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County weighs ban on modified food

MENDOCINO COUNTY, Calif. -- This haven of the counterculture was first in the nation to legalize the growing of marijuana, the undisputed top cash crop in a county famous for its coastal vistas and organic grapes. But even some folks here may have their limits.

The latest pitched debate is over gene-altered crops, which organic-food activists want to prevent from taking root in this county's rich soil. A ballot measure in Tuesday's election seeks to make Mendocino County the first in the nation to ban farming of genetically modified plants and animals.

"We're the cleanest county in the state. We have the least contaminated soil and water, and we want to keep it that way," said Els Cooperrider, who with her husband, Allen, is behind the initiative known as Measure H. "It's about keeping Mendocino County natural, that's the issue."

The introduction of genetically modified organisms, or so-called GMOs, could potentially foul the environment, she and others say, by introducing plants that require more fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals. Cooperrider also says GMOs could taint the genetic purity of existing crops and tarnish the county's reputation as a leader in organic farming.

"What could be so bad to saying `No to GMOs' until we learn a little more about them?" asked Cooperrider, who runs a brewery in Ukiah, the county's largest city, that advertises itself as the nation's first organically certified brewpub.

Already, the measure has spawned the most expensive campaign in the history of this county of 87,000 people, located about 100 miles up the coast from San Francisco. Storefronts and front yards are awash in campaign placards. And Measure H has been the hottest topic of conversation.

Fearful the movement could spread elsewhere, the biotechnology industry has pumped some $400,000 to defeat the initiative, nearly all of it from CropLife America, a Washington-based trade association. In comparison, Measure H backers have raised about $100,000, most of it in small contributions from county residents, who see the campaign as another case of David vs. Goliath.

"This would be a bad precedent. We think it is bad public policy to attempt to regulate [through the ballot box] something that has a complexity of issues like this one," said Allan Noe, CropLife America's director of communications.

If Measure H is approved -- which both sides agree is far from certain -- Mendocino County would become the first jurisdiction to outlaw the farming of genetically modified food. Others have tried to pass similar laws, but none, to Noe's knowledge, has succeeded thus far.

"We're concerned it could get some traction in other parts of the country," Noe said. If other jurisdictions passed similar laws, he said, "it would be a logistical nightmare to grow anything."

Already, an attempt for a similar measure is underway further north in Humboldt County.

Ever since the introduction of the "Flavor Saver" tomato more than a decade ago, the biotech farming industry has been under siege from those concerned with scientific ethics and food safety.

Vermont legislators are debating a possible moratorium on bioengineered crops. A movement is also underway in Maine. And in Hawaii, coffee growers have been pushing for laws to protect their industry from potential competition from bioengineered coffee plants, although farmers in the state are growing genetically engineered papaya.

The proposal in Mendocino County is limited to the raising of genetically modified food oncounty soil. It does not prevent such food, grown or manufactured elsewhere, from being sold in the county. Nor does it require such food be labeled. It mentions fines, but doesn't specify how much.

"I don't want my food to be messed with," said Lori Rosenberg, the general manager of the natural foods cooperative in Ukiah. The store has been helping with Measure H fund-raising, contributing $5,000 toward the campaign and generating nearly $6,000 from it co-op members.

Measure H opponents have filled the radio airwaves with commercials warning of increased taxes and invasion of privacy -- issues that resonate in a county with an eclectic mix of voters. Opponents suggest that government inspectors could seize backyard plants, conjuring up long-held concerns by some over law enforcement raids over marijuana plants.

"Measure H will cost our county additional funds," said Elizabeth Brazil, who is running the campaign against it. "It would create a new government program that requires additional resources that we do not have."

David Bengston, the county's agricultural commissioner, isn't saying where he stands.

"I've kept a secret even from my wife what my feelings are," said Bengston, whose office would be the new law's chief enforcer. "This one is the most controversial, and one of the hottest, ballot initiatives that I've been involved in." Four years ago, county voters approved Measure G, which legalized small-scale farming of marijuana intended for personal use. But the debate over that measure, some say, is nothing compared to the vitriol that is being generated by the current campaign.

"Not everybody smokes weed, but everybody eats," said Hal Wagenet, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, explaining why Measure H has become such a contentious issue.

So divisive has been the measure that the county farm bureau until recently kept quiet its opposition because so many of its members support Measure H, including Fetzer vineyards, the county's largest winery and organic farm.

Both sides are campaigning for support of county residents like James Henwood, who lives in Redwood Valley.

"I haven't quite made up my mind yet," he said while filling his old Volvo with gas. "I don't know who to believe. I think both sides aren't being truthful. But at the same time, I don't like the fact that there's big money coming in from the outside trying to crush it.

"This is a rather divided community. We've got hippies and rednecks who don't like the idea of slicing up frog genes into redwoods," Henwood joked, "then having to chase them over the county to cut them down."

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