Is a GMO-free Sonoma County good for business?

A new initiative to ban the growing of genetically modified crops and seeds (GMOs) in Sonoma County is likely headed to the ballot this November. And with it, an old rift is beginning to rear its head between supporters of a similar but failed measure back in 2005 and opponents who claim such technology is not only safe, but necessary for the economic future of our farms.

That initial fight didn’t come cheap. Combined, supporters and opponents spent over $850,000, making it one of the most expensive ballot measure campaigns in county history. And so as this year’s election nears, will the same factions emerge—environmentalists leading the charge on one side and agricultural business leaders (vineyards being the overwhelming majority) on the other? So far, those who led the opposition 11 years ago, like the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, once again plan to campaign against it, even if the candidate they’ve endorsed in this year’s supervisorial race, Lynda Hopkins, has come out in favor of the ban.

But setting aside politics and even the controversy over whether GMOs truly harm the health of people or our environment, would a ban really be that bad for business?

According to a New York Times poll, 93 percent of Americans want their food labeled with GMO information and over half fear the health implications. This hasn’t been lost on those with business-savvy foresight. The global non-GMO food and beverage market reached $550 billion in 2014, of which the U.S. accounts for 36 percent, according to Packaged Facts, a market research firm. From Cheerios to Chipotle to Dannon Yogurt, the number of major products seeking to profit by marketing an absence of GMOs is on the rise. In fact, 2,000 of such products are now launched per year, up from just a few hundred a decade ago.

At this time, GMOs in Sonoma County are rare. Only two growers are rumored to be using them, both for feedstock corn and on a relatively small scale. But just as local opponents of the ban anticipate, it’s only a matter of time before similar technology can be applied to the multi-billion-dollar cash crop that today blankets over 60,000 acres of Sonoma County.

But if trends in public opinion and market demand continue in the same direction, once GMO grapes begin to appear, discerning consumers will be scouring labels for more than just vintage, appellation and varietal. The key word here: discerning. Unlike less prestigious (and cheaper) grape growing regions, Sonoma County winemakers depend on the cache of name recognition to compete. Tasked with protecting this is the county’s Winegrape Commission. Not the least oblivious to the growing marketing opportunity in a surging health and environmental consciousness, two years ago they launched their “100 percent Sustainable” initiative, proudly claiming that “consumers will be able to purchase any Sonoma County wine with confidence knowing that all of the region’s wines are grown and made in the nation’s first 100 percent sustainable county.”

Sounds nice, but there’s one problem: our neighbors to the north. In 2004, residents of Mendocino County voted to become the first GMO-free county in the U.S., an initiative supported by many of the county’s wineries. Once Monsanto starts rolling out patented rootstock or pinot noirs spliced with fish genes, consumers who are willing to pay a little extra for the value-add of “sustainability” will be far more likely to seek out genetic purity as well. And if, after the introduction of such technology, I were charged with marketing Mendocino appellations, I might take aim at my southern neighbor’s presumptuous claim by that they are in fact the “nation’s first 100 percent sustainable county.”

At the vanguard of this debate are smaller, organic farmers who fear genetic contamination of their crops. But even for growers who don’t buy the anti-GMO hype, is not the contamination of a very marketable reputation cause enough for concern?

Evan Wiig is the Director of the Farmers Guild, a statewide organization promoting the next generation of sustainable agriculture headquartered in Sonoma County. Learn more at www.farmersguild.org

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