In November, Sonoma County residents will vote on the GE Free Sonoma initiative, a ballot measure that imposes a 10 year moratorium on the use of genetically engineered organisms in Sonoma county.

Last week, State Senator Dean Florez, a Democrat representing the San Joaquin Valley west of Fresno, threw a wrench at GE Free Sonoma. Senator Florez pushed a piece of legislation that would nullify GE Free Sonoma should county residents approve it, along with similar regulations already in effect in Mendocino, Trinity, and Marin Counties.

The political fallout went beyond the issue of genetically engineered organisms to the principle of central versus local control. And so Senator Florez brought down the wrath of almost every local government in California. Florez’s legislation seems quite dead. Local control has won.

Right now, the forces of darkness have captured our national government. Many progressives believe that the forces of light will prevail only by working at the local level. So turning back Senator Florez’s legislation is good news.

Local control means that people get to decide what kind of place they live in. That’s good, isn’t it? Wait a minute. What if Napa County, right next door to Sonoma, decides that genetically engineered crops are really swell? Supporters of GE Free Sonoma argue that GE crops know nothing about jurisdictional boundaries. So wouldn’t it be best to have a uniform ban on GE crops throughout California or the United States or the world, for that matter?

In fact, supporters of GE Free Sonoma would really prefer such a centralized solution. Just not the one proposed by Senator Florez.

The principle at stake here is not central versus local control. Central control is for fairness (everyone gets treated the same) while local control is for uniqueness (specific to people’s needs). That struggle is never-ending, so this particular victory was tactical.

What’s at work here is something I’ve mentioned before as the precautionary principle. That principle says that the way to make a decision, particularly about health and the environment, is to look at all the alternatives, choose the best one, then figure out how to achieve it. I know this sounds like common sense, but it’s not how the politics of health and the environment typically works.

An example. Commercial interests, like the Farm Bureau, that support the use of GE crops argue that these crops will help feed the world. An alternative they do not consider: end Third World dependence on cash crops like GE cotton and re-establish indigenous agriculture. Because that alternative does not fit in with the world trade in food on which agribusiness depends.

What makes people nervous about GE foods? What we want is safe, healthy food. Do we need GE organisms to accomplish that? Probably not. But viable alternatives will mean a different kind of agriculture.

This might seem far away, but it’s as close as a grocery shelf or a fast food restaurant because one of the principal delivery systems for GE crops is processed foods. I know, your time and money are scarce. And those products are so convenient and cheap.

The precautionary principle at home is the same as the precautionary principle in politics: what are the alternatives, which is the best, and how do you get it?

What I want is safe, healthy food. How about you?