Mad River Union
HUMBOLDT – Given the choice of forwarding a GMO ban to the November election ballot or approving it outright, the Board of Supervisors has opted for the ballot.
After hearing a pro and con debate at their May 20 meeting – including opposition from Ferndale-based organic dairy owners – supervisors unanimously voted to put an anti-GMO measure on the November election ballot.
The vote was unanimous but Supervisor Virginia Bass seemed open to having the board adopt it to forgo a $15,000 election cost. Supervisor Mark Lovelace also preferred to do so but said he did not want to be identified as the only supervisor to vote against putting it on the ballot.
The measure is aptly described by its title – “Prohibition on the Propagation, Cultivation, Raising and Growing of Genetically Modified Organisms in Humboldt County.” Through a complaint-driven process administered by the county’s Agricultural Commissioner’s Office, it would make GMO crops illegal in the county.
As with county nuisance abatement, punishment would be meted out though fines as well as the destruction of GMO crops.
GMO Free Humboldt, the campaign advancing the measure, comfortably succeeded in qualifying it for the ballot. The campaign gathered 8,500 signatures on election ballot petitions and 6,467 signatures were certified.
Supervisors agreed that the measure is very likely to be approved by voters. There was debate about it during a public comment session but most speakers supported the measure and urged supervisors to take action.
McKinleyville resident and GMO-Free Humboldt organizer Colin Fisk highlighted the risk of crop cross-contamination and told supervisors that if they approve the measure themselves, they wouldn’t be circumventing the election process because giving the Board of Supervisors the opportunity for approval is part of it.
Bill Schaser, an organizer with the GMO-Free Humboldt campaign who identified himself as an educator with a biotech company, warned that the corporations that profit from GMOs will be a divisive influence of an election is held.
Use of GMOs in farming has increased the prevalence of pesticide-resistant weeds, Schaser said.
Rick Littlefield, the owner of Eureka Natural Foods, said there’s polarization between European countries – which have GMO bans in place – and the U.S.
A similar level of division will be seen in Humboldt with an election, he continued.
“The question will be for your board, and one that you can answer now, is which side of this food decision does this board and does this county want to be on?” he asked. “What we’re doing is providing pristine agriculture and value-added products to move forward.”
But three Ferndale organic dairy operators advocated for putting the anti-GMO on the ballot rather than adopting it at the meeting. All three were opposed to the measure.
Dairy operator John Vevoda said that in the 40 years he’s been farming, “My toolbox keeps shrinking” because of “unscientific data that people present and working on emotions rather than what is really true.” Yana Valachovic of the University of California Cooperative Extension said her office is striving to be unbiased but told supervisors genetic engineering could offset the ravages of Sudden Oak Death and the measure should be subject to an election. “Are people more concerned about the risks or are they more hopeful about the opportunities?” she asked. “Our office’s advice is to put that question to the voters.”
Most supervisors leaned toward that but Supervisor Ryan Sundberg’s motion to send the measure to the ballot initially failed to gain a second. When Board Chairman Rex Bohn said he’d like to second it but couldn’t due to being chairman, Bass ventured a second on “his behalf.”
Bohn said, quote, “We can be cutting edge, but I don’t want to cut out the voters.”
After some circular discussion and a break to think things over, supervisors returned to chambers to make a decision. Supervisor Estelle Fennell said a public vote will be the ultimate statement of the measure’s support.
“Putting to this to the voters actually makes a stronger statement,” she continued. “I think you’re on solid ground in regards to trusting your fellow voters here in Humboldt County.”
Bass was less optimistic, saying that the involvement of monied interests and “pitting neighbor against neighbor” concerns her. “It’s not a hard, fast, easy choice at all,” she said, but she joined the unanimous vote to put the anti-GMO measure before voters.