Thursday, February 10, 2005

GMO ban in Sonoma County?

An alternate title could’ve been “Fear and Loathing in Sonoma County”…

While the movement presents itself as a defense of small farmers from big agriculture, I think that bigger businesses - certainly those who export their products to Japan or the EU - will be much more hesitant to start farming with the new GMO's when they arrive in the marketplace. I'm not saying that small farmers will be the only ones utilizing these new plants, just that the markets open for these products are already limited by bans in other countries. Any products made using them will have an uphill battle trying to export it's probably more likely that we'll see them being hawked in domestic markets.

When Mendocino was the first County in the US to ban the use of genetically modified organisms comments were made by proponents that it was just the begining. They had characterized it as a grassroots rebellion against corporate farming and the (obviously evil) agri-businesses.
I have to say that a balanced approach to the idea of GMO plants being introduced into the environment is prudent. But a 10 year ban on ALL altered crops? What about pharmaceutical crops producing tamoxifen for anti breast cancer use?

It seems to me that we're poised to throw the baby out with the bathwater yet again...

This ban just seems too broad in it’s scope & too poorly worded. All the benefits of science would be stiffled for the unproven (but possible) fear of "biological cross-contamination". If there are some specifics that the GMO ban proponents would like to bring forward, then I think we could have a serious sit-down discussion of what the pro's and con's of the issue are. Right now the movement seems to be more of a knee-jerk reaction to fears whipped up in the press, and supplemented by anti big agri-business fears.

When I was approached to sign the petition (three occasions) the volunteers collecting the signatures couldn't produce a copy of the ordinance, or give any specifics of GMO's having gotten "out of hand". (One guy brought up "killer bees" as an example, but I quickly reminded him that they weren't GMO's - just normal organisims brought into a new environment, like Dingos in Australia, or Starlings here in the states...)

"Dave Henson, director of the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center and the primary author of the ballot measure, acknowledged there is no clear definition of genetic engineering. But essentially, he said, the ordinance seeks to prohibit the removal of genetic material from one organism and inserting it into another so that the new organism is able to reproduce." Clark Mason, Press Democrat (

From the article I see that Valerie Brown (my least favorite Sonoma County Supervisor, BTW...) is showing some common sense & skepticism when asking for clarification of what would be prohibited. That the primary author of the ban doesn’t have that clarification handy is kind of scary…

Brown also mentions that the "normal" everyday practice of hybridization and cross pollination would also seem to be prohibited by the ban. However that's not what the ordinancce states. It specifically states [§6 (b)] ~

"Transgenic manipulation" does not include traditional breeding, conjugation, traditional fermentation (such as in the making of beer, wine, bread and yogurt), hybridization, in-vitro fertilization, or tissue culture.

While I think that 10 years is too long, and the ban too encompassing in it's scope, I think the debate should be interesting and is needed. Perhaps the ban could be 5 years in duration? The term of the ban is ostensibly set at 10 years to allow for "rigorous, public scientific review and extensive public debate" as set forth in §3(c), but it seems somewhat arbitrary...

Other protions of the text are speculative in nature, and are argumentative - not fact. §3(a) states that the Federal Government (via the EPA, FDA, & USDA) "has failed to establish adequate protocols and safeguards" for the use of GMO's. I think that it may be possible (and perhaps advisable) to have more stringent containment protocols, but wonder what harm has been done to date using our current protocols? Some articles claim that as much as 70% of our current conventional food supply in the US has already had some genetic modification...Last I'd read, we weren't seeing a pandemic of three-headed canaries, or roving bands of carnivorous sheep plaguing the nation because of it.

The following is from the proposed ordinance, and I think is its most powerful argument (read the whole document here) [§3(g)]:

(g) We seek to protect the right to farm, so that those farmers who choose to farm without transgenic crop varieties can do so without having their crops and seed stocks genetically contaminated by pollen or seed brought by wind, insects, birds, animals, water, trucks or farm machinery from neighboring farms with transgenic varieties. If we allow transgenic varieties of crops to be introduced into our county, those farmers who choose to not use transgenic varieties will in time, very likely suffer genetic contamination of their crops and seed stocks, and suffer loss of their markets for non-transgenic products. For the many certified organic producers in our county, such contamination may result in a loss of organic certification, and loss of premium sales for organic products.

Again, my feeling is that larger producers who are exporting their products will be much more hesitant to use the GMO's due to the importing markets wanting to prohibit their use. For this reason, I think that most of the farmers who adopt some of these potential new crops will be smaller ones, or at least ones which don't look outside of the local marketplace. Surely Ma and Pa Kettle would be likely to pick them up if they thought they'd get better returns on their property by using them, and the price for purchase was right...and they'd probably not give a hoot about what Japan thinks either...


Post a Comment

<< Home