Calif. County to Vote on Genetically Modified Crops

The tomatoes, basil and apples that Shelley Arrowsmith grows on her modest 2.5-acre farm in Sonoma County are produced without chemical fertilizers or pesticides.

Flowers surrounding her vegetable garden attract what she calls "good bugs" that eat the troublesome ones. In her beehives, grease pads draw mites away from the hives and are later eaten by ants.

While she has a choice about whether to use chemicals, she worries about a possible change in the county's agricultural industry that may leave her without a choice: the use of genetically altered crops (search).

Fear of having her produce contaminated by such crops prompted her to support a local measure on the Nov. 8 ballot. Measure M (search) would ban the planting or cultivating of any genetically altered crops in Sonoma County, a region best known for its pastoral vineyards and lush orchards.

"The bees have no boundaries. They can go wherever they want," Arrowsmith said.

Voters have approved similar bans in Mendocino, Marin and Trinity counties but rejected them in Humboldt, San Luis Obispo and Butte counties. Opponents of genetically modified crops have lobbied for outright bans in Hawaii and Vermont, but California remains the only state in the nation where voters have banned such crops locally.

In Sonoma County, farmers have lined up on both sides. Supporters and opponents have spent $850,000 total on the campaign, approaching the most ever spent on a Sonoma County ballot fight.

The county farm bureau opposes the ban. It has raised money from area farmers and wineries but has avoided taking money from biotech companies.

About three-quarters of the funding for the campaign supporting the ban has come from the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, a local organic farm and education center.

Opponents of genetically modified crops said there has been insufficient research on the health effects of eating contaminated food. Arrowsmith, 54, worries that they will migrate to her farm from nearby fields, perhaps through pollinating bees.

Such fears are unfounded, said Lex McCorvey (search), executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau. He said different species of apples or tomatoes can be planted next to each other and not become contaminated. The risk of cross-pollination is very low for crops such as corn, he added.

Many foods commonly found in grocery stores also are the result of genetic tinkering, he said.

"We've been dealing with all these risks in agriculture since the beginning of time," McCorvey said.

He said the proposed 10-year ban on genetically modified crops could hurt Sonoma County farmers in the multibillion-dollar international agricultural industry. In the United States, most packaged foods have some genetically modified component. Europe, however, has imposed restrictions on genetically modified crop imports.

Biotech agriculture already is helping feed millions of people, reduce the use of pesticides, cure diseases and improve nutrition, said Martina Newell-McGloughlin (search), director of the University of California's biotechnology program. She said federal standards already strictly govern the industry.

"These are seriously well-regulated. Any of these crops before they're commercially approved go through seven to 10 years of review, and there's at least nine layers of study in there," said Newell-McGloughlin, a professor at UC Davis.

Art Lafranchi believes the 45 acres of genetically modified feed corn on his 255-acre Sonoma County dairy farm is much cleaner than the conventional corn he had before.

Over six years, he said the amount and strength of the pesticides his workers have had to apply to the weed-resistant crop has dropped each year.

"We're using less chemicals, we're using chemicals that have far less impact, and it costs less and it does a much better job," he said. "What they [supporters of a ban] want flies in the face of what environmentalists want — having an environment that's less toxic to us."

McCorvey said the farm bureau wasn't concerned with genetic engineering until supporters of a ban drafted their ballot measure. The board spent a year researching it and decided the proposed ban would hurt farmers more than it would help, he said.

Steve Dutton, a fifth generation farmer near Sebastopol, works 1,300 acres of wine grapes and apples, including 75 acres certified as organic. He said he would jump at the chance to plant a disease-resistant grape vine. One hasn't been invented yet and is probably years off.

"We should have a right to farm what we want to farm as long as the U.S. government says it's OK," said Dutton, 38, who also is a member of the farm board.

If the ban is approved by voters, the county would be responsible for enforcing it. Fines would be up to $1,000 for each violation.