Mendocino County voters on Tuesday were the first in the nation to ban genetically engineered crops and animals.
By a margin of 56 percent to 44 percent, they approved Measure H, an initiative pushed by the county's organic farmers and one that has far greater symbolic impact than practical effect because such crops are not likely to be introduced in the county for years.
Some of the nation's largest agricultural interests spent more than a half-million dollars in a bid to defeat the measure, fearing that it could become a precedent for other counties.
And that is likely to happen.
"Passage of Measure H is just the beginning. We're the first county, but the revolution is just starting," said Els Cooperrider, owner of a Ukiah organic brew pub who spearheaded the campaign.
Groups in Sonoma and Humboldt counties already are preparing drives to qualify similar initiatives on the November ballot. Allen Henson of the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center has said passage of Measure H will give Sonoma County activists incentive to develop a policy to keep out genetically engineered crops.
Cooperrider and Measure H supporters were jubilant Tuesday night, especially after having been outspent by a 7-1 margin in the most hotly contested initiative election in Mendocino County history.
All but two Fort Bragg precincts and about 3,000 absentee ballots, representing less than 2 percent of the vote, had been counted by 10 p.m. Tuesday.
The election drew statewide, national and even international attention, with reporters for major news media outlets on hand to witness the noisy Measure H victory celebration at the Cooperrider pub.
A consortium of agri-business interests called CropLife America waged a two-month campaign to defeat the measure. CropLife was joined by local and state Farm Bureau leaders and members of the county's agricultural establishment.
But their high-profile efforts weren't enough.
A coalition of organic grape growers, businesses and local political figures convinced voters that Mendocino should take a stand in the global debate over the adequacy of safeguards surrounding a fast-emerging biotechnology industry. A current void in state law allowed the issue to be placed before Mendocino voters.
"This is an issue that needs to be dealt with at the state, national or global level, but you have to start somewhere and that somewhere is Mendocino County," said Measure H supporter Art Harwood of Harwood Products.
Elizabeth Brazil, coordinator of the campaign to defeat Measure H, said Tuesday night that opponents were disappointed by the results.
"Mendocino County is going to be harmed by this measure," Brazil said.
Brazil declined to speculate whether local opponents and CropLife are prepared to mount legal and legislative challenges to Measure H. Mendocino County voters in the 1970s adopted an initiative to ban aerial spraying of pesticides, but the state Legislature within two weeks stripped counties of that right.
Spokeswoman Laura Hamburg said supporters are prepared for any challenge. "We have had this ordinance reviewed by top lawyers, who say they're confident it will stand up to any challenge."
© Copyright 2004 The Press Democrat