On the cover: Ferndale dairy
farmer, Dennis Leonardi at top, above graphic of DNA molecule.
story & photos by BOB DORAN
ON A WARM SUMMER NIGHT in July, a couple of thousand people were gathered on the shore of Benbow Lake for a benefit concert, a kick off for a campaign to pass a ballot initiative measure declaring, in part, "It shall be unlawful for any person, firm, or corporation to propagate, cultivate, raise, or grow genetically modified organisms in Humboldt County."
The local anti-GMO group, Humboldt Green Genes, was riding high in the afterglow of the success of Measure H, a similar measure in Mendocino, known in the biotech world as "the H-Bomb."
Conceived over beers at an organic brew pub, with support from a coalition including organic wine growers, the Mendocino measure overcame formidable opposition from the biotech industry, prevailing despite the fact that CropLife America, a lobbying group representing biotech giant Monsanto and others in the pesticide/herbicide industry, funneled more than $600,000 into the anti-H campaign in the final weeks before the March election.
Anti-GMO groups in Butte, Marin, San Luis Obispo and Sonoma counties have placed initiatives similar to H on the November ballot. Martha Devine, a 61-year-old activist who calls herself Granny Green Genes, is the sparkplug for the Humboldt campaign. [photo below left]
Devine is resolute in her opposition to genetic modification of food. It's an issue she's been working on since 1995, when she learned about recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), a Monsanto product used on dairy cows to increase yield that was the first major biotech product approved by the Federal Food and Drug Administration.
Sitting behind a card table covered with bumper stickers, books and pamphlets and a couple of her scrapbooks, she noted that the Green Genes folks had no trouble gathering more than enough signatures to have their slightly modified version of H considered in the coming election. Measure M, as it would soon be known, had been read by the county counsel, and approved by the Board of Supervisors for inclusion on the November ballot.
"Things get worse and worse the more these foods go on the market without adequate testing and without labels so consumers can make an informed choice," said Devine.
Fearing the continuing onslaught of what many term "Frankenfoods," the activist took heart in the passage of Measure H, and with the other dedicated Humboldt Green Genes, she was ready to pick up the torch and continue the fight.
But before the summer ended, the anti-GMO fighters would find their battle mired in controversy over flaws in Measure M's provisions. As the Journal goes to press this week -- with less than a month to go before the election -- Devine can't say for sure that she will vote for the initiative she helped draft, and the Humboldt Green Genes committee is preparing a major announcement: They will disavow Measure M and shift their resources to another as-yet-unwritten anti-GMO measure.
Monsanto in the forefront
Everyone, those who see GMOs as Frankenfoods and those in the industry who view them as a major step in a "green revolution," recognize the Monsanto Corp. as the leader in the move toward genetic engineering of foods.
Monsanto was founded in 1901 by John F. Queeny, and the company's first product was the sugar substitute, saccharine. By 1945 Monsanto had moved on to agricultural chemicals, including 2,4-D, the defoliant also known as Agent Orange. In 1968 the company introduced the herbicide Lasso in the United States, paving the way for an agricultural trend Monsanto calls "reduced-tillage farming." An herbicide called Roundup followed in 1976.
Monsanto's entry into biotechnology began in 1981 when the company established a molecular biology research group. The following year its scientists were among the first to genetically modify a plant cell. (That year also saw the acquisition of the Jacob Hartz Seed Co., a top supplier of soybean seed.) By 1987 the company was conducting the first American field trials of biotech plants. While agriculture has long relied on genetic variations through hybridization, new advances allowed scientists to transfer genetic material from cell to cell directly on a molecular level, moving traits from one plant to another.
In 1994 Monsanto introduced bovine somatotropin (Bst or rbGH) under the trade name Posilac. The genetically modified growth hormone, injected into dairy cows to increase milk production, was the first biotech product to win regulatory approval from the Food and Drug Administration and go on sale in the United States.
Monsanto's GMO seeds for herbicide resistant Roundup Ready soybeans and canola hit the market in 1996, along with a cotton seed known as Bollgard, genetically enhanced with a gene from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) to make it resistant to certain crop pests. Roundup Ready corn followed in 1998, originally developed by DeKalb Genetics Corp., a company that was acquired by Monsanto that year.
