Mendocino County & Making a Difference with GMO-Free Zones

Mendocino County & Making a Difference with GMO-Free Zones
By Patricia Dines
The Organic Guide to Sonoma, Napa, and Mendocino Counties, 2005, page 46-49
(c) Patricia Dines, 2005. All rights reserved.

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"This is about protecting farmers' rights and our agricultural economy,
the public health of our citizens, and the integrity of our natural ecosystems."

David Henson, Campaign Director of GE-Free Sonoma County
& Director of the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center

On March 2, 2004, Mendocino became the first U.S. county to pass a ban on genetically modified (GM) crops - joining regions worldwide seeking to avoid contamination by genetically modified organisms (GMOs) by using GMO-Free zones.

The ban was approved by voters despite the fact that GMO manufacturers spent of over $600,000, a county record.129 The election attracted national, even international, attention. Reporters from major news outlets were here in this county of 87,000, to see the election results.130

Mendocino's ban prohibits planting, growing, and propagating GMO crops and animals in the county. Proponents say agriculture officials can enforce it as part of their regular inspections process. The initiative doesn't impact the sale of GMO foods.

The ban measure was spearheaded by Campaign Director Els Cooperrider, co-owner of the certified-organic Ukiah Brewing Co. & Restaurant, and a member of the Mendocino Organic Network, a small group of farmers and business people. Community members contributed by gathering signatures to put the measure on the ballot. Backers raised a total of $143,000,  131 most in small contributions from county residents, "who see the campaign as another case of David vs. Goliath." 132

Cooperrider said that she sought passage of this initiative for a simple reason - to prevent irreparable harm to the county's economy and environment. Katrina Frey, of the organic Frey Vineyards, called the initiative "an insurance policy to protect Mendocino County's multimillion-dollar exports of conventional and organic agricultural products."133

A variety of local organic and conventional wineries supported the measure, including Jeriko Estate, Ceàgo Vinegarden, Yorkville Cellars, Roederer Estates, and Fetzer Vineyards, the county's largest winery and California's largest grower of certified organic grapes.134 Wine grapes are Mendocino County's top agricultural commodity.135 About 16% of Mendocino's 16,000 wine grape acres are grown organically.136

"GMOs are a real threat to the wine industry, the fishing industry, and to organic growers," says Cooperrider. "Wind- and insect-borne GMO pollen can cross-pollinate with natural grapevines, whether conventional or organic, and threaten the viability and livelihood of organic and conventional wineries. GMO pollution would make the wine unmarketable in the European Union and in Japan." 137 At least 30 lab trials of GMO wine grapes are now being proposed in (undisclosed) California locations.138

GMOs are also a potential threat to local salmon. In a 2004 study, GMO salmon, engineered to grow as much as seven times faster than wild salmon, dominated other fish to the extent that they wiped out the wild species.139 Farm-raised salmon regularly escape from their pens. An application to market GMO salmon in the U.S. is pending.140

GMO drift also threatens organic farms, potentially making their product unsaleable as organic and putting their certification at risk. The prestigious Independent Science Panel says that "contamination is generally acknowledged to be unavoidable; hence there can be no co-existence of transgenic and non-transgenic crops." 141

"Organic food, wine and beer are extremely important to the county's economy," concludes Cooperrider. "If organic food production is going to remain viable, we have to safeguard it." 142

In an editorial, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat advises, "Until society learns more about the risks associated with biotechnology, caution is advised, especially in a county that aspires to becoming a showplace for organic farming." 143

GMO Claims & Reality

To create GMOs, manufacturers modify plants, animals, insects, and other species at the genetic level, in order to combine species characteristics. So they create corn with a caterpillar-killing bacteria, goats with spider DNA, rice with human genes, and other plants and animals "not seen on earth in 2 billion years of evolution." 144

First sold in 1994, GMO crops are now planted on 167 million acres worldwide. The most prominent crops (corn, cotton, soybeans, and canola) are engineered to be herbicide-tolerant or produce their own insecticides. The U.S. is the world's top GMO producer.145

GMOs are created by forcibly injecting gene elements from one species into another, across the species barrier. Thus, they differ substantively from traditional plant and animal breeding, where genes are combined only between organisms that can naturally breed.

Promoters make enticing claims about GMOs, including promising reduced pesticide use, increased crop yields, and "feeding the world." However, in reality, overall pesticide use has increased 4.1% on land planted with GM varieties146; some crops have had reduced yields, even failures147; and third world countries have spoken out against GMOs, seeing them as a threat to traditional self-sufficient localized agriculture, which is a key solution to world hunger.148 Although farmers have saved seeds for thousands of years, they can't save GMO seeds and must buy them each year from the manufacturer - which increases costs, reduces access, and gives companies monopoly control of the seeds of life. Analysts have concluded that feeding the world is more achievable with non-GMO approaches.149

