Something to chew on...

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By Heather Irwin

MENDOCINO: Food, and wine for that matter, has become so incredibly political. Damn.

See, I gave up politics long ago, after spending a year on Capitol Hill covering Congress and another year working for a congressman who later ran for President. I was so distraught over what I saw and heard coming from the people we'd voted to represent us that I simply dropped out of the process. I regret to say, I haven't voted or become involved in a single political movement since. It just didn't seem worth it. I felt totally powerless.

But after spending a weekend in Mendocino and an afternoon with the organic winegrowers of the county, I'm finding myself pulled back in--caring deeply about the urgent fight they, and many others are fighting for: the right for all of us to know what's in our food, how it's grown and what potential long-term effects that food has on both the land and our health. It's really relevant stuff, when you take the time to listen.

Most of us are starting to understand the implications of organics. Farm markets are booming, something like $30 billion is spent annually on organic foods, and both consumers and farmers are getting educated about the benefits to our palates and the earth. The growers in Mendocino told anecdote after anecdote about why they're sold on sustainable and organic farming methods--and why consumers are responding. Very much related, however, but less on the minds of consumers is the issue of genetically modified foods.

Two years ago, Mendocino County voters decided to ban genetically engineered crops in the county. Without long-term studies, voters weren't ready to take the chance. It was a fight that still rages on...both there and more recently, here in Sonoma. A ballot goes to voters of Sonoma in just a few weeks, to decide on whether to adopt a similar moratorium on growing genetically modified foods in this county.

And, though the issue of genetic modification is still largely philosophical for the winegrowers--it is important. A genetic modification to vineyard rootstock that could possibly resist pests is, by most accounts, still years away. But as stewards of their land, and with decades of experience as winegrowers, the folks in Mendocino were sounding the alarm of concern anyway. Most had experienced problems in the past with using, as one grower explained it, "education over experience". Generations of farming had taught them, if nothing else, that thinking about the whole process--from seed to table--was important. Everything needed to be taken into account, from how the land was prepared for seed, to how crops are watered, fertilized and harvested. And, in their opinion, using organic, sustainable methods weren't just a good idea, they were, in fact, often more profitable, gave equal (or higher) yields, protected their own families and the workers in the fields and just made them feel better as human beings.

To be fair, however, just "going green" or eschewing all modifications to our food supply isn't the answer. On both sides of the debate about the future of our food are farmers, citizens and politicians who I think honestly care about more than just the bottom line. Both have both valid and invalid concerns. Both are fighting hard for what they believe in. Only one side will win...and whatever is decided will have lasting effects on not only the farmers, but on all of us who consume their products.

I've got my own opinion about what's right. Do you?

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