By Filipa A. Ioannou
November 3, 2016 Updated: November 3, 2016 5:50pm
A hundred years ago, Petaluma was known as the “Egg Capital of the World” — the “City of a Million Hens.”
Today, Petaluma is a town of nearly 60,000 residents, but farming is still central to Sonoma County’s identity, with its agritourism, hundreds of organic farms, and more than $756 million in crops. The county is home to thousands of acres of apples and wine grapes, and more than six times as many laying hens as people.
But some organic farmers and activists say all of that is in jeopardy. Fearing the invasion of genetically engineered crops, they have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars advancing Measure M, a ban on genetically engineered organisms in the county.
“I think traditional breeding is the way — that’s what’s been used for years and years and years,” said Karen Hudson, a Rohnert Park resident who is heading the campaign for Measure M.
It would be the sixth such ban by a California county, after Marin, Humboldt, Mendocino, Santa Cruz and Trinity. Mendocino’s ban was the first in the United States.
Sonoma County voters rejected a similar ordinance, also called Measure M, in 2005. That measure drew huge spending from both sides, a combined total of over $1 million, with the ban’s opponents outspending its supporters by about $55,000.
This time around, the ban’s supporters have out-raised its detractors. As of Oct. 22, the campaign for Measure M had received $278,233 in contributions this year, to No on M’s $67,500.
Few genetically engineered crops — probably only corn and alfalfa — are known to grow in Sonoma County, according to an impact report written by Stephanie Larson, an ecologist and director of the Sonoma branch of the UC Cooperative Extension, a network of UC science researchers. It’s a point often mentioned by Measure M’s detractors.
“Is this maybe a solution in search of a problem? I wonder about that,” said Kim Vail, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, an advocacy group opposing the measure. “We live in a free-market economy. Consumers have choices, producers should have choices. Let the market decide.”
But in the measure, proponents see the chance to turn the county into a keystone that, by connecting counties with existing bans, would form a 13,734-square-mile contiguous landmass of GMO-free growing in Northern California. It is an appealing prospect for farmers who say they fear contamination of their crops by the pollen of GMOs.
“In the United States, there’s very few places where people can grow seeds or crops without fear of contamination,” said Jere Gettle, owner of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds — a prominent vendor of heritage seeds with an outpost in Sonoma County called the Petaluma Seed Bank, and one of the largest donors to the campaign for Measure M.
“GMO-free zones help give areas of the country where people can maintain historic, traditional seed lines,” he continued.
According to Pamela Ronald, a plant pathologist at UC Davis who has been called “the public face of GMOs” because of her frequent defense of their safety, the fears of contamination are overblown. She also hates the term “GMO.”
“The pollen doesn’t hurt anybody, and the USDA has never decertified any organic farmer for any kind of pollen flow,” Ronald said.
A May report by the National Academy of Sciences found no significant increase in health problems in countries with genetically modified crops compared with countries with GMO bans.
Measure M would prohibit the cultivation, propagation, raising and growing of genetically engineered organisms in Sonoma County, but there are exceptions for medical treatments and supplies like vaccines and insulin.
Measure M has drawn support from many individuals and local businesses in Sonoma County as well as organic farms and natural-food businesses throughout California and the country. The opposition’s funds are supplied largely by multinational agricultural and biotech firms like Monsanto, Bayer, Dow Agrosciences, Syngenta and BI Dupont.
Opponents say even though genetically modified crops are not widespread in Sonoma County now, the ban could prevent the county from benefiting from future scientific advancements. But for Measure M’s proponents, preserving Sonoma County and preventing unforeseen transformation is part of the point.
For Hudson, who has lived in Sonoma County for 42 years, the issue is protecting the county for her children and four grandchildren.
“I want Sonoma County to be what it was for us, when we moved here, for them.”