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Mendocino County, CA Bans Growing of Genetically Altered Crops and Animals
(Beyond Pesticides, March 8, 2004)
In a bold move, Mendocino County, California on March 2 became the first county in the nation to ban the growing of genetically altered crops and animals. Measure H, County Ordinance Prohibiting the Growing of Genetically Modified Organisms (see ordinance language), was passed by 56.6 percent of voters. In doing so, Mendocino County voters defeated the world's largest producers of genetically engineered food and seed, which pumped a record $621,000 into a county of 47,000 voters, according to proponents of the measure.

The ordinance specifically makes it "unlawful for any person, firm, or corporation to propagate, cultivate, raise, or grow genetically modified organisms in Mendocino County." Why? Because, according to the ordinance, "The people of Mendocino County wish to protect the county's agriculture, environment, economy, and private property from genetic pollution by genetically modified organisms."

CropLife America, Monsanto, DuPont, Dow Chemical, and a consortium of other biotech multinational corporations shattered spending records in this small agricultural county, according to advocates for Measure H. But they were still no match for thousands of Mendocino County farmers, business owners, vintners and families who joined the largest, most successful grass roots campaign the county has ever seen to fight the encroachment of genetically altered crops.

"These multi-billion dollar corporations underestimated the savvy and determination of Mendocino County voters," said Els Cooperrider of Ukiah, a retired medical scientist and Ukiah business owner who helped spearhead the citizen-led initiative. "This is just the beginning of the revolution," she said. "We're the first county in the U.S. to prohibit the growing of genetically altered crops and animals -- but we won't be the last."

Mendocino County's victory has already inspired nine other California counties to enact similar measures.

In addition, Mendocino County's victory is part of a coast-to-coast act of defiance against the corporate stranglehold of America's farmland, as farmers from California to Vermont, Maine and Hawaii and the Midwest band together to reject genetically altered crops.

"Our victory in Mendocino County is simply the catalyst for counties all over the nation to protect their agriculture, food system and local economy," said Doug Mosel, spokesperson for the Yes on Measure H campaign." No amount of money can replace the love and commitment of people who care passionately about the place they live. This is a turning point in the corporate domination of the food system and a reclaiming of responsibility for agriculture at a local level."

Meanwhile, the industry is planning its response. "One of the possibilities would be statewide legislation (that allows GMO production) and another thing that could be on the table is some sort of legal remedy," Allan Noe, with CropLife America, told Fruit Grower News. "Those are two possibilities, but business-wise it is not going to mean anything to us - there weren't any biotech crops planted there prior to this passing and there won't be any in the aftermath."

Mr. Noe said that the organization felt that the legislation was a short-sited activity of a bad precedent-setting nature.

According to Fruit Grower News, "The value of the county's agricultural production in 2002 was $156.4 million, ranking 34th in the state. The top five crops, by value, that same year were wine grapes, $81.3 million; timber, $29.5 million; pears, $13.8 million; cattle and calves, $7.9 million and milk, $3.8 million."

In 1979, Mendocino County was one of the first local jurisdictions in the country to pass an ordinance prohibiting the aerial application of phenoxy herbicides. The timber industry used the chemicals as a method to stop hardwood growth in the cultivation of conifers. The measure was passed after an incident in 1977 that resulted in herbicide drift on school buses nearly three miles away from the application site. After a California State Supreme Court decision upheld the right of citizens to adopt more protective standards than the state and federal government (The People v. County of Mendocino, 1984), the California legislature adopted legislation taking away that right. The law, intended to specifically overturn the State Supreme Court decision, added Section 11501.1 to the California Food and Agricultural Code, which states that "matters relating to [pesticides] are of a statewide interest and concern and are to be administered on a statewide basis by the state unless specific exceptions are made in state legislation for local administration." The constitutionality of this provision was upheld in the Court of Appeals for the Third Appellate District (1986).

The issue of federal preemption of local ordinances made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court and it ruled in 1991 in Wisconsin Public Intervenor v. Ralph Mortier that federal law (the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, FIFRA) does not preempt local restrictions. State authority to take away local authority was left standing and so the pesticide lobby (joined by pesticide manufacturers and users) went to all state legislatures across the country without preemption clauses seeking and getting, in most cases, amendments to state laws that specifically preempt local jurisdiction. Prior to the industry's state strategy, for a time there were efforts in Agriculture Committee of Congress to amend FIFRA with language to preempt the authority of local jurisdictions to restrict pesticides.

The battle has since shifted to the adoption of ordinances, and local government and school district policies that stop or restrict the use of pesticides in favor of les or non-toxic alternative measures.

For more on Measure H, contact Campaign for a GMO Free Mendocino County.

ACTION: Use the authority of your county, town, city or political subdivision to restrict uses of pesticides in favor of alternative strategies that are safer for people and the environment. See the state, schools, and lawn and landscapes pages on Beyond Pesticides website.