Report: Safeguarding Public Health

Voters in Seven California Counties Consider Banning Genetically Engineered Agriculture

Released by: U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Numerous scientists have raised concerns about the environmental and human health risks posed by genetically engineered crops. Around the globe, consumers and governments have reacted by rejecting genetically engineered crops and strictly regulating this technology. The U.S. government, however, has largely ignored the risks and consumer concern. As a result, states and local governments are stepping in to protect public health and the environment. Voters in Mendocino County, California, for example, have banned genetically engineered agriculture and inspired voters in seven other California counties to file initiatives for the 2004 ballot to do the same. The biotechnology industry is sure to devote significant money to fight these initiatives.

The technology of inserting genes from one organism into the DNA of a foreign organism is unpredictable by nature and creates several unintended environmental and human health risks. Genetically modified foods can cause severe allergic reactions and increase antibiotic resistance; notwithstanding these risks, 60 percent of the food on supermarket shelves already contains genetically modified ingredients. In the field, genetically engineered crops also can contaminate traditional crops and create “superweeds” when crops genetically modified to be herbicide resistant unintentionally cross-pollinate with related wild plants.

All of these risks have spurred significant resistance by consumers around the world. Polls show that 70 percent of European Union consumers reject genetically engineered food, leading the European Union to engage in a de facto moratorium on genetically engineered agriculture in 1998 that it recently ended. In 2001 Japan initiated labeling and testing requirements on genetically engineered foods. Even countries suffering from food shortages, such as Zambia, have refused to distribute genetically engineered foods.

Despite the significant risks and international rejection of genetically engineered foods, the U.S. continues to encourage agricultural biotechnology and maintains a laissez faire approach to regulations. The three agencies charged with ensuring the health and safety of genetically engineered food maintain a regulatory structure that allows the industry to regulate itself. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) rely on manufacturer-run field tests to determine safety; do not require pre-market testing of genetically engineered foods; and rely on manufacturers’ research to determine safe levels of pesticide levels in genetically engineered crops. The general approach of the U.S. Government has been to treat products of genetic engineering as if they would naturally occur in the environment, even though the technology requires the extensive transfer of genes across species.

Given the lack of sufficient federal regulation of genetically engineered crops and foods, states and localities have taken the lead in protecting public health and the environment. In the past three years, the states have introduced 288 pieces of legislation related to biotechnology. Voters in the State of Oregon qualified an initiative on the 2002 ballot to require labeling of all foods containing genetically engineered ingredients, losing after the biotechnology industry spent $5.5 million to defeat the measure. Voters in Vermont were able to convince legislators to require labeling and tracing of genetically engineered seeds. Overall, with industry opposition fierce, voters have an uphill battle to pass any regulation.

Voters in Mendocino County, California, however, were able to do what no other locality or state it the U.S. has been able to do. In March 2004, despite industry spending $700,000 in opposition, Mendocino County passed Measure H, which makes it unlawful to cultivate or raise any genetically engineered crops or animals. As a result of Mendocino County’s success, seven other counties in California are poised to make decisions to also prohibit genetically engineered agriculture this fall. These initiatives are important for several reasons. First, California is the largest agricultural state in the U.S., providing food for consumers across the country. In addition, California accounts for 12.2 percent of U.S. agricultural exports, which is significant in that international markets are becoming wary of genetically engineered food. Finally, California often has taken the lead in passing progressive policies to protect consumers and the environment; if the California initiatives succeed, other states and localities may move to replicate the policies, creating a ripple effect across the nation.

For these reasons, the biotechnology industry, led by multi-national giants such as Monsanto, are likely to vocally oppose each measure on the ballot. Curiously, to date the industry has been rather silent. The biotechnology companies may be waiting to pump large sums of money into a media campaign within each county designed to persuade voters close to the date of the vote. Alternative, the industry may be planning a broader attack by seeking state or federal preemptive legislation or challenging the constitutionality of the initiatives. Regardless, industry likely realizes that the local initiatives will have effects outside of the boundaries of those seven California counties and even beyond the boundaries of the State of California.


On Tuesday July 27, 2004, the Board of Supervisors in Sonoma County, California voted 3-1 against putting an initiative to ban genetically engineered crops and animals on the November 2004 ballot. Organizers of the GE-Free Sonoma County campaign hoped the Board would have given the voters an opportunity to decide whether to make it unlawful to cultivate genetically engineered agriculture in the county known for its wine grapes. The Board, however, decided it wanted to see enough signatures from voters endorsing the initiative’s presence on the ballot before it goes to a vote. Organizers have already collected 7,500 signatures and are working toward 29,000 signatures to call a special election in March 2005. Organizers in six other California counties are working toward similar initiatives to ban genetically engineered crops and animals. 

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