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GMO Issues on the November Ballot

September 12, 2016
On November 8, voters in Sonoma County, CA and Key West, FL will weigh in on ballot measures related to genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

In Sonoma County, activists collected enough signatures to put an initiative, now known as Measure M, on the ballot banning the cultivation of genetically engineered (GE) crops in the county.  County voters defeated a similar measure in 2005 by a 55.2 percent to 44.8 percent.

Although voters in other California counties have also voted down ballot measures banning the cultivation of GE crops, passage of Measure M would expand the "GMO free zone" activists are trying to establish in coastal California.  Mendicino (2004), Marin (2004), Trinity (2004), Santa Cruz (2006) and Humboldt (2014) counties previously adopted ordinances banning the planting and growing of GE crops.  Such unscientifically supported policies only serve to create a checker board of differing regulations governing GE crops in California. Since the Sonoma County measure only applies to unincorporated areas within the county, the initiative will establish a patchwork regulatory system within Sonoma County itself.

According to an analysis of Measure M conducted by the University of California Extension Service, the initiative's vague definition of the term "genetically modified" may lead to the prohibition of numerous activities including the:

• Cultivation of 3,000+ existing crop varieties, currently on the market, that were developed through mutation breeding using ionizing radiation or chemicals;

• Some insect control measures like those being used to control mosquito vector of the Zika virus;

• The process of grafting, which would affect nut and fruit trees.

Moreover, the Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner has stated that Measure M will be difficult and costly to enforce and administering it could require increased taxes.  The Agricultural Commissioner also believes the ballot initiative lacks due process protections for every property owner potentially affected by this ordinance.

Meanwhile, residents of Key West will vote on whether to support a trial release of GE mosquitos in Key Haven, a small community in the Lower Keys, as a way to more effectively manage the Aedes aegypti, a mosquito species that transmits dengue fever, chikungunya, Zika virus and other mosquito borne illnesses.

Specifically, the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District (FKMCD) Board of Commissioners in June voted to send to the November 8 ballot two non-binding referendums regarding the proposed trial release of GE mosquitoes - one for Key Haven residents and the other for Monroe County, the county that encompasses all of the islands that comprise the Florida Keys.  Developed by the British company Oxitech, the technology works because the male mosquitoes have been modified so that their offspring die before reaching maturity.

Field tests performed in Brazil, the Cayman Islands, Malaysia, and Panama, reduced the wild Aedes aegyptyi populations by between 80 to 90 percent, respectively.  In late July, the Cayman Islands Mosquito Research and Control Unit moved forward with a broader release of the GE mosquitoes.

The FDA in early August issued a final finding of no significant impact and environmental assessment on Oxitec's GE mosquito for a trial in the Florida Keys.  The FKMCD Board of Commissioners, however, has the final word on whether the trial release will occur, and some Commissioners have publicly stated that their votes will be based on the outcome of the election.

A recent poll conducted by Annenberg Public Policy Center, part of the University of Pennsylvania, showed that 60 percent of Floridians support the release of GE mosquitos to fight Zika virus.