Five years later, after going through a merger with Pharmacia and then Pfizer, and spinning off again as an independent corporation, Monsanto boasted that more than 300 seed companies in the United States hold licenses for products with traits bioengineered by Monsanto. By 2004, the shift toward biotechnology has taken a firm hold: A majority of the soybeans and cotton seeds planted in the United States, along with a major portion of the corn crop, are genetically engineered in some way.
The introduction of GMOs into the world's food supply was amazingly rapid. In her book Engineering the Farm, Britt Bailey noted that GMO crops were unknown before the mid-'90s. In 1996 there were 500,000 acres planted with GMO crops; five years later 100 million acres were planted globally.
Whether you see GMOs as good or bad, there's no denying the enormous impact on our food supply. Most of the processed food in America contains some GMO component if it contains corn syrup or vegetable oil -- not that the average consumer would know, since labeling of GMO content is not required.
And don't expect labeling in the near future. A ballot initiative on the Oregon ballot in 2002 was defeated by a wide margin after a coalition including major chemical and food corporations spent $5.5 million campaigning against it.
The academic view
Before he became an administrator, Humboldt State University President Rollin Richmond [photo below right] was an academic scientist trained in genetic engineering. He engaged in studies involving the drosophila fruit fly for 20 years while at Indiana University in Bloomington, then just before coming to HSU, he worked at Iowa State, deep in farm country, where genetic engineering is of major importance.
In observing the local debate about GMOs, Richmond sees "a complete lack of understanding about the problems involved, and frankly, a huge amount of misinformation about the consequences of the current use of genetically modified plants in agriculture."
Noting that the overwhelming majority of foods in modern grocery stores contain GMOs, Richmond said, "Probably everyone in this country eats something every day that comes from a genetically modified plant. And as best we know, there is no evidence that the use of these plants has been damaging to human beings."
But how do we know for sure that GMOs are safe?
"We have three federal agencies [the FDA, the EPA and the USDA] who have some degree of responsibility for the safety of our food," Richmond said. While conceding that the regulatory system is not perfect, he said he believes that "they have done a pretty good job."
Regarding Measure M, Richmond said, "If this initiative had focused on trying to provide local oversight -- and a tax increase to pay for it -- I might well have taken a different perspective. But what it proposes is to stop the forward movement of science, [halting progress] that is often beneficial to people and the environment." With a note of passion, Richmond concludes, "I see this initiative as fundamentally anti-science, and I think fundamentally anti-intellectual."
It's likely Richmond's opinion will do little to persuade proud Luddites like Martha Devine. The anti-GMO party line sees academics as willing servants of the biotech corporations. There's a basic suspicion of research at universities based on the assumption that results are skewed to please those who provide grant funding.
Richmond agreed that "it's true some universities have an economic stake [in the outcome of genetic research], but you can also say that the organic food industry has an economic stake in the outcome of this particular initiative. In Mendocino it came from organic grape growers who wanted to protect what they saw as an economic advantage, and there seem to be strong economic incentives locally."
Richmond said that the fact that the local measure simply protects organic growers has been "glossed over" in the proponents' literature and in the press. "This is an effort on the part of business people to make more money."
Richmond returned to the fear of science issue, mentioning the Bush administration's ban on federally funded stem cell research "for ideological and religious reasons."
"Are we essentially trying to do the same thing in agricultural research for economic and ideological reasons, for the detriment of all?" he asked. "I would argue that stem cell research has the potential to help many, many human beings, and the same could be said for genetically modified organisms. Should stem cell research be carefully controlled? Yes. Should genetic modification of plants and animals be carefully controlled? Yes. But let's not block the progress of science just because we're afraid of something we don't fully understand."
GMOs in Humboldt
On a sunny Saturday in July, T Griffin, market manager for the Arcata Farmers' Market, is at her station on the corner of the plaza. She noted that the North Coast Growers Association voiced support for an anti-GMO initiative from the beginning.
