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More Than Just a Food Fight

Fifteen states have passed laws preventing bans on biotech foods. Sounds harmless enough -- but green activist groups are protesting the proposed legislation as an affront to local democracy.
 
 
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The debate over genetically modified organisms just got a lot hotter in California. Last month, Democratic State Senator Dean Florez introduced an amendment that would effectively remove a community's control over its food supply.

Florez's amendment reads, in part, "no ordinance or regulation of any political subdivision may prohibit or in any way attempt to regulate any matter relating to the registration, labeling, sale, storage, transportation, distribution, notification of use, or use of field crops."

It seems harmless enough, couched in legalese as it is. But this controversial overhaul comes in response to three California counties and two cities that banned the raising of genetically engineered crops and livestock. Activist groups like Californians for GE-Free Agriculture, Environmental Commons, and the Sierra Club are up in arms over the proposed legislation, calling it an affront to local democracy.

It's easy to see why. Since California currently does not have any GMO regulations at the state level, the proposed law will successfully eliminate the only limitations that prevent biotech giants like Monsanto and Syngenta from moving in with their patented GE seeds. Moreover, the bill, known as SB 1056, takes pre-emptive measures to preclude people from raising concerns about GMOs in the future, and in doing so deprives the public of any chance debate on this hot-button issue.

Becky Tarbotton, campaign coordinator for Californians for GE-Free Agriculture, says, "If SB 1056 or a bill with similar pre-emptive language passes in California, it will effectively override the ability of local communities, including farmers, to make decisions about whether or not they want to grow genetically engineered crops."

In addition to an infringement on civil liberties, the fundamental problem that environmental groups have with SB 1056 is that farmers who plant genetically engineered (GE) seeds can't guarantee that their seeds will not contaminate GE-free farms. According to Laurel Hopwood of the Sierra Club, "What's unfortunate for farmers, especially organic farmers, is that pollen can move from place to place, so the spread of GMO gene traits is inevitable." Hopwood adds, "What's different about this form of pollution from any other form of pollution is that it's alive. These new life forms multiply, spread, and cannot be recalled. ... Not only are organic farmers not allowed to call their crop 'organic' when it becomes contaminated, but also farmers can't sell their crops overseas where GMOs are not accepted."

California is the nation's largest agricultural producer, raising hundreds of crops for large-scale export and domestic use. The issue of organic farms losing certification because of GE seed contamination, then, is just the tip of the iceberg. The European Union and other major importers of Californian goods like Japan have strict policies that forbid the purchase or sale of GE crops. Environmentalists fear the economic repercussions of GE seed contamination could be disastrous for the both California agricultural community and the U.S. economy.

Beyond the Golden State

But if you think the debate over local control is just going on in California, think again. Britt Bailey, the director of Environmental Commons, explained that fourteen states have already passed provisions limiting local control, and North Carolina is still considering a similar measure. Bailey says, "When I contacted the Georgia and Oklahoma legislatures, specifically the authors of the seed preemption bills, and asked them why the bills were introduced, the authors responded by saying the bills were in response to the three California counties that had passed initiatives restricting genetically modified organisms."

In March of 2004, Mendocino County in Northern California passed a law prohibiting GE seeds from being planted within the county lines, the first of its kind. Eight months later, four more counties voted on similar bans, but in the face of opposition heavily funded by the biotech industry and promoted by state and national farm groups, only one ban passed. Many more counties in California and across the country are in the process of bringing GMO bans to the voters.

But proponents of these seed preemption bills, in California and elsewhere, believe that seed laws belong uniformly at the state or federal level and shouldn't be in the hands of a patchwork of local restrictions. As Charles Margulis of the Center for Food Safety points out, however, states that oppose local restrictions to GMOs tend to have regulations in place at the state level. California does not.

On the other side of SB 1056 are groups like the California Farm Bureau Federation (CFBF), a non-profit that represents farm interests throughout the state. While spokesman Dave Kranz was unwilling to take an official stance on SB 1056, he says, "Our position has been that we support technology that offers potential for family farmers to be innovative and keep up with market trends."

Like other supporters of this pre-emptive legislation, CFBF feels that farmers ought to have the flexibility to respond to local situations and should not be prevented from raising GE-crops simply because their property falls within a certain county line. "We oppose county-by-county bans on biotech crops just as we would oppose county-by-county bans on organic crops if those were to occur," concludes Kranz.

