Think globally, act locally. Turns out this may be a great strategy for keeping genetically modified organisms (GMOs) out of food. Citing international opposition to GMOs, activists and farmers in the United States are working together at the local level to limit biotechnology.

Last March, Mendocino County, California, became the first in the nation to prohibit growing or raising genetically modified crops and animals within the county. In August, Trinity County became the state’s second. Activists in several other California counties, including Marin, Humboldt, Butte, and San Luis Obispo, have succeeded in putting similar bans on the November ballot.

Dave Henson, director of the Occidental Arts & Ecology Center in Sonoma County, is working with other GMO opponents collecting signatures to put an initiative on his county’s ballot. Why? Henson points to threats from Japan and Europe to stop buying American products if farmers add genetically modified organisms to crops—a circumstance that could hurt revenue in Sonoma County, known for its cheese, wine, and bread. According to Henson, keeping GMOs out of Sonoma County sends the important message to consumers that the region’s food will continue to be of high quality. “Our strategy is to get as broad an alliance as possible of people who understand that our agricultural future is tied with being GMO-free,” Henson says.

North Dakota
North Dakota’s agricultural future was put in jeopardy by Japan’s trade delegation, which told state lawmakers last spring that the country would no longer buy North Dakota wheat if genetically modified wheat is commercially grown there. Japan buys about 20 percent of North Dakota’s export market. Karl Limvere is organizing initiative efforts in North Dakota, the United State’s leading producer of hard spring wheat and durum wheat, that would allow the state to regulate biotechnology. Limvere’s work is not just swaying local voters, however. In May, Monsanto, a chief agricultural producer, dropped its efforts to develop and sell genetically modified wheat, citing a lack of acreage and consumer opposition.

Vermont activists are working toward local government regulations on GMOs, rather than banning them outright.

On Town Meeting Day last March, 79 Vermont towns passed GMO resolutions—mostly moratoriums—limiting the raising of genetically modified crops, says Amy Shollenberger, policy director of Rural Vermont, an advocacy group that promotes family farming and economic justice for farmers.

Regulating biotechnology is an idea whose time has come in Vermont and across the nation, according to Shollenberger. “Ninety percent of people around the country support this kind of legislation,” she says. Polls suggest Shollenberger is not far off. In 2003, an ABC News survey showed that 55 percent of respondents would avoid buying food that was genetically modified. Ninety-two percent supported labeling genetically modified foods, and 85 percent supported labeling food from farm animals that have been fed hormones or antibiotics.