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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

GM No! Mendocino?

Air Date: Week of

Organic wine growers in Mendocino County on the California coast are backing a Super Tuesday initiative to ban the cultivation of any genetically engineered plants in the county. They say a no-GMO label could be good for marketing. David Johns reports.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood, and coming up – the greening of final goodbyes.

But first, March 2nd is a critical day in the Democratic race for president. Many Congressional and Senate primary races are also determined on this Super Tuesday. At the same time, residents of a wine-producing region on the North California coast decide whether they want their county officials to do something no local government has done before – ban the planting of genetically engineered crops. David Johns reports from Mendocino County.

JOHNS: Mendocino County is in a rugged area north of San Francisco carved with sweeping valleys blanketed in oak and redwood trees. The rough terrain attracts people with an appreciation for the outdoors, and Els Cooperrider is one of them. She lives with her husband in a one-room cabin with no phone or electricity. By day, she works in the city of Ukiah where she operates the nation’s first certified organic brewpub and restaurant.


COOPERRIDER: You know, this is a microbrewery. Our son Brett, this is where he does all of his wonderful work. He makes 12, 13 different lagers and ales here in this small system…

JOHNS: A network of giant copper kettles, fermenters, and pipes crowd a corner of the pub. For their restaurant, the Cooperriders buy meat and eggs from local organic farmers. Els, who’s a medical researcher by training, realized several years ago that there are no genetically modified crops yet in Mendocino County. She decided she wanted to keep it that way.

COOPERRIDER: When we rearrange the basic DNA of a host organism into which forcibly we have put totally foreign genes from a totally unrelated organism, we don’t really know what the consequences are.

JOHNS: So Cooperrider and friends drafted an initiative to ban the growing of genetically modified foods in Mendocino County, now called Measure H. Because organic agriculture is a growing industry in the county, she soon gained support from a number of organic growers. Like Paul Frey, who operates Frey Vineyards and Winery in Redwood Valley. He wants to preserve his special sense of Mendocino County.

FREY: There’s such a thing in wine and grape terminology called “terroire” which is sort of a sense of place, or the quality of a place, and the type of foods that come out of that place. Each region is distinct and unique, and people look for that distinction.

JOHNS: Frey and other organic growers believe GMO-free status will give them a marketing advantage over Napa and Sonoma counties, especially when selling to places like Europe and Japan that don’t want GMO wines.

Some 3,500 of Mendocino County’s 18,000 acres of farmland are certified organic. Wine grapes are the region’s primary crop, and the industry is increasingly embracing the organic movement. Fetzer Vineyards, the largest winery in the county, announced it will soon use only organic grapes.

Nobody is growing GMO grapes outdoors yet, but researchers are developing them in laboratories. If GMO grapes are ever planted in vineyards, they could cross-pollinate with grapes in organic fields. Peggy LeMaux, a plant science specialist at UC Berkeley, says genetic contamination from GMOs is almost a certainty once they’re outside. She demonstrates with a corn stalk in her lab.

LEMAUX: So, this is a corn plant and if you tap it like this, you can see all the pollen coming down, hundreds of thousands of little pollen grains. And their job is to go down and hit a silk on the ear, which contains the female parts. And then you’ll get the development of a corn seed.

JOHNS: So, if this was on the border of Lake County and Mendocino…

LEMAUX: And a wind came along? Yeah, it’s gonna go. That’s what it was intended to do, that’s what corn does best.

JOHNS: LeMaux doesn’t think this mixing would be harmful. And some Mendocino County winegrowers don’t either. Bill Crawford owns McDowell Vineyards in Hopland. He thinks proponents of Measure H are afraid of progress.

CRAWFORD: Well, so anything you don’t understand you’re going to be afraid of? I think that’s hiding your head in the sand. There's a lot of things that we don't understand that you can't just shut the door to 'em.

JOHNS: Crawford says he doesn’t want to miss out on any benefits that may come from genetic engineering – such as a cure for the dreaded grape plague known as Pierce’s disease. And he points out Measure H won’t apply to the whole county – for example, Indian lands.

CRAWFORD: So I live right next to a reservation. That law will not pertain to a reservation so I am banned from using it but the reservation could use GMOs and I could get cross-pollinated. That’s just crazy.

JOHNS: Peter Bradford, president of the Mendocino County Farm Bureau, agrees that the county shouldn’t be in the business of regulating GMOs.

BRADFORD: It would be like Mendocino County developing their own Army or their own highway tax system. It’s totally superfluous. We have a government that does the job of regulation, and let them do their job.

JOHNS: The biotech industry badly wants to derail the measure. The DC-based industry-lobbying group Crop Life America has funneled over 300,000 dollars into the No on H campaign for radio spots like this one:

WOMAN: Well, suppose some known crop threat like Pierce’s disease…

MAN: Yeah, that stuff is bad for the grapevines.

WOMAN: Uh huh, or another crop killer hits the county. And some new biotech product is needed to control it. Measure H would prohibit its use.

MAN: Well that doesn’t make sense

JOHNS: A well-financed ad campaign like this one quashed a recent effort in Oregon to require food labels for all genetically modified ingredients. But most people in Mendocino County seem to think this initiative – sponsored by a scientist and backed by a cadre of organic growers – will be a much closer vote. For Living on Earth, I'm Dave Johns in Ukiah



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