GRIDLEY, Calif. — Like gigantic lawnmowers, three agricultural combines cut the final swaths through Ryan Schohr's rice fields the other day. The harvest was complete. It was time to take a breath and set aside perennial concerns over pests and weeds and weather.
But as the Nov. 2 election approaches, folks in Butte County's sprawling farm industry are fretting over a ballot measure that aims to ban genetically modified crops in this corner of the California breadbasket.
Butte is one of four counties -- Marin, Humboldt and San Luis Obispo are the others -- trying to follow Mendocino County, which in March approved the nation's first ban on cultivation of bioengineered crops.
The electoral assault -- dubbed Measure D in Butte -- worries farmers like Schohr.
Never mind that nothing he plants is genetically engineered. Never mind that Butte County has virtually no crops borne of DNA spliced in the biotechnology lab. His worries are long term -- about staying competitive, about being shut out of agriculture's next big thing, whenever it rolls down the gravelly farm roads.
"There's benefits on the horizon from biotech," Schohr said, peering out of his mud-splattered pickup truck. "We don't want to be excluded."
A different sort of future worries bioengineering foes.
They say genetically engineered food could harm the environment and blow on the winds to contaminate organic crops. As for the potential health impacts, nothing short of the fate of the world's food supply is at stake, they contend.
"Without their consent, consumers are being forced to participate in the largest uncontrolled biological experiment in the history of humankind," said Scott Wolf, a leader of Citizens for a GE-Free Butte.
First introduced to the world's farm fields in the mid-1990s, agricultural bioengineering is still in its infancy. But genetically altered crops have found a significant place on America's grocery shelves.
The biggest foray has been into four major crops -- corn, soybeans, rapeseed and cottonseed -- that have been engineered to resist pests or withstand potent commercial weed killers. With soy and corn a staple in myriad products, as much as 70% of the nation's processed foods contain bioengineered ingredients.
Opponents say government has shirked its duty to test and regulate the rising tide of genetically altered foods.
Opposition in Europe
Overseas, genetically altered crops have faced widespread opposition in Europe and Africa, where critics say the long-term risks are unknown. By patenting new-breed crops, they say, multinational companies stand to reap an economic windfall while farmers in the U.S., Europe and the Third World struggle.Now, in the U.S., opponents are attempting to mount a blockade of their own, one county at a time.
Aside from the four measures on the Nov. 2 ballot, others are hot on their heels. Foes of genetically engineered crops in half a dozen other regions, from Sonoma to Santa Barbara, are laying plans for ballot campaigns next year. So are activists in other states, such as Hawaii and Vermont.
The effort looks to have its best shot in Marin County, where supervisors endorsed the ban. In San Luis Obispo County, backers of a ban face a tough fight against a coalition of farmers and business leaders.
Humboldt County's proposal features the toughest penalties of the lot -- jail time for growers who step over the bioengineering line. But criminalizing farming proved the measure's undoing.
This month, the Humboldt County district attorney concluded that the ban violated constitutional rights of due process because there was no provision for a jury trial. Backers are now asking voters to reject the measure so they can come back next year with a retooled version.
The biggest stakes may be in Butte, a county of 211,000 where agriculture is king.
Head up U.S. Highway 99 north of Sacramento and the dominance of farming is as undeniable as the rice fields and almond orchards spreading in all directions. Agriculture is a $350-million-a-year industry in Butte County, and farmers are among the county's movers and shakers. The supervisor representing Gridley is a rice farmer. So is the state assemblyman.
Local farmers have opened their wallets to block Measure D. Unlike the battle in Mendocino, where the biotech industry outspent opponents 7 to 1 and still got beat, Butte's opposition has been mostly homegrown.
The county's farm bureau has raised more than $100,000 to put up scads of signs along rural highways, staff phone banks and send speakers out to warn about the risk to Butte's dominant industry. The state farm bureau and California Cattlemen's Assn. have also chipped in money and manpower.
"This has united folks who normally wouldn't share a cup of coffee," said Jamie Johansson, an olive grower in Oroville and opposition leader.