On March 2, 2004, Mendocino County became the first county in the United States to vote in a ban of genetically engineered (GE) or modified organisms (GMO). Just 18 months later, neighboring Sonoma County put a similar initiative, Measure M, on the ballot, only to see it fail by a 10 percent margin. Both counties rely heavily on agricultural products as a source of income, so it would seem that both must face similar risks and rewards by banning GE products. But there is more to the story: the failure of Sonoma’s Measure M may have been a direct result of Mendocino’s victory. And now the state wants to get into the act: an initiative is pending at the state level that could nullify county control over agriculture.
Doug Mosel, who acted as spokesperson for GMO-Free Mendocino, believes that there are unique factors in the Mendocino campaign that contributed to the win. Probably most important was timing. Not only did Mendocino take the opposition by surprise with its initiative, the county also had the advantage of being first off the block with a GMO-free campaign. The opposition, mostly made up of large chemical and fertilizer corporations, was unsure what to expect or how to react. Mendocino County’s agriculture is on a smaller scale than Sonoma’s, and it has the highest percentage of acres in organic produce. One of its largest commercial retailers, Fetzer Vineyards, supported the initiative because the company was already moving toward organic. And as a county, Mendocino has a distinctive cultural narrative of fostering anti-establishment renegades. Right-wing or left, the majority of the population is wary of corporate influence.
“To their credit, the opposition learned from their mistakes in our county,” says Mosel. “In the three ballot initiatives [Butte, San Luis Obispo, and Sonoma] that were really honest competition, the opposition won.” Mosel believes that Mendocino greatly benefited from the way the opposition framed its campaign. CropLife America, which represents the chemical industry, poured in over half a million dollars to a campaign that seemed constantly on the defensive. The GMO-free group focused on offensive framing strategies, which Mosel cites as key to gaining the support of voters. The group hardly reacted to the opposition’s shrill mailers, instead keeping up its educational mission. Mosel spoke about the surprisingly effective homespun radio ads put together by local supporters. “We focused on, `It’s good for the economy, it’s good for our health, it’s good for our environment,’ and only in the last two weeks of the campaign did we change our focus to the oppositional arguments.”
After the ballot initiative passed, the opposition took some hints from the Mendocino campaign. To portray a farmer-friendly image, the Sonoma County Farm Bureau and other commercial growers formed the Family Farmers Alliance to oppose Measure M. “The Farm Bureau campaigns now look almost exactly like ours but reversed,” says Mosel. Dave Henson, who directed the GE-Free Sonoma campaign, agrees with Mosel, saying, “They learned to get the Monsanto corporation logo out of the front line and not directly send any money to the Sonoma campaign.” Though it is still unclear whether the chemical industry donated money to the Family Farmers Alliance, Henson remains skeptical of their campaign tactics. “If you look at their spending reports, which are public documents, they borrowed $150,000 and have yet to say where they got it. This is a classic campaign trick, and after the campaign is over, the biotech corporations could give them $150,000. It’s not illegal, it’s a way to avoid having the public see who is behind a campaign.”
Henson and Mosel believe that the chemical industry’s influence is peaking, together with peak oil. Genetic engineering technology in conjunction with massive industrial-scale monoculture requires a level of chemical and petroleum inputs and distribution systems that assumes endless, escalating volumes of cheap oil. “Biotech and corporate agriculture are not sustainable,” says Mosel. “Peak oil is going to pull the plug on them in a relatively short time. Do we need biotech? No, not in agriculture.” But many who challenge the necessity of GE in agriculture tend to agree that genetic manipulation is essential for medical research. More people support GE medical technology than agricultural GE, and the opposition capitalized on this when formulating its campaign against Measure M.
Henson says, “The Farm Bureau’s TV ads, radio ads, and mailers focused heavily on the claim that if M passed, people would not be able buy many cancer and HIV drugs, insulin, or vaccines. It was just a flat-out lie.” Henson believes the tactic was shameful but very effective. “Many people said that the fear of losing access to medical drugs was why they had voted ‘no’ in the end.” The moratorium proposed by Measure M prohibited only living, reproducing GE organisms, and currently there are no such drugs or vaccines. Henson agrees that Measure M might have prohibited the use of living, reproducing genetically engineered vaccines that might be developed in the future, but he argues that they are in fact dangerous pathogens, which should face the 10-year moratorium proposed by the initiative. Henson has done his own straw poll: after speaking with a number of researchers, he believes that the medical research community is upset with the way Monsanto in particular rushed GE crops onto millions of acres of farmland and thus into processed foods without the rigorous testing that would prove them safe. Agricultural GE research still does not require containment, meaning that genetically engineered pollen and seed from research facilities can easily and invisibly be carried by wind, animal, or insect and commingle with native plants in the vicinity and beyond.
Lab containment is one of four regulations that Henson and other GE-Free supporters are now trying to enact in California at the state level. The other three include the labeling of all seeds and food products containing GE ingredients, public notification of experimental fields or commercial GE crops, and accountability of the biotechnology companies for damages that may result from the release of GE crops and animals. But the GE issue is moving beyond the county level because states nationwide now are passing what is essentially a preemptive resolution for state control of seed production and sales. “Fourteen states have now preempted cities and counties from doing what we have in Mendocino,” says Mosel. “That bill is now pending in California.” If the bill is passed, the win in Mendocino will stand, but new initiatives could not be enacted after July 1, 2006.
Because the bill does not mention GE and focuses only on the control of seed, it can be confusing to voters. California State Senator Dean Florez, who sponsors the legislation, claims it will help to unify the state, but opponents argue that cutting off the will of counties by state decree is undemocratic and that, in the end, it will create more rifts than bridges. Despite the potential obstacle of this state legislation, Henson remains optimistic, saying, “It was a great victory for us in California not to have this law just pass through unnoticed. Because we have been running GE-Free initiatives, win or lose, most state legislators understand that this is a big issue.” Both Mosel and Henson have noticed how their communities have changed as a result of the debate over GE. “People felt the excitement and the energy of realizing that if they got serious about something they could be effective,” says Mosel. Both agree that bringing the issue to the forefront of debate at the local level is a victory in itself.
Monsanto has already sued more than 100 farmers in the US for breaching patents. Many of the farmers sued by Monsanto have had their fields contaminated from neighboring GE crops, but because of the way in which patent law has been applied, they are still considered liable. According to a report released by the Center for Food Safety, “Monsanto has an annual budget of ten million dollars and a staff of 75 devoted solely to investigating and prosecuting farmers.” Henson believes that fruitful debates regarding issues of GE can only occur when we can overcome the existing rift between the often more conservative farming community and the environmental community. Says Henson, “The old narrative is that environmentalists are trying to take farmers’ rights away, but in this particular case, the exact opposite is true.”