California Counties' Biotech Bans (Mostly) Fail; Marin County Stops Science

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Last Tuesday, California voters, besides casting their ballots for president, also had the option in several counties to ban biotechnology-produced crops. Marin, Butte, San Luis Obispo, and Humboldt counties all voted on such measures, and the initiatives were rejected by voters in all but one county.

Humboldt's was a loser from the beginning, as even the initiative authors abandoned campaigning efforts when legal advice pointed out that the ordinance as written would give power to a County Agriculture Commissioner, unique in the free world, to summarily incarcerate suspected offenders. Even in Humboldt County, this was likely to be challenged as unconstitutional. But the authors are re-writing an improved version for the next round. Perhaps this time they will allow accused farmers access to a court hearing prior to being jailed.

Marin County, a largely suburban bedroom county with little agriculture, passed the ordinance with little fanfare. Not surprising, considering there are no GMOs (genetically-modified organisms) in cultivation there and so no opposition campaign.

Butte and San Luis Obispo were true battlegrounds, with real campaigns. They were also the only counties to mobilize farmers and scientists to try to educate citizens on what, exactly, were the implications of passing the initiatives. Public debates, education sessions, and "town hall" meetings provided an opportunity for interested locals to hear messages from both sides, pro and con. In these two counties, the anti-GMO initiatives failed by significant margins.

Where public scientists and local farmers were heard -- in San Luis Obispo and in Butte -- the measures failed. Where these voices were not heard, in Marin County, GMOs are now banned. There's a lesson here.

Dr. Alan McHughen of the University of California, Riverside, is a biotechnology expert and a member of the ACSH Scientific Advisory Board.