Should Sonoma County Be GE-Free?

Article published in the West County Gazette, Aug. 2005, Page 1+11

Should Sonoma County Be GE-Free?
By Patricia Dines
(c) Patricia Dines, 2005. All rights reserved.

As the Nov. 8 election grows near, Sonoma County voters find themselves on the front lines of a worldwide battle over the planting of Genetically-Engineered (GE) crops (aka Genetically Modified (GM) crops). How we vote will significantly impact our health, environment, farms, and food -- locally and beyond -- for years to come.

At issue is whether we will approve Sonoma County's GE-Free Initiative, which would ban local GE crops for 10 years. This measure was placed on the ballot by a coalition of local farmers, environmentalists, health professionals, and others, as a way to help protect our farms, ecosystems, and bodies from involuntary GE contamination.

If this initiative passes, Sonoma County would become the fourth U. S. county with a GE-Free Zone, joining nearby Mendocino, Marin, and Trinity Counties. Similar measures are being passed around the world. In Europe alone, nearly 2,000 jurisdictions in 22 countries have declared themselves GE-Free Zones.

GE Claims and Reality

GE manufacturers genetically modify plants, animals, insects, and more to combine species characteristics. Most GE crops today are engineered to either include an insecticide or be more tolerant of herbicides.

Unfortunately, unlike natural breeding, this process breaks the species barrier and drastically modifies the DNA basis of life with a highly imprecise and error-prone technology. Thus GE food and crops put at risk our health, environment, and food supply, now and long into the future. It's difficult to avoid sounding overly-dramatic when describing the clear risks of disease epidemics, worldwide crop failures, the end of seed-saving, corporate control of food, and more. Despite industry promises to control the risks, the predictable mistakes and "unexpected" problems are already starting to happen.

Prominent scientists have strongly warned against introducing GE Organisms (GEOs, also called GMOs) so widely without extensive prior health and environmental testing. Professor Richard Lacey objects to GE's "essentially unlimited health risks." Dr. Barry Commoner says that GE crops "represent a massive uncontrolled experiment whose outcome is inherently unpredictable. The results could be catastrophic." Because of safety concerns and lack of testing, no major insurers in Britain will offer GEO coverage. One insurer compared the possible risks to those of "thalidomide, asbestos, and acts of terrorism." These risks surpass even those of toxics, because GEOs infiltrate ecosystems and farmland irreversibly, continuing to grow and cross-breed, rather than dissipating.

Promoters make enticing claims about GEOs, including promising reduced pesticide use, increased crop yields, and "feeding the world." However, in reality, overall pesticide use has increased 4.1% on land planted with GE varieties; some GE crops have had reduced yields, even failures; and Third World countries have spoken out against GEOs, calling them a threat to traditional self-sufficient localized agriculture, which is a key solution to world hunger. Although farmers have saved seeds for thousands of years, they can't save GE seeds and must buy them each year from the manufacturer. This increases farmer costs, reduces access, and gives companies monopoly control of the seeds of life. Analysts have concluded that feeding the world is more achievable with non-GEO approaches.

A Key Problem: GE Pollution

Initiative opponents assert that farmers should have the right to plant any seeds they want. However, GE pollen has been shown to travel significant distances, so farmers choosing GE crops expose others far beyond their property lines. As a result, around the world, farmers with contaminated crops are losing markets that require GE-Free foods; organic farmers are unable to sell their food as organic; wild plant genetics are being altered; and consumers are losing sources of organic food.

Once GE crops enter a region, irreversible contamination occurs, making it impossible to grow non-GE crops. The prestigious Independent Science Panel says that "contamination is generally acknowledged to be unavoidable; hence there can be no co-existence of transgenic and non-transgenic crops."

GE drift can cost both organic and non-organic farmers access to markets that require GE-Free food. For instance, Saskatchewan farmland is so contaminated with GE canola that farmers can't grow non-GE canola. A group of local organic farmers has filed for class action status to hold GE companies liable for damage from GE canola's introduction. Their slogan is, "The right to farm GMO-free; the right to eat GMO-free."

In addition, farmers can find themselves facing a lawsuit if patented GE seeds drift onto their land. Monsanto actively pursues illegal possession claims (with a purported $10 million budget and team of 75). Many farmers just pay the out-of-court settlement - allowing the manufacturer to shift responsibility for their drift to the victim!

Watching these scenarios unfold, communities worldwide have decided that the only way to protect themselves from involuntary GE exposure is to stop contamination before it happens, through GE-Free Zones.

Initiative Opponents

In the next issue, I'll talk more about anti-initiative claims and the facts. To get you started, though, here are three key items. Contrary to anti-initiative assertions, (1) Family farmers are NOT united against the GE ban; (2) NO current drugs or vaccines are prohibited by the ordinance; and (3) Enforcement costs will likely be significantly lower than stated and largely borne by violators.

According to Dave Henson, Director of the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center and an initiative author, "This campaign is about the community coming together --  including farmers, chefs, medical professionals, fishermen, and environmentalists -- to keep our county clean and green, which is where our economic future is."

Educate Yourself!

Want to learn more? Attend a free showing of "The Future of Food" -- and bring your friends! You'll feel informed and empowered to act. For more information, see <> and <>.

By supporting this initiative, our community can refuse to take on the unlimited risks and liabilities of involuntary GE contamination, thus protecting our farms, environment, and health for years to come.

Patricia Dines is author of The Organic Guide to Sonoma, Napa, and Mendocino Counties, which makes it easy to find and support local organics. The Guide includes more about GE-Free Zones - with footnotes! For more information, see <>.

Return to CAP's main GE-Free Sonoma County page

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Page last updated 04/05/07