RICHMOND -- This city with an industrial legacy may be poised to move ahead with some of the state's most innovative policies promoting urban organic farming and labeling of foods produced with genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

The City Council on Tuesday approved two items directing staff to craft new city laws. The first, which passed unanimously, would provide local organizations that convert urban parcels into food-producing gardens with new "incentive zones" in which owners would benefit from steep property tax discounts, according to a staff report.

The second, which passed by a 5-2 vote, directs City Attorney Bruce Goodmiller to draft an ordinance requiring GMO labeling of food sold at local grocers.

Dressed as a "corn demon, " anti-GMO protester Ray Katsanes of San Francisco walks to the Golden Gate Bridge to join other demonstrators in San
Dressed as a "corn demon, " anti-GMO protester Ray Katsanes of San Francisco walks to the Golden Gate Bridge to join other demonstrators in San Francisco, Calif. on Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)

"We have an urban agriculture movement in this city," said Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, who also expressed strong support for the labeling measure. "This is an opportunity to expand on that, and it's proven to be a positive image builder."

In recent years, Richmond has seen dozens of acres of abandoned, weed-choked urban parcels converted into small farms, often tilled by local volunteers and young workers paid by streams of private and public funding. The former World War II shipbuilding mecca and home to heavy industry is one of many industrial cities around the country to see a rise in urban farming, along with larger projects in places like Chicago and Detroit.


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The GMO measure may prove more controversial, sparking fierce opposition from Councilmen Nat Bates and Corky Boozé on Tuesday and likely to elicit pushback from food retailers.

The GMO ordinance, proposed by Councilman Tom Butt, himself an urban farmer and devotee of organic foods, could require all food retailers regardless of size or where they get their products to label foods produced with GMOs -- identified as organisms whose genetic material has been altered to produce food more efficiently. The health effects of GMOs are subject to wide-ranging debate within the scientific community.

"Statewide, this may make sense," Bates said. "But for little old Richmond to try to impose these sanctions is a nightmare. Who will enforce this? How will we determine who has to do it?"

Last year, statewide ballot measure Proposition 37, which would have required the labeling of genetically modified foods, narrowly failed in the face of millions in campaign spending by agricultural interests. Richmond's City Council passed a symbolic resolution in September 2012 supporting Proposition 37.

"It lost in California, but (labeling GMOs) is a growing movement around the world," Butt said, noting that the European Union, Japan, China, Australia, New Zealand and other sovereign states have mandated GMO labeling on produce. "It's probably going to happen sooner or later (in the U.S.)"

Richmond's council has not shied from legislative firsts in recent years, but proponents noted that Berkeley in September directed its staff to craft a similar labeling ordinance. Goodmiller said he believed the city had the legal authority to impose labeling requirements on merchants.

Butt and McLaughlin admonished that staff would have to navigate a series of questions and unintended consequences, including who would be affected, how to enforce the law and what the penalties would be.

Boozé and Bates scoffed at being in league with Berkeley on the law, and complained that labeling requirements could exacerbate the city's long-standing problems with attracting full-service grocers.

"How are our mom and pop stores supposed to (comply with) this?" Boozé asked.

Both ordinances are expected to come back to the council late this year for further deliberations.

Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726 or rrogers@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/SFBaynewsrogers.