MAYBE NOT since the Pig War has a San Juan Islands farmer caused such a rhubarb.
Of course, that little 19th-century border dispute didn’t get a lot of press beyond the swirling kelp beds of Rosario Strait. The only casualty was when American farmer Lyman Cutler shot a British hog who’d rooted in his garden.
In 2012, a humble farmer in the off-the-beaten-track archipelago fired another shot — purely a political volley this time — in the form of a citizen initiative. Like the first skirmish, it raised few eyebrows. But it might help shape Northwest agriculture.
The subject: GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, and the crops grown from them. In the same election that brought same-sex marriage and legal marijuana to Washington, little San Juan County, with its 12,019 registered voters, passed an initiative banning the growing of GMO crops on its islands.
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The topic stokes passions. Depending on who’s talking, either GMOs will save the world from climate change and feed humanity — all 9.6 billion of us, as projected by 2050 — or they’ll corrupt the natural order and bring the “Silent Spring” that much sooner. Both sides have their street cred.
From San Juan County the crop ban has spread to Oregon, where two counties passed bans in May. In the past year lawmakers in Connecticut, Maine and Vermont passed measures aimed at labeling of GMO foods.
Labeling is the same issue that last fall in Washington state generated a record $21 million “no” campaign — bankrolled by large companies ranging from Monsanto to Coca-Cola — before 51 percent of voters rejected the idea (the same margin as in California a year earlier). The defeat was even narrower this month in Oregon, where the issue again saw record spending.
When Lopez Islander Ken Akopiantz filed his San Juan County initiative in 2012, he just wanted to protect the purity of bucolic spreads such as his Horse Drawn Farm, reached down a long, wild rose-lined gravel drive off lonely Port Stanley Road.
ON THE WAY to Akopiantz’s farm you pass Less Traveled Road and Wild Goose Chase Way. Next door is a big wind turbine and a house covered in solar panels. Turn up the drive and roll past sheep to a house sided with old shingles and tar paper.
An outhouse holds a composting toilet. From a towering gray barn, roosters crow and a horse whinnies. A serve-yourself stand offers wares from striped Delicata squash to frozen pork.
Akopiantz appears from down the driveway at the reins of a pair of strapping Belgian draft horses pulling a merrily jingling disc plow.
As he chats, he unhitches the horses and tosses them hay. This is old-school ag, almost Amish in its purity.
It’s protection of such traditional farming that motivated Akopiantz, 48, to propose the GMO ban.
A Connecticut native who came to the San Juans 15 years ago, he doesn’t rant about GMO foods causing two-headed babies. He worries about practical issues, such as what happens if GMO crops are grown next door and spread into his field, corrupting foods he aims to sell as natural or organic?
He has reason to worry. Akopiantz drew his inspiration from Saskatchewan canola farmer Percy Schmeiser’s 2011 visit to Lopez. Schmeiser became a crusader for anti-GMO independent farmers when he locked horns in the late 1990s with Monsanto. The GMO giant, which gave $5.3 million to fight the Washington labeling law, was the creator of Roundup Ready Canola, which other farmers grew on fields near Schmeiser’s. (“Roundup Ready” means farmers can douse a crop with the potent Roundup herbicide and, thanks to genetic tinkering, only undesired weeds will wither.)
As an experiment, Schmeiser says, he sprayed some of his own crop. When it survived, he concluded that his canola, too — maybe through cross-pollination or windblown seed — had become immune to Roundup.
Schmeiser, who became the subject of a 2009 documentary film, “David Versus Monsanto,” says he saved seed from his crop and replanted it. Monsanto sued him for not paying a licensing fee for its patented science.
Only on appeal did Schmeiser escape a judgment in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, on the grounds that he never exercised the patent by treating his new crop with Roundup — also a Monsanto product.
“The control of the seed supply is getting so consolidated,” Akopiantz laments. “Now it’s happening that if that (GMO) crop contaminates someone else’s field, they say your crop is theirs. If you’re an organic producer, it’s not the same crop you planted. I don’t think there’s any other field (of law) where you can spew something like that on your neighbor’s land. It’s bizarre.”
