Even as a new report from the National Center for Food and Agriculture Policy demonstrates the financial and environmental benefits of genetically engineered (GE) crops, anti-technology activists in four California counties are pushing for complete bans. Following their March victory in Mendocino County, activists in Marin, Humboldt, Butte, and San Louis Obispo counties have placed similar measures on the November ballot. And, as the Los Angeles Times reported this week, “others are hot on their heels.” The Times reports that anti-GMO activists “in half a dozen other regions, from Sonoma to Santa Barbara, are laying plans for campaigns next year.” Despite editorials condemning such measures in San Louis Obispo and Butte counties, this misguided anti-science movement is spreading coast to coast, from Hawaii to Vermont.

Who pushes these backward plans? A group of Neo-Luddites — mentored by Jeremy “Beyond Beef” Rifkin — who fight tooth-and-grimy-nail against modern technology. Not surprisingly, sustaining members of “Californians for GE-Free Agriculture” include Rifkin disciples from the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) and the deceptively named Center for Food Safety. OCA has sent campaign organizer Ryan Zinn to the state to work with Mendocino activists in hopes of furthering anti-technology bans. And it has begged for more than $50,000 from supporters to expand “GE Free Zones” throughout the nation.

As the Sacramento Bee reported earlier this month, the Butte County initiative received $10,000 of OCA money — “the only major gift from out of state reported by either side.” That figure accounted for two-thirds of the anti-biotech budget. Meanwhile, the Bee reports that “Without taking money from biotech companies, Butte County farmers have raised more than $102,000 to defeat” the measure. One local olive grower blasted the OCA-driven campaign: “They like to use Hollywood themes by calling it Frankenfood or killer tomatoes. They want to scare people.”

The fear in Humboldt County, should the GE ban pass, would be from the long arm of the law. That county’s measure has been rebuked by District Attorney Paul Gallegos because, as the Eureka Times-Standard notes, he “recently called the enforcement tools in the measure unconstitutional. If passed, the measure would have the county Agricultural Commissioner arrest anyone caught cultivating genetically modified crops — a provision Gallegos has said interferes with constitutional rights to due process.”

That’s why even the measure’s original supporters have now urged voters to reject the plan. As a third-generation Humboldt farmer said, “This is a measure that has gone over the edge. It’s absolutely ridiculous to make criminals out of farmers.”

While anti-biotech referendums aim to scare voters and imprison farmers, another piece has been added to the mountain of evidence that GE crops have wide-ranging benefits for farmers and the environment. Between 2001 and 2003, as biotech soybeans, corn, cotton, canola, squash and papaya covered 33 percent more acreage, overall yields of those six crops increased 41 percent, pesticide use dropped 2 percent, and production costs fell 25 percent. Those figures come from the National Center for Food and Agriculture Policy, whose report was reviewed by 26 agriculture, pest-management, and plant biotechnology experts from 20 academic and government institutions.

As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted:

Besides reducing pesticide use, herbicide-tolerant [biotech] crops allow growers to till their land less, cutting down on soil erosion, machinery use, water runoff and greenhouse gas emissions. Increased yields also mean that farmers are producing more on less land.

For instance, according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, target=_blank>the use of GE crops “helped Minnesota farmers increase crop production by more than 525 million pounds in 2003 and reduce pesticides by more than 6.5 million pounds.”