Food manufacturers and agricultural producers are painting Big Green as a logistical nightmare that would dramatically increase food prices. Environmentalists say the California initiative would remove the most dangerous pesticides from the food supply, forcing chemical manufacturers to come up with safer alternatives.

Whichever it is, when California voters cast their ballots on Tuesday, they will be deciding where and how fresh fruits and vegetables are grown in this country. And while it is difficult to predict the precise impact of their decision, observers say even shoppers here in Washington could ultimately feel the effect in the price, availability and quality of Imperial Valley lettuce or Monterey County strawberries.

Officially known as the California Environmental Protection Act of 1990 and unofficially as Big Green or the Hayden Initiative, Proposition 128 was drafted by a coalition of California environmental groups, assemblymen Lloyd Connelly and Tom Hayden (former husband of Jane Fonda), and state Attorney General John Van de Kamp, who ran unsuccessfully for the state's Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

The sweeping initiative also addresses several environmental issues aside from food safety, including carbon dioxide emissions, offshore drilling, global warming, the ozone layer and forest clear-cutting.

While it was considered a sure winner six months ago, current surveys show Big Green's chances of passing to be slightly less than 50-50. A rival initiative created by opponents, Proposition 135, also may not get a majority vote, according to the California Poll, an independent polling firm.

The food safety portion of Big Green has become controversial because it would ban any chemicals shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals, regardless of the risk or amount of residue they leave on food.

This so-called "zero-risk" approach would apply to the list of food-use chemicals designated by the Environmental Protection Agency as either "known" or "probable" human carcinogens. Use of these chemicals would have to be phased out in a maximum of eight years.

Manufacturers of the food-use agricultural chemicals that EPA has termed "possible" human carcinogens would have five years to prove that their products are not carcinogenic. If the data indicate that the chemical is carcinogenic, then California users would have a maximum of eight additional years to phase them out.

On the other hand, if the data is equivocal, then the chemicals could be used, but only if the residues they leave poses "no significant risk." The initiative applies to both fresh produce and processed foods.

While both Big Green and EPA would be using the same animal test results, the difference is that EPA goes on to balance the risks and benefits.

"EPA does not automatically refuse to register a chemical because it causes cancer in laboratory animals," explained James Roeloff, section head for ground water and special review chemicals for the agency's Office of Pesticide Programs. "Instead, for that chemical, we try to estimate how much of it people are exposed to in order to determine if the risk is significant. If it's not significant, then it can be used." Roeloff believes that the Big Green approach "doesn't take into consideration actual risk."

Janet Hathaway, senior project attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the environmental groups that helped write the initiative, believes than neither the EPA nor the Big Green approach "is simplistic in the way it evaluates animal tests." Both "look at the range of data to determine if a pesticide is a probable human carcinogen. In Big Green, once that determination has been made, it has to be phased out. Under EPA procedures, it may still be in our food supply. Neither uses a knee-jerk reaction to a single animal study showing tumors," she said.

In fact, some agricultural experts believe that the EPA's ongoing re-registration of pesticides will eliminate many of the same chemicals that would be phased out by Big Green. Some chemicals could be banned or restricted by the federal government before Big Green would ever take effect.

Big Green would apply not only to the $17 billion worth of farm products produced in the state, but also to foods imported into California, which would also not be permitted to have any detectable residues of the banned pesticides. California, the nation's most populous state, comprises 12 percent of the national market for manufactured foods.

Aside from altering their food products in order to sell in California, food manufacturers and agricultural groups are concerned that should Big Green pass, other states might adopt similar measures, leading to a patchwork of regulations.

"It wouldn't take long for the liberal bleeding hearts to bleed it into other states," said Ron Walker, executive director and chief executive officer of the National Potato Council. Walker believes that Big Green would put California potato growers out of business, and that potato growers in other states would lose the California market.

Not surprisingly, Big Green's supporters and opponents are predicting widely differing impacts.

As one Washington agricultural policy expert put it, "nobody is interpreting it on its face. They're either interpreting it to oppose it, or pushing it to say it will save the world."

The interpretations are easy to manipulate, because it is unclear exactly which chemicals would be banned under Big Green, or how the courts will interpret it should parts of it be challenged, which is likely. (Enforcement of the food safety-related provisions of Proposition 65, passed by California voters in 1986, is still making its way through the courts. That initiative requires that manufacturers give consumers warnings regarding exposure to chemicals that the state has determined pose a significant risk in causing cancer or reproductive harm.)