STOPPING CULTIVATION of GMOs with a citizen initiative in the San Juans is a bit like sticking your finger in a dike that’s been carpet bombed. Engineered crops already flood the planet.
Last year, farmers grew GMOs on 430 million acres worldwide — 40 percent of that in the United States. Because of regulations and development costs, the majority of GMOs remain confined to large commercial crops such as soybeans, cotton, corn and canola. Smaller GMO crops include sugar beets, squash, papayas, tomatoes, peppers and even petunias.
Where GMO crops aren’t likely grown is on the rocky San Juan Islands, where truck farms sell almost all their output to local residents and chefs. So why the initiative?
I pose that question to Lopez resident Marney Reynolds, a semiretired graphic artist from Seattle who helped Akopiantz in his campaign. The growing concentration of seed resources in a few large corporations, she says, is “cause for great concern because it means you and I have a diminishing supply of unadulterated seed.”
On lefty Lopez, they fight that battle with a seed library — Akopiantz is an official librarian — set up in an affordable-housing project. Gardeners are encouraged to “borrow” seed from plants grown by their neighbors and, when their plants go to seed, return seed for others to plant. In a climate-controlled room, shelves hold Mason jars of corn seeds, beans, peas — each labeled with the source of the seed and year harvested.
IN SAN JUAN County, as the GMO-ban election approached, one challenge was finding anybody to write the “con” message for the local voter’s guide.
“The county had to advertise to find someone,” Akopiantz says.
But it turned out this retirement haven was a natural incubator for debate on the subject. Two former CEOs of genetic-engineering companies co-authored the “con” message. One, Roger Salquist, with a house hidden in woods near Friday Harbor, was CEO in the 1980s and ’90s of a biotech pioneer called Calgene, started in a garage by professors at the University of California at Davis.
His firm, bought out in 1997 by none other than Monsanto, held a huge claim to fame for producing the first commercially grown genetically engineered food to be granted a license for human consumption: the rot-resistant Flavr Savr tomato, brought to market in 1994.
The other “con” author, Larry Soll, headed a pharmacology-oriented biotech absorbed by Amgen in the 1990s.
Their statement was pithy: The ban was “unnecessary, unenforceable and, most importantly, unwise.”
It said “virtually no” GMO species are grown in the county, noted that sophisticated DNA analysis to distinguish GMOs can’t be performed on the islands (their opponents challenge that), and extolled the virtues of GMOs, including pest resistance, nutritive value, drought tolerance and adaptability to saline or alkaline soils.
The statement concluded, “Approving this initiative would show that the residents of San Juan County are elitists, ignorant of the benefits of technological advances, and uncaring about the planet and its inhabitants.”
The campaign didn’t attract big players. Only the Washington Farm Bureau spent any real money against the measure, with $7,400 worth of direct-mail postcards such as one showing a greasy-haired fellow opening his jacket to offer black-market cauliflower seeds. The headline: “Where will you buy your seeds if (this initiative) becomes law?”
The citizens, unswayed, delivered a 62 percent “yes” vote.
Salquist, via email, expressed disgust with the outcome and the “Luddite” activists who pushed for it:
“Seldom have so many made so much noise with so little of value to say.”
BUT THERE ARE what you might call forward thinkers among the ban’s backers.
Bruce Gregory, who with spouse Colleen Howe-Gregory grows Asian pears and kiwi fruit on their manicured little farm near San Juan Island’s Mitchell Bay, supports the ban on economic grounds.
Gregory, 64, has a title that’s a mouthful: certified U.S. Department of Agriculture/Natural Resources Conservation Service Farm & Forest Planner, working for the San Juan Islands Conservation District. His agricultural ethic includes grazing his farm with sheep, which rescues garter snakes from mowers, which helps control rodents, while sheep dung acts as fertilizer.
“You build in your own resilience,” he says with Buddha-like calm.
Gregory sees an opportunity in keeping GMOs off the islands.
