Els Cooperrider, one of the leaders of the Mendocino County, Calif., initiative to ban GMOs, shows off the local newspaper headline announcing the group’s victory.
California’s Mendocino County became the first county in the United States to ban the growing of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) when 57 percent of its voters cast their ballots on March 2 in favor of the initiative called Measure H.
“This is a literal turning point against genetically engineered foods, and toward organic and sustainable agriculture,” says Ronnie Cummins, executive director of the Organic Consumers Association.
GMOs are crops and animals genetically altered by biotech companies seeking to add desirable traits. GMOs are controversial because many people are concerned that the long-term health and environmental effects of genetic engineering (GE) are unknown, and they are wary of companies adding so many GE ingredients to foods. Organic growers are especially concerned because organic foods must be GE-free, but pollen drift from GE crops is contaminating nearby organic crops. For consumers, it’s a challenge to avoid genetically engineered products because the biotech industry has refused to label what many now call “Frankenfoods.” As a result of these concerns, citizen’s groups across the nation are now pushing for outright bans on growing GE crops.
“Mendocino is the first county in the nation to do this, but it has inspired many others, not only in California but all over the world,” Cummins says. This spring, more than 75 cities in Vermont passed resolutions to keep GMOs out of their communities. Groups in other counties in California, and in Colorado, Hawaii, Missouri and North Dakota are considering no-GMO ballot measures, too.
In Europe, although the European Union recently approved the importation of genetically engineered corn, 22 countries have started ban-GMOs initiatives, and hundreds of cities in Austria, Belgium, England, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy and Slovenia already have approved GMO-free resolutions.
In California, the pro-GMO lobbying organization CropLife spent more than $700,000 in an unsuccessful attempt to block Mendocino County’s Measure H and has vowed to challenge it in courts and the state legislature. Shortly after the passage of the initiative, the Organic Consumers Association launched BioDemocracy Alliance, a major campaign to oppose state legislation against Mendocino County’s ban and to support GE-free zones across the nation. The association also supported the anti-GMO effort in Vermont, where the legislature passed the “Farmer Right to Know Act” mandating the labeling of genetically engineered seeds but dropped another measure that would have banned all GMOs in the state.
Cummins says the California legislature is likely to face a “ferocious fight” if the biotech industry lobbies to repeal Measure H. “This is not a minor issue in California. This is not just about genetic engineering. It’s about democracy,” he says. “Are they going to tell us what we can eat and grow, or are we going to have local control?”
Els Cooperrider, owner of the Ukiah (Calif.) Brewing Company and one of the leaders of the campaign in Mendocino County, says, “The challenge for other communities will be greater because now the biotech industry is onto us. They lost miserably and they learned that they need to pay attention.”
More than 150 million acres worldwide are planted in biotech crops — chiefly corn, cotton, soybeans and canola. Some estimates show 60 percent of conventional food products test positive for GE ingredients. Go to www.organicconsumers.org/ge-free.htm to learn more about the BioDemocracy Alliance campaign.