This spring, residents of Mendocino County voted to ban the growing of genetically engineered plants or animals, making it the first county in the nation to outlaw GE organisms. But the ban was largely symbolic: Genetically engineered varieties of grapes, which are Mendocino County’s signature crop, are still years from being commercially available, and have not been warmly received by most grape growers.
Now, activists in Butte County, in the rice-growing heart of the Sacramento Valley, have put a genetic-engineering ban on the ballot that is turning into a battle royal with farmers — though not exactly in the way activists intended.
"Of the crops grown commercially (in California), only about 2 percent are genetically engineered," says Renata Brillinger, the director of Californians for GE-Free Agriculture, a statewide coalition. "We actually have an opportunity to think ahead, unlike what happened in the Midwest," where genetically engineered corn and soybeans have become widespread, and where there is increasing evidence of genetically engineered crops contaminating conventional ones.
Currently, no genetically engineered rice has been approved for commercial planting, but at least one variety is on its way. "It is possible that (genetically engineered) rice could be planted in Butte County next year," says Scott Wolf of Citizens for a GE-Free Butte County, "so this was the only shot we had to do something about it."
Rice growers aren’t necessarily opposed to tighter regulation of GE rice. While the modified crops potentially offer farmers a way to use fewer pesticides, they’re a touchy subject overseas: In Japan, which buys around 20 percent of the rice grown in California each year, consumer opposition to genetically engineered food is still widespread.
But Butte County farm groups oppose Measure D, saying it could ban rice varieties that farmers have been growing since 1976. "Mutagenic" varieties such as Calrose — created when natural strains were irradiated to make short, compact plants, which have greater strength and can therefore shoulder more seed — now account for more than 90 percent of all the rice acreage in California. The U.S. Department of Agriculture does not consider mutagenically derived crops to be "genetically engineered" because they don’t incorporate genes from any other species. But the language of Measure D does not explicitly exclude mutagenic varieties such as Calrose.
"They would not have galvanized the whole rice industry against the initiative if they had at least clarified the issue regarding mutagenesis," says Carl Hoff, president of the Butte County Rice Growers Association. Bryce Lundberg, the director of organic certification for Lundberg Family Farms, a major Butte County rice grower who has long championed sustainable farming, says his company supports Measure D and has donated money to the campaign. But, he says, the initiative’s authors were "under pressure to get the language finalized, and they didn’t really have the time they needed to build a broad-based coalition or consensus."
Californians for GE-Free Agriculture’s Brillinger says, "The climate is so polarized that we’re not even making the ban an issue." Instead, she advocates a moratorium that "would give us as a state a cooling-off period. That the heat has been turned up so fast in such a short time is an indication of how high the stakes are."
The author is HCN associate editor.