Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Industry aims to strip local control of food supply

Environmental and healthy-farming advocates are learning what tobacco-free campaigners learned in the 1990s: When local governments step up to protect their community's citizens, industry responds by taking away the authority of local governments.

In spring 2004, three California counties and two cities passed ordinances that restricted growing genetically modified organisms. In response, state Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter (Kern County), earlier this month gutted and then amended Senate Bill 1056 with some of the broadest and most sweeping pre-emptive language ever written in the Legislature. Its purpose? To override existing local restrictions, prohibit any future initiatives that might restrict genetically engineered crops and eliminate local control of seeds and plants. Essentially, to hijack control of our food supply.

Just as the tobacco industry acted to restrict local tobacco controls in 20 states, agribusiness corporations and their affiliated associations are behind the moves to thwart local efforts to restrict the growing of genetically modified foods. In the 2005 session, 16 state legislatures, including California, introduced bills prohibiting local control of seeds and plants. The nearly identical language used in each of the bills illustrates a systematic and ordered approach to stifling community decision-making. Agribusiness councils, whose leadership includes members such as bioengineering firms Monsanto and Syngenta, are promoting the legislation while the bills' initial language has been developed by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative public-policy organization.

What will such pre-emptive laws do to local control? According to Tom Campbell, director of the California Department of Finance, "state pre-emption laws can do two things. They can overturn the will of the people in the event an initiative has passed, and they can prevent the introduction of laws on the same subject from being introduced in the future." Pre-empting local authority stifles citizen participation in the democratic process and should give pause for any legislator or citizen. What are voters in Mendocino and Marin counties to think when their votes to restrict genetically modified crops and protect local food and farming are worthy of so little respect?

There is no denying that agricultural biotechnology is a complex and controversial issue. You would think this would be all the more reason public debate and discussion should be encouraged, not silenced. Yet if legislators such as Florez have their way, citizens will lose an opportunity to be part of the discussion to resolve one of the most challenging issues of our time. Local initiatives and citizen actions restricting genetically modified crops are a signal to the Legislature that Californians are concerned about this new technology and, in the absence of government leadership, are taking matters into their own hands to protect their environment, economy and health.

Proponents of SB1056 assert that California needs uniformity and homogeneity with regard to seed laws and that the state could not possibly handle a patchwork of laws passed by local government. Yet, if local authority over seeds is taken away by the state, then so is every farmer's choice not to use genetically engineered seeds and plants. Once genetically engineered plants are released into the environment, historically preserved and heirloom seed strains are forever affected, according to a 2004 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists. Diverse agricultural economies may suffer from losses due to this contamination. For example, if organic crops become contaminated with genetically engineered pollen, those farmers may lose their organic certification.

In 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to James Madison in which he stated, "I know of no safe repository of the ultimate power of society but the people, and if we think them not enlightened enough, the remedy is not to take the power from them." That critical power is now being challenged, as state Sen. Wes Chesbro, D-Arcata (Humboldt County), noted: "Regardless of how you feel about the (genetically modified organism) issue, taking away local voters' rights is a serious threat to democracy."

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