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Monday, April 11th, 2005
Biotech battle stirs up California wine country
Bill Lambrecht/St. Louis Post-Dispatch
SANTA ROSA, Calif. - In the heart of California wine country, Sonoma County
vintner George Davis claims that his "biodynamic" growing method summons
cosmic forces to enliven grapes for his zinfandels and chardonnays.
His Porter Creek Vineyard, situated on prime soils valued at $100,000 an
acre, eschews chemicals in favor of manure, composting and ultra-organic
farming that aims to enhance the spirituality of consumers, as well as
So it's no surprise that Davis stands foursquare against tinkering with
crops though genetic engineering, which would be banned in Sonoma County
for 10 years under an initiative cleared recently for the November ballot.
"Monsanto came in with their big ideas and wants to release them on the
world. It's just happening too fast," said Davis, 63, in reference to the
St. Louis-based pioneer in plant sciences.
Davis' sentiments appear to be in the minority among Sonoma County grape
growers. Citing potential rewards of biotechnology, leaders of the Sonoma
County Grape Growers Association voted last week to oppose the ballot
Nonetheless, a spirited debate over biotechnology is under way in the
county, an arena unlike any other where the battle has been waged.
The Sonoma County initiative heads a list of state and local public policy
debates involving biotechnology that are being closely monitored by the
industry and its critics.
In Vermont last week, the state Senate passed legislation designed to place
the liability for any problems resulting from modified seeds with the
manufacturer, rather than the farmer. The bill goes to the Vermont House.
On the other side of the coin, at least five states - Pennsylvania, Iowa,
Georgia, North Dakota and South Dakota - have adopted legislation since
November that precludes local governments from banning gene-altered crops.
Similar legislation is pending or awaiting the signature of governors in at
least five other states.
The success of ballot initiatives in California last year triggered the
industry effort in state legislatures.
"It would be a real problem to have to fight county by county or city by
city across the country," said Allan Noe, spokesman for CropLife America,
which represents Monsanto and its rivals in the biotech industry.
But Britt Bailey, director of Environmental Commons, an advocacy group in
Mendocino County, Calif., argued that the industry was waging a stealth
campaign to take control away from local governments.
"People need to understand that local decision-making is being pulled out
from beneath them," she said.
Last year, the California counties of Mendocino, Marin and Trinity approved
versions of genetic engineering bans. The industry succeeded in defeating
prohibitions that appeared on ballots in San Luis Obispo and Butte
counties, and an initiative was pulled in Humbolt County before a vote.
In Sonoma County, situated in mountains and lush valleys an hour north of
San Francisco, winemaking and the tourism it spawns amount to a $3 billion
annual business. Amid alternating quaint and tony settings, the county is
populated with self-described "ex-hippies" made good who equate healthful
living with organic farming.
Monsanto and its allies have sought without success to be part of the
organic culture since their gene-splicing techniques went commercial in the
mid-1990s. After a campaign by activists and consumers, engineered products
were forbidden to carry the Agriculture Department's certified organic
Biotechnology offers nothing at present for grapes. But the prospect of one
day engineering insect resistance to protect vines against pests is among
the reasons several grape growers said they planned to oppose the ballot
Steve Dutton, whose Dutton Estate Winery is known for its chardonnay, said
he hoped the genetic engineers would be able to modify grapes so they can
resist disease spread by the glassy-winged sharpshooter, a leaf-hopping
Dutton said he worried that a ban on genetic engineering in Sonoma County
would put his operation at a competitive disadvantage.
"There are a lot of people around here who are organic-minded and
nature-minded who believe that anything that is processed is bad. But if
they did come up with a genetically engineered grapevine that worked, they
could plant it everywhere else but not here," he said.
Defeating the initiative could present a challenge for the biotech
industry, which says it intends to keep a low profile in Sonoma County.
In Mendocino County immediately north, the industry spent more than
$600,000 in opposing the ballot initiative. But that may have backfired by
fostering the perception that the biotech barons were nosing around in
"They shot themselves in the foot in Mendocino County," said Sonoma County
Farm Bureau head Lex McCorvey. "We recognize that this is going to have to
be a campaign of family farmers. We're not going to take any money from
Supporters of the 10-year ban plan to rely in their campaign on a staunchly
anti-biotech film, "The Future of Food" by Deborah Koons Garcia, widow of
the late Jerry Garcia of the rock group Grateful Dead.
The 90-minute film focuses on what it regards as Monsanto's heavy-handed
dealings with farmers and its use of political influence to bring biotech
products to the market.
Daniel Solnit, who is coordinating the campaign for the ban, noted the
popularity of filmmaker Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," a blend of
documentary and propaganda that was harshly critical of President George W.
Bush's administration and family.
After a showing of the Garcia film in the Sonoma County town of Healdsburg
recently, Solnit said his group intended to use it as a tool to organize
and raise money.
Monsanto spokesman Chris Horner asserted that the Garcia film "rehashes a
lot of old claims and presents them as fact when they're not the least bit
Horner said Monsanto had no plan to become actively involved in the Sonoma
County fight but expected farmers who can benefit from Monsanto products to
present their case strongly.
They will need to be persuasive to convince some of Sonoma County's
vintners. One of them is Lou Preston, who showed up at the Flying Goat
Coffeehouse in Healdsburg to see the Garcia film.
Preston, who exemplifies Sonoma County's organic farmers, converted not
just his tractors but his 1960 Mercedes sedan to run on used vegetable oil.
Preston, of Dry Creek Vineyards, uses no chemicals on soils that grow
grapes, olives and fruit. On April 1, his winery proudly announced that it
had achieved full certification as an organic operation.
"I was once part of that class of people who had answers to every problem,
real or imagined. But I came to understand that scientists don't have
perfect knowledge," said Preston, 63.
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