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GMO ban headed to voters in Sonoma County

Sonoma County supervisors Tuesday advanced a highly disputed initiative to ban genetically modified crops and seeds in Sonoma County, while also voicing strong opposition to the proposed ordinance submitted by a group of citizens concerned about the spread of GMOs.

The measure will be placed before voters in November, when they will be asked for the second time in 11 years whether to ban GMO crops and seeds in unincorporated areas of the county.

Supervisors said the proposed ordinance was significantly flawed, with some arguing that it is “based on fear, not science.”

“I’m against fear-based ballot box measures,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane. “This ill-advised proposed ordinance is so broad, it could easily prevent our county’s agriculture and other industries from taking advantage of future technologies. The way it’s written makes me very concerned about unintended consequences down the road.”

Zane’s comments came at the heels of a county-commissioned report by the University of California Cooperative Extension, which found the proposed ordinance is vague and its findings are not valid.

“Growers and producers would not know what is prohibited and what is not,” said Stephanie Larson, the organization’s director.

Supervisors conceded, however, that they had limited options because proponents of a ban have collected enough signatures — roughly 10,000 more than are needed to qualify for the Nov. 8 ballot — to take the measure to voters. The board could have adopted the ordinance outright on Tuesday, but it decided unanimously to place the proposed ordinance before voters, a move supported by the 3,000-member Sonoma County Farm Bureau.

Only voters living in unincorporated areas of the county will be allowed to vote on the proposal.

The measure would “prohibit the propagation, cultivation, raising or growing of genetically engineered organisms in the unincorporated county, with certain narrow exceptions.” It would not prevent the sale or purchase of genetically engineered food or seed, or forbid medical treatment for humans or animals using altered vaccines or medication. It also wouldn’t prevent research into GMOs within the county, as long as it was conducted in secure labs.

Supervisor Efren Carrillo, the board chairman, joined Zane and Supervisor David Rabbitt in voicing concerns about the long-term impacts the measure could have on the county’s powerful agricultural industry.

Carrillo said the county could not support the proposal, but he would not say whether supervisors would actively campaign against it.

“If the Board of Supervisors were comfortable with the language, we would have adopted it today,” Carrillo said.

Carrillo’s remarks followed nearly three hours of public comment from people on both sides of the issue, including a group who wore anti-GMO shirts and several members of the Farm Bureau.

Supporters of the ban said they were concerned about health risks from consuming genetically modified foods and unwanted crop-contamination, while opponents said a ban could restrict local farmers from adapting to future technologies that could assist in the eradication of harmful plant- and vine-killing diseases and even reduce the use of pesticides.

Supporters of the ban appeared deflated after Tuesday’s decision but Karen Hudson, a spokeswoman for the initiative, said she was not deterred. Although a similar local proposal failed at the ballot box in 2005, Hudson argued that the current initiative has strong support. Hudson mentioned the amount of signatures she and others were able to gather — more than 24,000 — as well as growing momentum in support of bans against genetically modified seeds and crops. Mendocino and Marin counties have such bans in place.

“It’s going to pass,” said Hudson, who represents the Rohnert Park-based Citizens for Healthy Farms and Families, which is taking the lead on the initiative.

The federal government, many scientists and food producers argue that genetically modified foods are safe, while critics contend the crops pose health risks, citing research purportedly showing that GMOs can cause problems ranging from allergies to cancer.

Jane Nielson, a local environmental activist, urged supervisors to immediately adopt the ordinance. Without a ban, Nielson and others said, local farmers will be exposed to the unintended spread of genetically modified seeds and pollens, such as by the wind.

“I’m a rural resident … and I also own part of a piece of a farm in Kansas and we grow GMO soybeans and corn. If we did not, they would become GMO by drift pollen,” Nielson said. “We really have very little choice.”

Local farmers also argued that the county’s economy, and its agricultural industry itself, is at risk by the spread of genetically modified plants and crops.

“Sonoma County is a brand — I guarantee you that the people who want to buy sustainable food want to buy food that has no GMOs in it,” said Evan Wiig, executive director of The Farmers Guild, a local nonprofit that represents farmers and ranchers.

“These modified plants are showing up in our food system,” said Albert Straus, an organic farmer who owns Straus Family Creamery based in Petaluma.

“GMOs are not being contained. I found GMOs in my certified organic corn in 2005.”

Those who oppose a ban on genetically modified plants and seeds, however, said enacting such an ordinance could harm local businesses and prevent those in agriculture from adapting their farming practices to prevent the spread of diseases.

Tito Sasaki, a Sonoma-based grape grower who is active with the Farm Bureau, and others mentioned scientific advances underway that could help grape-growers prevent Pierce’s disease and other vineyard problems like powdery mildew growing on grapes.

“We cannot afford to shut ourselves out of new technologies and sciences that in the future could help us,” Sasaki said. “This could affect all of agriculture.”

Larson said in the UC report that genetically engineered crops are more strictly regulated than any other agricultural or food product, and there is no scientific evidence that consuming genetically modified foods pose a greater health risk than conventionally grown foods.

Larson also said the ordinance would not prevent cross-contamination or cross-pollination because 97 percent of agricultural activity falls within a five mile radius of incorporated areas, where the proposed ban would not apply.

“This ordinance would not provide 100 percent protection and therefore the prevention of cross pollination cannot be guaranteed,” Larson said.

Hudson said she and other proponents of the ban are ready to take their fight to the ballot box.

“We initially wanted it to go on the ballot,” Hudson said. “We were just hoping that they’d enact it into law today to make it easier. It would save Sonoma County money.”

The cost to place the measure on the ballot is estimated at $367,000 to $489,000, according to William Rousseau, the county’s Registrar of Voters.

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.