Sonoma County initiative divides area DVMs

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Santa Rosa, Calif. — Veterinarians are at odds over a ballot initiative opponents suggest could limit the use of recombinant vaccines.

SANTA ROSA, CALIF. — Veterinarians are at odds over a ballot initiative opponents suggest could limit the use of recombinant vaccines.

On Nov. 8, Sonoma County voters will decide whether genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, should be prohibited in the California agricultural region. The initiative, known as Measure M, calls for establishing a 10-year moratorium in Sonoma County on the "propagation, cultivation, raising, growing, sale or distribution of transgenic organisms." Yet as scientists, producers and residents wage war over GMO safety, recombinant vaccine technology has been dragged into the debate.

Although some exemptions are outlined in Measure M, genetically engineered recombinant DNA vaccines are not excluded from the measure's language, according to a superior court judge who ruled on the issue in September.

That ruling was prompted by lawsuits outlining uncertainties as to whether or not Measure M's passage would ban the sale or distribution of vaccines that fight such diseases as rabies, distemper, brucellosis and West Nile virus, says Valerie Fenstermaker, executive director of the California Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA). While proponents argue such drugs are beyond the initiative's reach, the judicial opinion noted that recombinant vaccines could not be isolated from the measure.

"We're really concerned that we could be taking a giant step backward," Fenstermaker says. "We've been doing everything we can to fight this. The veterinary community fears that if this reaches recombinant vaccines, it will be detrimental to our profession."

Against the grain

Yet not all veterinarians are pleased with the profession's stance, especially efforts by the Redwood Empire Veterinary Medical Association (REVMA), serving Sonoma County. Dr. Constance De Haan, an REVMA member and radiologist in Rohnert Park says she's "disappointed" her local association is lobbying against Measure M. While REVMA leaders note a membership poll returned heavy support for battling the initiative, De Haan argues vaccines aren't part of the fight and discounts the court ruling with "the judge is not a scientist."

"Even if the measure related to recombinant vaccines, there are others we can use that are efficacious," she says. "It's not as though we won't be able to protect our patients. I support this measure for several reasons, and most have nothing to do with being a veterinarian."

High stakes

De Haan, who dabbles in agricultural ecology, argues the future of agriculture rests with small farms now threatened by GMO technology. But the profession's fight against Measure M is not about crop issues, REVMA President Dr. Sue Boynton says.

That's the business of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, which has campaigned feverishly against Measure M, painting it as detrimental to agriculture economics while affirming the initiative's high-stakes status. At the same time, Measure M advocates site health issues linked to bioengineered foods and predict the use of such seed will genetically contaminate local agricultural and ecosystems as well as damage the viability of family farms.

Concerns about the proposed ban's impact on animal vaccines also have prompted questions about whether human vaccines might be restricted, which has intensified the controversy.

Deep divide

Each side has accused the other of "fear mongering." Boynton, who practices in Santa Rosa, describes the political climate in Sonoma County as "terrifically torn." Less than a week before the election she and De Haan steered clear of making predictions.

"What I do know is it's going to be close," says Boynton, who practices in Santa Rosa. "It's a matter of definitions and emotions. I'm not a political person, yet I've learned there are truth and facts, emotions and feelings. As a profession, I think the best thing to do is keep all that separate."

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