This is worth bearing in mind as we think about what happened in Sonoma County on Tuesday, when voters rejected Measure M, a ballot initiative to ban biotech crops. In the final tally, 55 percent voted against the referendum and 44 percent voted for it.
That’s good news, because it means we don’t look like a bunch of bums who didn’t shave this week.
Yet this was just a single skirmish in a much bigger war over biotechnology on the farm. There will be many more battles, and you can be sure that the enemies of biotechnology are already sharpening their weapons for the next engagement. The Sonoma result may discourage them momentarily, but they will be back and they will be ready to fight.
We know that they are persistent. Last year, agricultural biotechnology found itself on the ballot in four different California counties, and our side won three of them. In all, four counties have rejected bans: Butte, Humboldt, San Luis Obispo, and now Sonoma. Three have enacted them: Marin, Mendocino with a vote and Trinity through a resolution by the Board of Supervisors. (There is more to the story – the Boards of Supervisors in 11 other California counties have passed resolutions that support biotech enhanced crops.)
Too bad this isn’t a best-of-seven series, because it would mean, as the songs says, “We are the champions.”
But let’s not forget that other famous sports slogan, muttered by all the other teams–the ones that don’t win the championship – “wait till next year.”
In 2006, there are sure to be more elections in other counties. It’s an even-numbered year and everyone from the most energetic activist to the most lackadaisical voter will be more attuned to politics.
There were some unique issues at play in Sonoma County. Everyone who followed the debate, for instance, probably learned a little bit about how Pierce’s disease threatens grapes–and how biotechnology one day might help grape producers protect their crops.
By and large, however, the fundamental arguments for and against these bans on genetically improved crops remain the same as they were last year and they probably won’t change much next year. The anti-biotech activists will hurl insults about “Frankenfood” and allege, without any supporting evidence, that modern agricultural methods are bad for your health.
We’ll do our best to respond calmly and rationally with facts that we’ve learned from the actual scientific study of biotech plants: They aren’t bad for your health, and they’re already beginning to carry positive health benefits; they’re good for the environment because they allow us to feed a growing and hungry world on less farmland and soon, with less water, than conventional crops would require; and so on.
There is also the enforcement question: Measure M would have slapped $1,000 fines on violators. Putting a law on the books is not the same thing as making sure people actually obey it, of course. And checking up on Measure M compliance would be a lot more complicated than having the local police pull out their radar guns to catch speeders: You can’t tell the difference between a biotech crop and a conventional crop just by looking at them. You can’t tell the difference by tasting them, either. You have to bring them back to the lab for analysis. Unfortunately, the guys in white lab jackets don’t work on the cheap.
Counties that want to do a serious job of enforcing bans on biotech crops–as opposed to merely passing symbolic and therefore meaningless laws–will have to devote additional resources to scientific testing as well as educating their law-enforcement and regulatory officers. Will they also be willing to deal with the fiscal consequences by raising new taxes or cutting spending elsewhere?
In rejecting Measure M, the voters of Sonoma County made a wise choice. Let’s hope that their fellow citizens in other counties approach the question of biotechnology with a similar sensibility.
In the meantime, I’m going to make sure my shaver is in good working order.
Dean Kleckner is an Iowa farmer and past president of the American Farm Bureau. He chairs Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org) a national non-profit based in Des Moines, IA, formed and led by farmers in support of freer trade and advancements in biotechnology.