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  July/August 2004
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Food For Thought: Sowing Revolution
Ten days that shook the biotech world
by David Darlington

Grand Canyon
You won't find transgenic grapes in California's Mendocino County, thanks to Els Cooperrider.
On February 23, the Union of Concerned Scientists announced that, because of accidental cross-pollination and seed mixing, two-thirds of "traditional" U.S. corn, soy, and canola samples tested contained artificially engineered genes. Then, on March 2, nine Vermont communities asked the state to regulate genetically modified organisms, bringing the total to 79, or a third of the towns in the state.

That same day, the voters of California's Mendocino County became the first in the nation to ban the growing of genetically engineered crops. "The revolution is just beginning," announced Els Cooperrider, project director for the county's campaign.

Until recently, the biotech juggernaut appeared unstoppable. Today 40 percent of U.S. corn, 70 percent of canola, and 80 percent of soybeans are genetically modified. The most common alterations are insertion of genes from the insecticidal bacterium Bt, and creation of varieties immune to pesticides like Monsanto's Roundup. The latter enable farmers to get rid of weeds by simply spraying their plots of "Roundup Ready" canola, corn, cotton, or soybeans.

While questions persist about possible side effects—for example, new allergies and toxic reactions, or more resistant pests—biotech boosters contend that Americans don't care. Indeed, a 2002 Oregon initiative to require labeling of genetically engineered products was soundly defeated (albeit with the help of a $5 million industry campaign against it).

What does now seem to be stirring the public to action is the way the biotech industry treats farmers. Those who want to grow modified crops are required (in addition to buying the seeds) to pay a "technology fee" and sign a contract that forbids saving the seed for future plantings. But farmers who don't want to grow such commodities also pay a price, because their crops can be tainted by pollen drift from engineered varieties. This robs them of access to international and organic markets that prohibit engineered products.

Adding insult to injury, hundreds of growers—some of whom never intended to raise these proprietary crops at all—have been sued by Monsanto for violating its seed patent. Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser lost a court battle with the company despite his contention that his canola crop was contaminated with Roundup Ready from a passing grain truck or by pollen from another farm.

In response, Vermont's Farmers Protection Act, which will hold the manufacturers of bioengineered crops accountable for contamination, passed the state senate 28 to 0. Its fate in the house of representatives remains up in the air, but a parallel "right to know" bill—requiring the labeling of all genetically engineered seed sold in the state—became law this spring.

Mendocino County's outright ban passed with 56 percent of the vote despite the corporate expenditure of more than $600,000 to defeat it, which quadrupled the record for campaign contributions in this rural county of 100,000 people. Most of the money came from CropLife America, an industry group representing the likes of Monsanto, DuPont, and Dow.

After the March election, CropLife vice president Allan Noe told the San Francisco Chronicle that his organization was "looking at a number of things to remedy the situation." Possibilities included a court challenge to Mendocino's ban, and state and federal legislation to prevent counties from passing such bans. But CropLife may be fighting a multi-front battle. Class action lawsuits in Illinois and Missouri have accused Monsanto of fraud, price-fixing, and economic damage, while also seeking testing of its products' health and environmental effects.

In May, Monsanto abandoned plans to introduce genetically engineered wheat, after it was opposed by farmers wishing to preserve access to Japanese and European markets. And inspired by Mendocino's example, as many as 15 other California counties are quietly preparing similar initiatives for the fall. "Mendocino was the first," boasts Cooperrider, "but we won't be the last."

David Darlington divides his time between Berkeley and Mendocino County, California.

In a complaint now before the World Trade Organization, the United States is demanding that Europe pay a fine of $1.8 billion for refusing to buy U.S. genetically modified crops.

Photo by John Bircherd; used with permission.

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