“One of our big challenges every day is our isolation here, and it’s always been a disadvantage; everything has to come by ferry. So, how to use that geographic isolation as a benefit?”
He suggests promoting the San Juans as a source of untainted seeds, focusing on heirloom varieties “that have been handed down through generations.” Neat trick: Turn the GMO ban into a marketing tool.
IN THE ISLANDS, the ban may be more a political statement than a practical necessity, backers concede.
“It’s important because it sets a precedent, not only in this county but in this state and, more importantly, in the country,” Lopez Island’s Reynolds says.
“When the rubber hits the road, does it mean anything different in how we do things? No,” adds John Steward, whose Maple Rock Farm grows organic produce for almost every restaurant on Orcas Island. “We weren’t using GMOs before and have no intention to.”
To date there have been no enforcement actions under the law. County officials aren’t sure how they’d go about proving a plant is GMO even if they did get a complaint.
“Typically, it’s not something the crime lab is going to do,” Sheriff Rob Nou says.
How much will the public want to spend on such testing, wonders Randy Gaylord, San Juan County prosecutor.
SAN JUAN County isn’t quite “The Mouse That Roared”; there’s more a gnashing of teeth. But the ban drew attention, and momentum builds. GMO foes in Oregon’s Rogue Valley contacted Akopiantz for tips before going to voters last May in counties around Medford and Grants Pass.
“They have a stronger opposition — there’s a lot more agriculture and more at stake,” Akopiantz said before the election in that seed-growing valley where Swiss gen-tech company Syngenta grows Roundup-resistant sugar beets.
Yet, despite a well-financed “no” campaign, the crop ban passed in both locales.
“We fought the most powerful and influential chemical companies in the world, and we won,” farmer/organizer Elise Higley crowed to The Oregonian on election night. Higley’s coalition of 150 family farmers raised a hot-button issue: the 2013 snafu in which a Northeastern Oregon grower found that GMO wheat had infiltrated his field, prompting a months-long ban on Northwest wheat imports by GMO-spurning Asian nations.
Such foul-ups threaten the survival of family farms, Higley’s group said. The argument found traction among farm-county voters, something fatally missing from Washington’s 2013 labeling election when Yakima County, for example, voted 72 percent on the side of GMO interests, swamping the liberal westside vote.
IN GRANTS PASS, Ore., Josephine County’s ban is up in the air because last fall the Oregon Legislature passed a bill saying only the state could regulate seeds. Neighboring Jackson County’s measure, already qualified for the ballot, was grandfathered in.
Tom Davis, government-relations director for the 41,000-member Washington Farm Bureau, said his group favors a statewide policy, but it hasn’t come up in Olympia. His membership is divided on growing GMOs.
“A successful farmer is one who grows crops well but also grows crops people want. Our members face a choice of a higher survival rate and higher crop yields with GMOs versus whether consumers want GMO foods.”
Davis concedes that many are cynical about genetic engineering.
“But over 600 peer-reviewed scientific studies show GMO food products are as safe to eat as conventionally grown food products. Until (opponents) can show there is a scientific reason GMOs aren’t safe, why in the world would we pass a law saying you can’t grow them?”
Yet the Union of Concerned Scientists warns about the potential for new allergens, and San Juan Island’s Bruce Gregory cites the creation of “superweeds” immune to Roundup.
“Repeated use creates problems for other plants. There are issues here nobody has brought to the forefront.”
So the debate continues as life goes on. Marney Reynolds now heads GMO-Free San Juans (gmofreesjc.org), dedicated to educating islanders on the issue.
Two years after passage of his initiative, Ken Akopiantz isn’t doing anything much different, though he cut off his ponytail recently.
If the San Juan law helps change the outside world, it seems of only minor concern to him. Some 95 percent of what he grows on Lopez stays on Lopez. He and his wife, Kathryn, like it that way. They rarely have to go anywhere else to market their wares.
“We don’t like going anywhere else,” he says.
Brian J. Cantwell is a Seattle Times writer and editor. Reach him at email@example.com. Ken Lambert is a Times staff photographer.