What's her personal opinion as an organic grower? With a shake of her head she admits, "I'm uninformed. I don't even know if there are any farms in this county growing GMO crops."
She directs me to Paul Lohse, an organic grower who works a farm near Blue Lake. [Lohse is at the right in photo at left] Lohse speaks of something that happened to him last year when he was growing in the Shively area. "My neighbor was growing feed corn. He asked me, `What do you think about me growing GMO corn?' I said, `You can't do that; it will contaminate my crop. There's no way I will be able to sell any of my corn.'"
While his neighbor did not switch to GMO corn seed, Lohse points out that others in Humboldt County have. His fear is that pollen drift from their Roundup Ready corn will spread farm by farm. "Pretty soon my corn could be contaminated and people buying it won't even know."
A plastic milk crate full of bills and receipts sits on the dining room table in the old farmhouse that is the home of Dennis Leonardi, 49 [photo below right] , a third generation dairy farmer, working the same land his father worked in the Ferndale Bottoms. A field on one side the road leading to his house is marked with a sign for Hytest Seeds, the brand of GMO feed corn he feeds his herd.
By the mid-`90s, like most ranchers, the Leonardi family had shifted from labor-intensive tillage to the use of herbicides for weed suppression. Before the introduction of Roundup Ready corn in 1998, Leonardi was using the herbicide 2,4-D for broadleaf weed control.
"I was so excited when Roundup Ready corn came out," he recalled. "It meant using less toxic chemicals, [to] control what we needed to control. If you're talking about being a good steward, that was it. Then you get this [anti-GMO measure] thrown in your face. No one is paying attention to the needs of Humboldt County agriculture. It's really sad."
Leonardi figures if Measure M passes it could lead to a giant step backwards for the dairymen in the Ferndale Bottoms. "I'm guessing there's 500-600 acres planted in the valley here. Right now it's corn, but we don't know what else is coming. It could be something very beneficial."
What would a GMO ban mean to the farmers in the valley? According to Leonardi, it would bring a return to the system in place before Roundup Ready corn: using 2,4-D for weed control. He readily admits, "2,4-D scares me. It's a toxic chemical." On the other hand he says, the "very benign" Roundup is so safe it's for sale over the counter without a permit.
Leonardi says he typically uses about a half quart of Roundup per acre once a year on his 60 acres of feed corn. "I'll bet housewives use more in their gardens," he notes.
"We use lots of manure; we haven't used commercial fertilizer for over 20 years. Although we're not certified organic, we utilize a low impact chemical approach in our operation. Chemicals are expensive, and I'd rather do it in a more natural fashion -- and we do."
At the time we spoke, late in July, the flaws in the wording of Measure M had not yet been pointed out. Constitutional issues aside, he declared that, "The initiative is not well thought through." He figures there are other ways to protect the organic sweet corn crop from contamination from Roundup Ready feed corn, a prospect he finds unlikely. "From where we sit, you can't see a stalk of sweet corn, so who's being protected?" he says, suggesting that GMO-free buffer zones around areas with organic corn would be preferable.
"I don't think people understand what goes on around here. People here are good farmers; they're good stewards of the land. We're planning on being here forever.
"If this was a scientific issue we could have a discussion based on science, but in my opinion, it's an emotional issue. I've listened to the argument on public radio talk shows: You get broad sweeping strokes on genetic engineering and it sounds like some sci-fi thing, when, quite frankly, it's a lot simpler than that."
The trouble with M
In August the Green Genes "Grow GMO Free" campaign seemed to be gaining momentum. The group's bumper stickers were showing up on vehicles all over the county, and no serious opposition group had stepped forward. The committee had hired an official manager, Jim Ferguson, one the Southern Humboldt leaders of the group that stopped the recall of District Attorney Paul Gallegos.
A registered Democrat, Ferguson was prepared to take the initiative to another level. To demonstrate that support was not limited to Green Party members, he sought an endorsement from the Democratic Central Committee with backing from committee chairman Patrick Riggs.
