Humboldt County to Vote on Banning GMO Production

Dairy farmer John Vovoda checks in on his cows. He's opposed to Measure P. (April Dembosky/KQED)

In the produce aisle of Eureka Natural Foods, every mushroom, zucchini and head of cabbage is organic.

“Organic, organic, organic,” says Bill Schaser, a retired teacher and loyal customer.

He says local stores like this, and the local farmers that supply them, want to protect their organic brand. And they want to take advantage of new marketing opportunities that come with being GMO-free. That’s why they’re backing Measure P, a local measure that would prohibit growing genetically modified crops in Humboldt County.

“This is a growing economy. And we think we should go with it and get behind that movement as much as possible,” says Schaser, spokesman for the Yes on Measure P campaign.

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Two years ago, statewide Proposition 37 would have required labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms – but it failed by a slim margin. That measure had wide support in Humboldt County, though, and on Nov. 4 residents will vote on whether to ban the production of GMO crops in their region.

A scientific debate over the safety of GMOs hasn’t really come up here. Disputes have centered on farmers’ rights. Organic farmers are concerned about cross-pollination from neighboring farms that grow genetically modified crops. They want to prevent contamination.

“If someone within 2 miles of me plants a GMO variety of apples, the way the bees fly, it’s beyond my control. It’d get GMO pollen in my apple flowers,” says Clif Clendenen, owner of Clendenen's Cider Works, an organic apple farm in Fortuna.

“Secondarily, many of my customers don’t want GMOs in their food,” he adds. “So there’s a marketing reason.”

Yes on P posters hang outside stores and homes throughout Humboldt County.  (April Dembosky/KQED)
Yes on P posters hang outside stores and homes throughout Humboldt County. (April Dembosky/KQED)

Bordering counties Mendocino and Trinity are already GMO-free. Supporters of Measure P say adding Humboldt could create an economic corridor that can be used to market products from the region to the Bay Area and other parts of California.

“We’re looking from an economic perspective, we can compete with the inland valley,” says Schaser.

The Yes on P campaign raised just $40,000, enough to make a radio ad and a bunch of posters. Schaser says they were expecting to get crushed by a No campaign sponsored by GMO seed companies like Monsanto and Syngenta. But those corporations ignored Measure P and instead invested in blocking statewide GMO labeling propositions in Colorado and Oregon.

But even though there’s no official campaign against Measure P, there are still farmers that plan to vote no, even organic farmers.

“It’s a tool they’re taking out of our toolbox that we can’t use anymore,” says John Vovoda, a dairy farmer in Ferndale.

His farm is organic now -- he ships 6,000 gallons of organic milk every day that shows up on store shelves throughout California. But his operation used to be conventional. He used to grow acres of GMO corn to feed his cows.

“The point is, if my children want to go back to conventional, now they won’t be able to do it,” he says, nodding toward his son, Robert, who lives and works with him on the dairy farm.

“When you’re a small family farm, you want to spend more of your time with your animals,” says Robert, as a herd of cows grazes in the pasture behind him. “Now we spend more of our time making sure we’re in the office, doing paperwork to make sure we’re in compliance with all the regulations. Measure P is just another regulation.”

The senior Vovoda says, when it comes down to it, it’s just not right telling farmers what they can and can’t plant.

“I don’t want to stand here and look at my neighbors that are conventional and say, ‘Hey, it’s illegal, and I’m going to turn you in for what you’re doing,' ” Vovoda says.

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