Like most people, I was glued to my television set last week, eager to learn who would win the presidential election. The vote here in Iowa was so close that the final result wasn’t confirmed until Friday.
In addition to the presidential race, I was tracking ballot initiatives in four California counties. The enemies of biotechnology were trying to outlaw crops that thousands of American farmers over the last decade have made an essential part of the agricultural mainstream.
I’m delighted to report that voters in three of the four counties rejected these measures–and rejected them by healthy margins.
I never thought that the ultimate fate of biotech foods was at stake in their votes. Biotechnology is here to stay, no matter what a handful of California counties say. But I did think there were substantial risks attached to losing. Politicians as far away as Vermont have been watching developments in California. At a minimum, it was important to send a message that these bans would not succeed automatically wherever they were tried.
There was nothing automatic about a positive result. Indeed, the enemies of biotechnology possessed all the momentum going into Election Day. In March, voters in California’s Mendocino County approved a ban on biotech crops. A few months later, in Trinity County, the county’s executive board passed a similar measure. Everything seemed to be going the right way for the wrong side.
So there was no telling what voters in Butte, Humboldt, Marin, and San Luis Obispo would do.
Well, that’s not entirely true. I was fairly confident Humboldt County would reject a ban because the people who had put it on the ballot in the first place were urging a “no” vote. As amazing as that sounds, they had recognized their proposed law was so poorly written that it just couldn’t be allowed to succeed. It defined DNA as “a complex protein,” for example, when in fact DNA is a nucleic acid. And so even its supporters were calling for the political equivalent of a mercy killing.
Voters had all sorts of good reasons for rejecting these initiatives, among them the fact that they would have been virtually impossible to enforce. But their fundamental hostility to sound science–exemplified by the stunning failure of activists in Humboldt County to define basic biological terms correctly–offered the best reason of all. It highlighted the scientific illiteracy of the people who want to ban biotech crops.
In Humboldt County, 65 percent of the electorate voted against this radical proposal.
The other result that didn’t surprise me was Marin County’s decision to approve a ban, 61 percent to 39 percent. This Bay Area County is more familiar with wine-and-cheese soirees than hardscrabble farming.
The two counties that did concern me were Butte and San Luis Obispo, because each is home to farmers who depend on innovation to remain competitive. If bans in these places had succeeded, then virtually all of California’s counties would have been put at risk, either through their own bans or perhaps a statewide referendum. “We knew that if they could pass it here, it was going to go right on down the state,” said Doug Rudd, a Butte County rice farmer, in the Sacramento Bee.
Fortunately, the farmers in Butte and San Luis Obispo put up a spirited fight. Their homegrown opposition movement succeeded brilliantly: 61 percent of the voters in Butte County said no to a ban. The result in San Luis Obispo was nearly as good: 59 percent voted against it.
When the results from all four counties are combined, 54 percent of the electorate voted in favor of biotech crops. The raw vote totals were 171,773 people rejecting the bans and 143,797 supporting them. The margin of victory was bigger than President Bush’s 12,000-vote triumph in the 99 counties of Iowa.
Winning three contests out of four so handily was a remarkable achievement. I don’t think biotech food could have had a better day.
The broader fight certainly isn’t over. The activists in Humboldt County will be back. Other California counties may decide that they want to mimic Marin.
But the friends of biotechnology have won three important victories. We’ve halted a harmful movement in its infancy and we’ve sent a message to radical activists everywhere they won’t win every fight they pick. In fact, it looks like they’ll lose most of them.