The likely harm from GMOs is enormous. Despite industry promises to control the risks, the predictable mistakes and "unexpected" problems are already causing harm to health, farmers, and ecosystems. The 37 people dead and over 6,000 seriously injured from GM L-tryptophan, the Monarch butterflies dying from Bt corn, the food and seed recalls, and the creation of superweeds are seen by independent scientists as early warnings of even worse probable disasters from this highly-risky, largely-unregulated technology. They warn against introducing GMOs so widely without extensive prior health and environmental testing. The risk of GMOs surpasses even that of toxics, because GMOs infiltrate ecosystems and farmland irreversibly - multiplying and combining instead of dissipating.150

Professor Richard Lacey, MD, microbiologist and Professor of Food Safety at Leeds University, has spoken out strongly against GMOs because of "the essentially unlimited health risks.... It is virtually impossible to even conceive of a testing procedure to assess the health effects of genetically engineered foods when introduced into the food chain, nor is there any valid nutritional or public interest reason for their introduction."151

In reality, we're all involuntary guinea pigs, with the results not even being tracked by labelling. Says Dr. Barry Commoner, "The genetically engineered crops now being grown represent a massive uncontrolled experiment whose outcome is inherently unpredictable. The results could be catastrophic."152

Because of safety concerns and lack of testing, no major insurers in Britain will offer coverage for GMOs. One insurer compared the possible risks of GMOs to "thalidomide, asbestos, and acts of terrorism." 153 Still, GMO manufacturers continue to produce and distribute this risky technology, while seeking to avoid liability for their products in various ways. Thus, they want to profit while leaving the rest of us to cover essentially unlimited health and environmental costs.

A Key Problem: GMO Pollution

It's reasonable that farmers would have a right to choose what they plant. Unfortunately, however, a farmer's choice to use GMOs doesn't just affect their field. GMO pollen has been shown to travel significant distances, polluting the land of other farmers, wild lands, and more. As a result of this drift, farmers worldwide are losing markets that require GMO-free foods; organic farmers are unable to sell their food as organic; wild plant genetics are being altered; and consumers are losing sources of organic food.

In a stunning turn, instead of being responsible for the impact of their drift, GMO manufacturers have found a way to shift responsibility for their drift to the victim! They have worked the law so that, when GMOs drift onto a farmer's land, the farmer can be sued by the GMO manufacturer for illegal possession of the patented seeds! Monsanto actively pursues illegal possession claims - with a purported $10 million budget and team of 75. The Center for Food Safety (CFS) reports that Monsanto's total recorded judgments for these cases are over $15 million, averaging $412,000 a farmer (often plus court and other costs).154 In the face of this, many farmers just pay an out-of-court settlement.

"These lawsuits and settlements are nothing less than corporate extortion of American farmers," says Andrew Kimbrell, CFS Executive Director. Joseph Mendelson, CFS Legal Director, says, "Monsanto would like nothing more than to be the sole source for staple crop seeds in this country and around the world. And it will aggressively overturn centuries-old farming practices and drive its own clients out of business through lawsuits to achieve this goal."155

One courageous farmer, Percy Schmeiser, decided to fight back against this corporate giant - all the way to the Canadian Supreme Court. In 2004, the Court ruled that Schmeiser did illegally have Monsanto's seeds on his land, despite the fact that it was involuntary. Schmeiser said, "I believe that Monsanto will face huge liability issues down the road. The Court determined that they have ownership of the plant and that I infringed by having it in my field. With ownership comes responsibility and I assume more lawsuits will be filed against them for the contamination of farmer's fields." 156

A group of Saskatchewan organic farmers has indeed filed for class action status to hold GMO companies liable for damage to organic farmers from GMO canola's introduction. The area is so contaminated that farmers can't grow organic canola. Their slogan is, "The right to farm GMO-free; the right to eat GMO-free." 157

The Solutions

Unless we as a community hold the line against GMO drift, it will irretrievably contaminate more and more of our farmland, ecosystems - and us. More types of foods will be polluted as well, if the many new GMO crops now in the lab are allowed into production.

Because governments have failed to prevent the drift of this highly-risky technology, and GMO manufacturers have sought to avoid responsibility for it, GMO-Free zones are one of the few ways that communities can protect themselves. The purpose of GMO-Free zones is to help stop GMO contamination before it irreversibly contaminates local ecosytems and agriculture.

However, because all nature is interconnected, and GMOs can come into an area through a variety of means, we as a community must also demand more fundamental solutions, including:

* Ensuring thorough health and environmental testing before releasing GMOs into our food and ecosystems.

* Forbidding development and commercial use of GMO crops unless drift is prevented, to avoid involuntary contamination.

* Assigning liability for biological pollution to manufacturers and drifters, not those involuntarily drifted upon.

* Amending the Patent Act so that GMO plants are not patentable and seed saving is not considered patent infringement.

* Labelling all GMO products, so that consumers can choose what they want to support.

