The Committee for a GMO Free Humboldt has begun collecting signatures to qualify an initiative that would ban the "propagation, cultivation, raising and growing of genetically modified organisms" in Humboldt County for the November 2014 general election ballot.
If passed by Humboldt voters in November, this initiative would create a county ordinance that will "make it unlawful for any person, partnership, corporation, firm or legal entity of any kind to cultivate, raise, or grow genetically modified organisms...," according to the text of the proposed initiative.
Alleged violations of the ordinance would be referred to the county agricultural commissioner and would be handled as a public nuisance, explained Bill Schaser, spokesperson for the Committee for a GMO Free Humboldt. The person making the complaint would be required to provide evidence of a violation, Schaser said.
If the violation is confirmed, the GMO materials would be confiscated or destroyed, and the responsible party could be fined.
The proposed ordinance does not ban the possession or sale of GMO products but applies only to local agricultural production.
The committee hopes to collect 8,000 to 10,000 signatures to present to the county by Earth Day in April, although they need only 4,300 certified signatures to qualify the initiative for the ballot. To be certified, the signatures must belong to registered Humboldt County voters.
Once the signatures are verified and the initiative is accepted for the ballot, "I don't know what forces will come in here," Schaser said, referring to chemical and agricultural industry lobbying groups with a history of campaigning against similar initiatives in other jurisdictions.
"Maybe the big boys will ignore us," he said, "but we have to be prepared." The committee hopes to raise at least $10,000 to begin efforts for a campaign supporting the initiative.
Schaser, a Humboldt resident since 1961, retired from teaching science at Eureka High School some years back and now works as the education director for a Bay Area biotech firm.
"I'm not opposed to biotech," he said. "My big push is the question, ‘Is [a GMO ban] in our best interest for Humboldt County's economic development?'"
GMO Free Humboldt sees the ban as an opportunity to market Humboldt products to the increasingly large numbers of people who prefer organic and GMO-free foods and are willing to pay more for them.
Schaser pointed to the success of local small organic farmers, grass-fed and grass-finished organic beef, organic wines and beer. Sales of local organic products totaled $44 million in 2011. He noted that Humboldt Made, a marketing organization that promotes products from Humboldt outside the county, includes "Make Humboldt County the good food capital of California" as one of its organizational goals.
Currently only a limited number of GMO products are grown in Humboldt County, primarily "Roundup-ready" corn for feed for dairy cattle, but opinions vary on how much. Schaser has heard estimates as low as 80 acres to as high as several hundred acres.
Although GMO products represent only a small amount of the county's agriculture, GMO corn kernels or other GMO seeds can be unintentionally carried from field to field in farm equipment or spread by pollination.
Roundup is the trade name for glyphosate, an herbicide that "has been around for ages," Schaser said, and is in common use for controlling everything from back yard poison oak to weeds commonly found in cultivated fields.
Scientists seeking a way to reduce herbicide use on crops unexpectedly discovered soil bacteria that survived in spite of applications of glyphosate. When the gene that causes the resistance is spliced into the cells of corn and other agricultural products, the result is plants that can thrive in a field sprayed with glyphosate for weed suppression.
This encourages the use of more herbicide rather than less, Schaser concluded.
Furthermore, although the herbicide does not harm the glyphosate-resistant plant, a tiny amount of the chemical remains in the plant's cells and will be ingested by animals or humans who eat any part of the plant.
While glyphosate is widely considered harmless to humans because it is toxic only to plants, some studies have indicated long-term toxic effects to beneficial bacteria that reside within the body and play an important role in digestion, absorption of nutrients, and resistance to infections.
Glyphosate has been found in the urine and blood of Inuit people in Alaska and Canada, indicating the global spreading of GMO products resistant to glyphosate, even in places where the crops are not grown.
The multinational chemical companies that developed the glyphosate-resistant organisms patented them and then bought up small seed companies, Schaser said.
Farmers who purchase GMO seeds must agree not to save seed but to buy new seed each season. The opportunity to purchase non-GMO seed declines as more independent seed providers are purchased by the larger companies.
GMO is not the same thing as hybridization, Schaser added. Farmers have been hybridizing plants for hundreds of years, crossing one strain of wheat with another, for example, to create a stronger plant more resistant to disease or harsh weather conditions.
Creating a GMO requires inserting a portion of genetic material from one species, like a bacterium, into an unrelated species like corn, a cross that cannot occur in nature.
Likewise, "GMO free" is not the same thing as organic. An agricultural product can be free of GMOs but still grown using synthetic pesticides and herbicides that disqualify it for organic certification. All products labeled "organic" must be GMO-free, however.
Schaser is passionate about standing up to multinational corporations and agricultural industry advocates for GMO use. As an example of an attitude that appalls him, he quoted Don Westfall, vice president of Promar International, an industrial consulting company.
"The hope of the industry is that over time the market is so flooded that there's nothing you can do about it. You just sort of surrender," Westfall was quoted as saying in the Jan. 9, 2001, issue of the Toronto (Canada) Star. (The entire article can be read online at http://www.muhammadfarms.com/Starlink%20Fallout.htm.)
To help people, especially farmers, learn more about GMOs, the Committee for GMO Free Humboldt is sponsoring two free talks by Howard Vlieger, a third-generation Iowa hog farmer and soil specialist, who is the co-author of a scientific study on the long-term effects of feeding GMO grain to hogs.
"If a farmer has questions [about GMOs], he's the guy to go to because he's a farmer, he's one of them," Schaser said.
The talks will be held next Monday, Jan. 27 at the Rohner Grange at 3071 Mill Street (corner of Mill Street and Rohnerville Road), Fortuna from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. and at the Humboldt Hill Grange in at 5845 Humboldt Hill Road in Eureka from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. All interested persons are welcome to attend.
In the meantime, the Committee for GMO Free Humboldt continues its signature drive throughout the county. To learn more see their website, www.gmofreehumboldt.org. To contact them, email firstname.lastname@example.org or send a note to GMO Free Humboldt, PO Box 5145, Arcata, 95518. They can also be found on Facebook.