While there was clearly support among the Dems, the gambit also put the measure under close scrutiny. At a party meeting on Aug. 17, Central Committee member Milt Boyd, recently recognized as the county's "Democrat of the Year," was quick to point out a flaw in the initiative's language. As chair of HSU's biology department he couldn't help but notice that one of the measure's definitions (language taken directly from Mendocino's Measure H) included a basic scientific misstatement: "DNA or deoxyribonucleic acid means a complex protein" Since DNA is not in fact a protein (it's a nucleic acid), Boyd suggested that enforcement of the flawed ordinance might lead to a challenge in court.
It was the enforcement provision that was problematic for Bobby Harris, another Central Committee member. In a Green Genes modification to language borrowed from Mendocino's Measure H -- inserted to give M more teeth -- the Humboldt measure calls not only for "a monetary penalty" for violators of the ban, but "imprisonment of the person, firm, or corporation responsible ."
"It was only a minor adjustment, really," said Harris, but one that could be prove far more serious than the mistaken scientific language if challenged in court, since the measure included no provision for due process. Instead, it calls for the county agriculture commissioner, rather than the police and the District Attorney, to put violators in jail.
Harris also pointed out that M did not have what is known as a severability clause, one that would say that setting aside one portion of the initiative would not negate the rest of the provisions.
While Boyd advised against doing so, Harris felt an obligation to expose the measure's flaws in the press. That was easy, since he is a close friend of reporter Daniel Mintz, who writes for two local weeklies, The Independent, based in Garberville, and the McKinleyville Press.
Mintz wrote two stories, one week exposing the flawed scientific language, then, in the last week in August, bringing the enforcement issue to District Attorney Paul Gallegos, suggesting as Harris put it, that "there are significant constitutional flaws that rendered the initiative fatally flawed."
Gallegos agreed with Mintz and Harris, deeming the measure's enforcement provision "unconstitutional," and suggesting that the Green Genes "toss it" before the courts do.
After the sting of Gallegos' criticism, Devine was not sure how to proceed. Her hope was that the "language" controversy would blow over. She was actually more concerned with the revelation in the Journal's Sept. 2 edition that GMO corn is already growing on the outskirts of Arcata.
Other Green Genes who leaned toward Harris' position felt that at least the committee should conserve its money and Ferguson's paid coordinator position was eliminated.
Ferguson said good-bye to the Green Genes, but not to the GMO issue. He became campaign chair for Arcata City Council candidate Greg Allen, who put forward the suggestion that the city consider its own GMO ban at a recent council meeting.
Last week the committee was faced with another hard decision. The Humboldt County League of Women Voters had scheduled a debate on Measure M for Oct. 19, and had called asking who would represent the Yes on M side. Green Genes core member Michael Gann told the League he did not want to engage in a debate on the legal aspects of the measure.
Ultimately the Green Genes decided it would be best to participate in the debate, not to defend M, but to argue the bigger issue: the case for a GMO crop ban. By then they hope to have developed a bulletproof alternative to M with help from those who crafted Sonoma County's anti-GMO initiative.
Looking back with some embarrassment to the meeting where Measure M was drafted, Devine admitted that the core group, some of whom have since denied even participating in the conception, were too unwilling to "jump through the legal hoops" required to craft a workable ordinance. "Now, talking with our allies in other counties, we've discovered that other ordinances submitted had language that improved on the Mendo model. Ours didn't."
Devine admits that she is not yet sure how she will vote. "If I decide to vote against M or leave it blank, I won't feel like I've stabbed my own child."
Plans are afoot for a press release and a half page advertisement officially "putting Measure M to bed," so that the Green Genes can move forward. "We're willing to admit that Measure M may not be the right vehicle to achieve our goals," said Devine, who hopes that a mea culpa will help the greater cause, before it's too late.
In simple terms, she sees Measure M and whatever follows as a move to "take back the power, take back our land and regain control of our food. This is about the people's right to choose the kind of world we want to live in. What we're honestly afraid of is the motivation of the people who are bringing us these GMO foods -- it's not public good, not consumer benefit -- it's all about corporate profit. It sounds cynical, but the corporate strategy has been to contaminate faster than we can legislate. And so far, they're ahead. We have to do something."
© Copyright 2004, North Coast Journal, Inc.