What's Next

Mendocino County's success has encouraged other communities across the U.S. Locally, Trinity and Marin Counties have passed similar initiatives, as has the city of Arcata (in Humboldt County). Sonoma County's proposed 10-year ban is on the ballot Nov. 8, 2005. Similar measures are being advanced around the world. In Europe alone, nearly 2,000 jurisdictions in 22 countries have declared themselves GMO-Free zones.158

Meanwhile, GMO makers are seeking to undermine these democratic decisions. When Mendocino's initiative passed, Allan Noe, spokesman for CropLife America said, "I don't think we can afford to let it stand." CropLife is the industry trade group that largely funded the opposition to Mendocino's ban.159

Recently, nine states introduced remarkably similar bills that would stop localities from restricting any seed sales. The bills are viewed as a nationally-coordinated attempt to block GMO-Free ordinances. One Iowa lobbyist said, "The bill is not about GMOs, it's about seed. Farmers shouldn't be prohibited from growing what they want to grow." 160 Unfortunately, farmers choosing to grow GMO crops inevitably impose those seeds far beyond their property line.

According to Dave Henson, Director of the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center and an author of the Sonoma County measure, "This is not an environmentalists versus farmers initiative. This is farmers and environmentalists coming together to prevent genetic contamination of our farms and ecosystem." 161

We encourage you to help protect us all from GMO's harm. Support the groups taking action. Educate yourself and others, so that you can sort through the media messages. According to Jeffrey M. Smith, author of Seeds of Deception, "Studies show that the more people learn about GM foods, the less they trust them. Consequently, the world market for GM food is shrinking." 162 As demand for non-GMO and organic food continues to grow.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: See Resources, Page 165. Sonoma County initiative information is at <>.


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Campaign press release. <www.gmofreemendo. com/press_releases/2004-03-03.html>


"Mendocino County Voters Ban Biotech Crops", Mike Geniella, Press Democrat, March 3, 2004.


Els Cooperrider.


"County Weighs Ban on Modified Food," Bobby Caina Calvan, Boston Globe, Feb. 29, 2004.


"Mendocino May Say No to Genetically Modified Vines," Lynn Alley, Wine Spectator, Dec. 4, 2003.


"Fetzer Backs Ban on Altered Crops," Mike Geniella, Press Democrat, Jan. 23, 2004 <www.pressdemocrat. com/local/news/23 fetzer.html>


Mendocino County Agricultural Commissioner, 2003 Crop Report. Wine grapes earned $70 million, surpassing timber's $68 million.


Ibid. Total bearing wine grape acres: 15,576. Organic wine grape acres: 2,500, or 16%.


"WEC Joins Fight To Ban Genetically Modified Organisms In The County," Mike A'Dair, Willits News, Aug. 27, 2003.


"Mendocino Votes on GE Crop Ban," PAN Updates Service, March 1, 2004.


"Genetically Modified Salmon Outeat Wild Fish," Kathleen M. Wong, June 17, 2004. < nz/072004/bulletin24. html>


Action Alert, The Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods, <www.the>. Page has articles on GMO salmon.


"Genetic Engineering Dangers and Impacts: Lessons from Real Life," Independent Science Panel (ISP). <>. Page describes other key problems with GMOs. Also see "Mendocino Votes on GE Crop Ban,"op cit.


"Organic Farmers' Initiative Plants Seeds of Dissent," Glen Martin, SF Chronicle, Dec. 23, 2003.


"Altered Crops," Press Democrat, Dec. 6, 2003.


Martin, op cit.


"Biotech Ban May Sprout Others," Sacramento Bee, Edie Lau and Mike Lee, March  5, 2004. < arcid=2798>


"Genetically Engineered Crops and Pesticide Use in the United States: The First Nine Years," Dr. Charles M. Benbrook, Northwest Science and Environmental Policy Center, Oct. 25, 2004. <>


ISP, op cit.


For example, "We strongly object that the image of the poor and hungry from our countries is being used by giant multinational corporations to push a technology that is neither safe, environmentally friendly nor economically beneficial." Statement by delegates from 20 African countries to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN meeting on Plant Genetic Resources. <>


For example, <>.


Mothers for Natural Law, <>. A good summary of GMO risks. Scientist statements are at <>.


Mothers for Natural Law, <>


"Unraveling the DNA Myth: The Spurious Foundation of Genetic Engineering," Dr. Barry Commoner, Harpers, Feb. 2002. <>


Mendocino GMO-Free Initiative, Summary and Talking Points.


"Monsanto vs. U.S. Farmers," Center For Food Safety, 2005. < farmersreport.cfm>. CFS's helpline for farmers facing lawsuits is (888) FARMHLP.


"Monsanto Assault on U.S. Farmers Detailed in New Report," Jan. 13, 2005. <www.percy>




Saskatchewan Organic Directorate website. <>


"The Myth and Necessity of GM Free Zones," Jeffrey M. Smith, Oct 1, 2004. < asp?arcid=4474>


Lau and Lee, op cit.


"9 U.S. states limit local GM regs," Mar 30 2005. <>


"More California Counties to Vote on Banning Genetically Engineered Crops," Wine Spectator, Lynn Alley, June 28, 2004.


Smith, op cit.

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