Judge OKs Genetically Modified Crop Ban Vote
By Margot Roosevelt Leeds
By Mike Geniella
The Press Democrat
December 31, 2003
Ruling lets language of Mendocino County ballot measure stand for March 2 election
UKIAH -- Saying the courts should "tread lightly," a Mendocino County judge Tuesday let stand ballot language that argues for a local initiative to ban genetically modified crops.
Superior Court Judge Leonard LaCasse said he would not block election officials from printing the March 2 primary ballot, which contained language Measure H critics had claimed was false and misleading.
While the specific statements may not "constitute the whole truth, they are not so completely wrong to constitute a falsehood to voters," said LaCasse.
He also recognized the deeply divergent viewpoints in the debate over genetic engineering, reflected in the local ballot measure that has attracted national attention.
"It is instructive that the argument against this ballot proposal contains language that is at least equally provocative to the language in favor of the measure," LaCasse.
The measure would make Mendocino County the first in the nation to ban cultivation of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
Supporters, who include 150 organic farmers and wine-grape growers, contend the ban is needed to protect Mendocino County's growing stature as a producer of certified organic agricultural products. They fear genetically modified organisms could contaminate local organically grown crops.
The measure has run into opposition from other agricultural interests, including local Farm Bureau President Peter Bradford, and the California Plant Health Association, a statewide lobbying group representing biotech companies.
Monsanto Corp., which is a member of the association, last year spent about $1.5 million to help defeat an Oregon ballot measure that would have forced labeling of genetically modified foods. The Mendocino measure does not attempt to impose a labeling requirement.
The Sacramento law firm of Olson, Hagel & Fishburn filed a lawsuit last week on behalf of the plant association, seeking to have three specific statements in the ballot argument in support of Measure H stricken from the March ballot.
One statement contended that "organic farms and wineries will lose organic certification" if their crops become contaminated by modified organisms.
The other two statements claimed that "GMO polluted wine" would be unmarketable in Europe and Japan and that "GMOs will irreversibly contaminate native plants and trees."
LaCasse noted that voters will have an opportunity to ponder those claims, as well as those by Measure H opponents.
Critics of the measure say in their ballot argument that it could result in "cutting of vital services, raising taxes, increasing government intrusion in the private life" and "uses fear instead of science and could deny citizens future lifesaving techniques."
LaCasse said that "none of these statements are demonstrably false, but they are replete with hyperbole and as such are calculated to invite public debate and discussion."
"The court finds that this is good because it reflects the values of the democratic society to the extent that it encourages interest and participation and the free exchange of ideas," he said.
Sara Miller, a spokeswoman for the Sacramento-based plant association, said Tuesday that her organization was disappointed with the ruling. "But we intend to work even harder to make sure Mendocino voters know exactly what Measure H means," she said.
Attorney Susan Jordan, representing Measure H supporters, called LaCasse's ruling a "victory for freedom of speech." She described the court ruling as the "first victory in what promises to be a long and hard-fought war against outside corporate interests."