Hell No, GEO


The clear stand against genetically engineered organisms (GEOs) in Napa County is a boost to the future of safe food (oh, and wine) in the valley of the grapes.

Napa’s stakeholder message comes from the Napa Valley Farm Bureau, the Napa Valley Vintners Association, the Napa Valley Grapegrowers Association and a citizen group called Preserving the Integrity of Napa’s Agriculture. It took almost three years of studying the issue together before the group finally agreed to apply the cautionary principle. Their statement, issued without fanfare on Nov. 30, 2009, declares: “Until a clear and independent assessment of the risks and/or benefits to consumers and the environment associated with the exposure to or the consumption of genetically engineered products can be reached and a satisfactory regulatory framework is in place, we believe that there should be no GEO usage in Napa County.”

I am cheering this development for many reasons, including my own hopes that Napa will make room around the vines for some cabbages and tomato plants of the non-GEO variety.

History shows that Napa is a land-use trendsetter in the agricultural world. Politically speaking, Napa’s perfect pairing is not food and wine but agriculture and affluence. Farming elsewhere is typically not as profitable nor as glamorous and keenly observed as where well-tended vineyards provide the ideal backdrop to Tuscany-inspired McMansions. Here, where farmable land is scarce and très cher, stakeholder-driven stewardship models were developed decades ago and are now in use around the country. If Napa’s land-use leadership in the past is any indication, chances are good that other farming communities may follow suit with efforts to ban GEOs.

Such a movement is long overdue. Napa and the rest of the country lag far behind Europe, which has led the way for years with laws curbing and/or banning so-called Franken-foods and Franken-wines produced from lab-altered plant materials. Exceptions in California include Marin, Mendocino and Santa Cruz counties, which passed bans on GEOs. Sonoma tried and failed to pass a ban five years ago, and Lake County has a disappointingly weak “registration” process for commercial crops but not a ban. Without a ban, there is no real regulation of GEOs, which represent a Pandora’s box already opened, since they were on the market before impacts of genetically altered crops were studied.

With scant research data, humans and animals are at risk from direct ingestion of GEO plant materials and from the spread of GEOs to wild plant life via gene flow and cross-breeding. Genetically engineered grapevines, designed to resist Pierce’s disease and vineyard pests, are expected to arrive on the market within this decade. Of more concern are genetically modified yeasts, which encourage stable fermentation and affect the flavor of wines; these are already on the shelves in bottles of wine any of us might have sipped at a party lately.

Weak EPA regulations place the burden of proof of safety upon the bioengineering corporations, so there are no protections for the public or nearby plants. Monsanto has been laughing all the way to the bank—first forcing GE materials on farmers, and then when the inevitable pollen drift leading to gene flow occurred, suing farmers whose crops were infected with trademarked genetic material. California had to pass AB 541 in 2008 to protect farmers from those insult-to-injury lawsuits.

Yes, Napa has been slow to take a stand, but the stakeholder statement opens the doors to a voter ban in the future. And if Napa bans GEOs—especially if enough locals brag about it to the almost 5 million tourists each year who find Napa alluring enough to visit and admire—then farming communities elsewhere might spot a trend and follow it. I hope they do.

Meanwhile, Napa’s agricultural commissioner is inviting “anyone with a vision to expand agricultural diversity and create greater access to the entire Napa community” to a discussion of a local, sustainable food system. Talk begins—over wine and food, of course—on April 28 at the first annual Napa Local Food Forum.

For further information, contact Karen Schuppert via email at [email protected] or call 707.304.4665.