In an recent op-ed piece in the San Francisco Chronicle , CFBF President Bill Pauli lays out a clear case for GE foods. "[Californians] are among the most progressive farmers in the United States, and we play a vital role in providing safe and healthy food throughout the world. That's why I can't understand all the misinformation associated with biotechnology, an established practice of modern farming that makes our food more plentiful, longer-lasting and, yes, healthier than ever."

Pauli devotes most of his article to assuring readers that no one (neither people nor animals) has become sick from biotech foods since their inception in the mid-nineties. On the federal level, biotech crops are subject to inspection by the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Food and Drug Administration. Research has suggested that GE foods have the curative properties and the potential to improve nutrition worldwide. "A 2004 report from the National Academy of Sciences," asserts Pauli, "concluded that foods from biotech crops are as safe as any other foods in your supermarket." The question remains though, after reading Pauli's article, why would he spend so much energy convincing the public that GE foods are safe for consumption?

Is it because consumers fear the possibly toxic effects of herbicides, which can be sprayed at will on the 70 percent of GE crops that are herbicide-resistant? Or perhaps the answer lies in the recent failures of federal regulatory agencies to ensure the safety of biotech crops. Anuradha Mittal, Executive Director of The Oakland Institute, exclaims, "The EPA, USDA, and FDA were asleep at the wheel during the StarLink controversy."

The StarLink fiasco resulted in an enormous recall on corn products, heightened concerns over biotech products, and was an economic black eye for the U.S. when Japan and South Korea were forced to turn to China for corn supplies. Since the FDA already determined that genetic engineering is only an extension of agriculture, and that GE foods are not significantly different from traditionally grown foods, their methodology for determining safety seems suspect.

Mittal and Margulis of the Center for Food Safety also emphasize that none of the federal regulatory agencies have conducted long-term tests to determine the lasting effects of GE foods on consumers and the environment. Margulis maintains that the studies Pauli mentions in his op-ed are "ludicrous" and broad-ranged. "None of those studies were conducted by independent organizations; none fed animals just GE foods and saw what happened." And, he says, the biotech corporations would prefer it that way.

The End of Local Control?

Concerns over GE food safety aside, the true transgression being perpetrated by SB 1056 is that California legislators are turning a blind eye to public safety and debate in favor of biotech corporations. "By taking away the sovereign powers of communities," Mittal concludes, "legislators are rendering the elected officials in these communities basically impotent." To say nothing of the rights of farmers and citizens that this pre-emptive legislation will strip away. Mittal adds, "The interests of the family farmers are being sold off, while bigger farmers receive subsidies and are therefore more likely to support the bill."

Of course, the debate over local control doesn't center solely on GMOs. Britt Bailey says, "Twenty states have laws restricting local governments from passing tobacco-free ordinances, 40 states have laws removing local control of pesticides, and I think there are 20 or so states with preemptive gun laws."

The result is that when communities raise concerns on these topics at the local level, industry swoops in at the state level to ensure these concerns fall on deaf ears. Ironically, Sen. Florez currently supports a measure to give his district the power to decide whether or not to apply sewage sludge to agricultural land, the same kind of local control prohibited by his seed bill.

While activist groups are calling for labels on products containing GMOs or higher standards for regulatory testing, others have not thrown in the towel yet on the local control debate. Mary Zepernick, a coordinator at the Program on Corporations, Law & Democracy, feels a new take on this fight might be necessary. "We need to reframe these issues as rights-based struggles rather than harms-based. Looking at things that way -- abuse by abuse, corporation by corporation -- will keep these issues mired in the regulatory regime." Instead, she says, activists should show how the attack on GMO bans are part of a larger attack on communities' ability to stand up to corporations.

Similarly, Britt Bailey and the Environmental Commons want to see a constitutional challenge to the bans on local control. "If we want to secure local authority of issues related to health, safety, and welfare," Bailey argues, "we could build case law by placing the intent of a local authority to govern within the local ordinances and resolutions we develop and pass. This way, if state preemption occurs, a local government has the intent and therefore standing to challenge. We could also choose to amend the constitution."

Such a step might be the only way for farmers to keep locally grown food viable and for the dialogue over GMOs to continue.

Zack Pelta-Heller is a freelance writer living in Astoria, NY. Currently, he's an assistant editor for Dell Magazines.