobs, consumers listen and ballot measures fail.”

Statewide coalition

The California Healthy Foods Coalition is a statewide group composed of organizations and community leaders including the California Farm Bureau Federation, California Cattlemen's Association and California Women for Agriculture.

“Family farmers understand some people have questions about biotechnology,” said California Farm Bureau President Bill Pauli, a Mendocino County wine grape grower.

“Our coalition will provide people with the facts and will support agricultural innovations that will improve the quality of life for California consumers.”

Consumers will be the ultimate beneficiaries of agricultural biotechnology, he said. New technology holds great promise for protecting the environment, enhancing food production, improving health care, building California's economy and creating local jobs.

The coalition says biotechnology holds great promise to improve the quality of life for all Americans through the research and development of agricultural-based medicines for cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, AIDS and other life-threatening illnesses.

Unfortunately, Pauli said, political activists hope to qualify (more) ballot measures in several California counties that would harm family farmers and the consumers they serve, by banning biotechnology.

“If family farmers didn't welcome innovation and new farming practices, we could not feed the world, nor could we survive economically,” Pauli said. “There is no justification for restricting the family farmers' ability to utilize the kind of breakthroughs and ingenuity we celebrate in every other facet of life.

Contrary to the scare tactics of extremists who seek to ban biotech agriculture from California, more than 3,500 scientists, 25 Nobel Prize winning scientists, the National Academy of Sciences, the European Union, the American Medical Association and the Food and Drug Administration have all concluded that commercial biotech crops are no different than traditionally grown crops and are safe for human consumption, animal feed and the environment.

Biotech crops have been supported by the United Nations and the Vatican because of their potential to help cure malnutrition and starvation in developing nations.

About 200 million acres of biotech crops were planted globally last year.

e-mail: hcline@primedaibusiness.com