Environmentalists contend that the dire consequences predicted by industry are overestimated and that Big Green would not affect consumer food prices or substantially reduce crop yields. "The number of pesticides that will be phased out is small. The time line is reasonable, and the initiative provides money for research into alternatives," said Lawrie Mott, senior scientist with NRDC.

In addition, Mott said, "every time EPA bans a chemical, growers all say 'life will be impossible without it.' " There's a pattern to these "doomsday predictions," Mott continued, but "they aren't borne out by reality. Farmers are very skillful and resourceful."

Whether the chemical or biological alternatives that currently exist are economically or technically feasible is another matter.

David Riggs, president of the California Strawberry Advisory Board, said strawberry growers have been unable to find good alternatives to the fungicides they use, some of which may be put in jeopardy by Big Green.

The strawberry board has already spent a great deal of research money finding alternatives and "given the fact that we've been doing this for a decade, the chance that something will turn up in the next five years is remote," Riggs said. "It's not like changing tires."

An industry-funded study conducted by Spectrum Economics, Inc., a San Francisco firm, estimated that strawberry yields could decrease by as much as 50 percent and consumer prices could increase 35 percent should the initiative be put into effect.

Katherine Reichelderfer, director of the Agriculture, Environment and Food Safety Program at Resources for the Future, a local agricultural think tank, said that the predictions of industry and the environmentalists are both correct.

Prices of fruits and vegetables, particularly specialty produce, would rise in the short term, she said. But because there are alternative sources from other states and countries, the segment will adjust. "The biggest impact will be on California producers, not on fruit and vegetable consumers," Reichelderfer said. Producers in Texas and Florida would gain "tremendously" from Big Green, she predicted.

Dan Botts, director of the environmental and pest management division of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, is not so sure. The impact of Big Green "could be bad, could be good or could be indifferent," he said.

Florida could capture a greater share of the winter produce market should California produce yields suffer, Botts acknowledged. But Florida producers might not be able to ship their fruits and vegetables to California because they may contain residues of pesticides banned in that state. Because of the humidity in the region, farmers in Florida often must apply more of certain chemicals than growers in cooler, dryer climates.

At least one Florida grower is already concerned about this possibility. Larry Beasley, an Oviedo vegetable grower, said that he is worried about the liability he might incur if some of his traditionally treated celery or other vegetables inadvertently made their way into California if Big Green goes into effect. Beasley sells to a distributor who then "sends it wherever he wants to send it," he said.

California producers doubt that other states would be able to pick up all the slack. The Golden State produces about half the country's fresh fruits, vegetables and nuts, and is the leading U.S. producer of many of them, including almonds, grapes, lettuce, strawberries, apricots, peaches, prunes and plums.

"It's not a fact that you can just jump from one state to another" to grow more food, said Wade Whitfield, president of the California Iceberg Lettuce Commission. The climate is not right, or the land is unavailable, he said.

California produces 70 percent of the country's iceberg lettuce; that was 100 million cartons last year and 20 billion salads. While Arizona grew about 30 million cartons of iceberg last year, there is no suitable land left in that state to grow more, Whitfield said.

While there are few fresh foods that California does not produce itself, many processed foods are shipped to the state, as well as a handful of agricultural commodities, such as peanuts.

Kim Cutchins, director of industry services of the National Peanut Council, said that if all the provisions of Big Green were to go into effect, peanut growers in other states would comply. Segregating those peanuts bound for California from those going to the rest of the country would be unreasonable and unrealistic, she said.

Cutchins said the industry is researching alternative methods to grow peanuts, but that none so far is reliable. And Cutchins predicted that the time frame built into Big Green to find alternatives would not be sufficient. To comply with the initiative, peanut yields would be halved, she said.

As environmentalists and movie stars lead the charge for Proposition 128, the chemical and oil industries are funding the opposition to it. Meanwhile, agricultural producers, food manufacturers and retailers are supporting Proposition 135, otherwise known as CAREFUL. Among other things, the counter initiative would increase pesticide residue monitoring, provide research funds for finding alternatives and take a much more scientific and reasonable approach to food safety than Big Green, according to its supporters. Its detractors say it would basically retain the status quo.