Growing GMOs banned by county initiative
By STEVE BROWN
While Washington state legislators weigh an initiative that would require labeling most foods that have genetically modified ingredients, voters in tiny San Juan County have already banned growing those crops.
Initiative Measure No. 2012-4 received 5,183 votes in favor and 3,329 votes against in last November's general election.
"It is unlawful for any person or entity to propagate, cultivate, raise or grow genetically modified organisms in San Juan County," the initiative reads.
Ken Akopiantz, owner of Horse Drawn Farm said he helped craft the initiative, guided the campaign and built the support.
Most agriculture in the county is small family farms, he said, so the measure will not have a large impact. The most likely crop affected would be canola.
"No one is using (GMOs) to begin with," he said. "The benefit is to protect some crops like corn, growing them for seed."
San Juan County includes about 200 islands in Northwest Washington's Salish Sea. It is the smallest county in the state, with 175 square miles of land. Its population is about 16,000.
According to the Washington State Department of Agriculture, the county has 291 farms producing $4 million in crops annually.
There was little organized opposition to the initiative apart from a few paragraphs written for the voters pamphlet, Akopiantz said. No public debates were held, but opinions were expressed in mailers from the Washington Farm Bureau, newspaper editorials and Internet posts.
One of the framers of the "anti" side for the voters guide was Roger Salquist, who owns property in the county. He was the CEO of Calgene when it got approval for the first genetically engineered food in 1994.
In their voters guide statement, Salquist and orchardist Larry Soll wrote: "Approving this initiative would show that the residents of San Juan County are elitists, ignorant of the benefits of technological advances, and uncaring about the planet and its inhabitants."
Salquist said the ban on growing GMOs is unnecessary, unenforceable and unwise.
"They don't grow soybeans, seed corn or cotton, and those are main crops that are genetically engineered. This issue just won't go away," they wrote.
Akopiantz said organizers in Jackson County, Ore., are trying to pass a similar initiative.
"Also I've been contacted by people in Skagit, Jefferson and Whatcom counties who are interested," he said.
The first violation is a Class 1 civil infraction carrying a $250 penalty plus statutory assessments. The second violation is a criminal misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $1,000, 90 days in jail, or both. A third or subsequent violation is a gross misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $5,000, 365 days in jail, or both.
According to the initiative, criminal charges will be brought only when civil remedies have failed to ensure compliance.
The initiative does allow for the growth of hybrid organisms and GMOs to be grown by health-care providers and researchers in secure environments. It will not affect GMO products sold in local grocery stores.