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Momentum shifting to opponents of anti-biotech initiatives

At least one of the four anti-biotech initiatives on general election ballots in California counties is likely to go down in defeat — because its sponsor wants it to fail.

According to an Oct. 8 article in the Eureka Reporter, Humboldt Green Genes, key supporter of Measure M, the anti-biotech initiative in Humboldt County have asked that voters reject the measure.

The reason given in the article by the group’s co-chairman Martha Devine is that the proposed county law is flawed, and the group will create a "better one" for voters on next year’s ballot. They would have to collect enough signatures to qualify for the ballot again and that may not be as easy the second time around considering all the controversy the first ordinance generated.

Humboldt County has the highest percentage of biotech crops — primarily herbicide-resistant corn grown by dairymen — than any of the four counties which will be voting on anti-biotech initiatives in about a week. Dairymen said they could be jailed for growing corn if the measure passed.

As election day moved closer, the momentum seems to have shifted from the radical anti-biotech groups to agriculture with major newspapers in two of the counties where anti-GE initiatives are on the ballot, San Luis Obispo and Butte, coming out against anti-biotech measures.

Also, the 23-campus California State University system-wide biotechnology program issued strong opposition to the anti-GM initiatives in the four counties that would prohibit the cultivation of biotech crops.

Increased farm income

Just 10 days before the balloting, the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy issued a report that said the widespread adoption of six biotech-derived crops last year increased farmer income, boosted yields, reduced pesticide use and spurred greater use of environmentally-friendly no-till agriculture.

Compared with conventional crops, the study suggested that the six biotech crops — corn, canola, papaya, soybeans, cotton and squash — increased grower income by an additional $1.9 billion, boosted crop yields by 5.3 billion pounds and reduced pesticide use by 46.4 million pounds in 2003.

This is not good news for the anti-biotech minority in California that was feeling its organic oats after getting an anti-biotech initiative passed last spring in Mendocino County and a watered-down version of the same thing approved as a county ordinance in Trinity County.

A well-organized and well-funded anti-biotech network definitely had the upper hand when the battle for votes in Marin, San Luis Obispo, Butte and Humboldt counties began last summer. However, opponents of the measures, primarily local farm and ranch groups have gained momentum from the Minnesota-based Organic Consumer Association (OCA) which has been spearheading and funding the California anti-biotech movement.

OCA gained a lot of yardage with a couple of end runs in sparsely populated and relatively insignificant agricultural counties of Mendocino and Trinity. They ran into much stronger opposition when they moved into key agricultural counties en route to what they hope is a statewide anti-biotech movement where there are already 600,000 acres of biotech crops growing and more acreage is predicted in the near future.

Butte County opposition

That opposition to an anti-biotech initiative has been particularly strong in Butte County where farmers and ranchers have refused to take money from biotech companies and raised more than $100,000 among themselves and local ag suppliers to defeat Measure D, the anti-biotech ballot there.

The battle in Mendocino was primarily between OCA and the biotech companies which poured more than $600,000 in an unsuccessful attempt to stop the anti-biotech movement in one of the most liberal counties in the state. The biotech companies have stayed out of the battles in the four counties voting on Nov. 2.

Supporters of Measure D raised $15,000 for the Butte County election. Organic Consumers Association contributed $10,000 of that.

Measure D also has drawn opposition from the Chico Chamber of Commerce and the American Society of Plant Biologists who told the Butte County Board of Supervisors that "passage of Measure D would mark a historic step backwards for science and agriculture for Butte County and the state."

The county’s leading newspaper, The Chico Enterprise-Record, says Measure D turns its back on science.

The newspaper said Measure D is "written by people who really have nothing at stake." Farm families are the ones with the most at stake in Measure D and "farmers are overwhelmingly opposed to Measure D," said the editorial.

Genetic engineering is a genie already out of the bottle. "Farmers aren’t dumb. If this stuff wasn’t working they would not be adopting it.

"The technique can let them feed and clothe the world better; combat vitamin deficiencies, and reduce chemical use...its potential is as limitless as human imagination," said the editorial writer in asking readers to vote no on Measure D.

The San Luis Obispo Tribune took a more academic approach in opposing Measure Q, San Luis Obispo County’s anti-biotech ordinance.

The newspaper compared it to the "flawed" Humboldt County initiative and that passage of it could prevent medical biotechnology firms from locating there.

However, the Paso Robles Vintners and Growers Association has stated its "strong opposition" to Measure Q. Paso Robles has become a booming growth area as well as one of the more popular wine growing areas along the central coast. It attracts wine aficionados from throughout the state.

Opposition factors

The association’s opposition is based on several legal and financial factors, but one of the most compelling is that growers and vintners believe banning biotech would hamper research efforts to resist Pierce’s Disease and other pests to the detriment to the county’s leading agricultural crop, wine grapes.

Probably the most widely publicized opposition to the ballot measure came from the biotechnology division of the nation's largest university system, the California State University system with 23 campuses statewide, including campuses in San Luis Obispo, Chico (Butte County) and Arcata (Humboldt County).

"These initiatives narrowly and selfishly serve the purpose of the anti-biotech community by attempting to prohibit the cultivation of biotech crops that have proven to be beneficial to agriculture in general, and farmers and the environment in particular," according to the release from CSU’s program for education and research in biotechnology.

"When we see ballot measures coming out of this type where there is very little scientific reasoning taking place...we feel compelled to voice our opinion," said A. Stephen Dahms, executive director of the CSU biotech program at San Diego State.

Californians for GE-Free Agriculture spokesman Renata Brillinger called the CSU position "predictable but continually disappointing and, I think, outrageous" in an article in the Sacramento Bee.

The firefights in at least three of the four counties have been ferocious, but most observers predict win or lose, what happens on Election Day in those 4 counties will be only the second volley of a long and protracted battle over the issue of agricultural biotechnology in California and the rest of the U.S.

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