North Dakota is weighing a bill that would make it the first state to ban planting of a genetically modified crop, reflecting a surge of concern about such crops in legislatures around the country.
The North Dakota bill, which would impose a two-year moratorium on growing genetically modified wheat, is one of more than 40 state bills introduced this year that would regulate biotech crops or the labeling of foods made using genetic engineering.
"You have people at the state level trying to get these things passed because the federal government won't do it," said Andy Zimmerman, who works with the Green Party in New York, where a bill has been introduced to ban the planting of genetically modified crops for five years.
But the North Dakota bill, which has already passed the state's House of Representatives, signals another trend as well — that concern about genetically engineered crops is now coming not only from environmental and consumer groups but from farmers, who have generally supported such crops.
Although virtually all the state bills proposed in past years failed, the North Dakota bill has made headway precisely because its main backers are some of the state's own farmers, not the usual biotechnology opponents. While many of these farmers say they are not in principle opposed to bioengineered foods, they fear losing the ability to export their crops to Europe, Japan and other places where consumers are shunning such food and where governments strictly regulate it.
"We don't want to lose the ability to sell our wheat abroad," said Todd Leake, a farmer from near Grand Forks and one of the strongest champions of the North Dakota measure. "Most of the economy in North Dakota is agriculture," Mr. Leake noted, "and wheat is the mainstay of that."
To some extent, the North Dakota bill is merely symbolic; the moratorium would expire on July 31, 2003, probably before any genetically modified seed would even come to market. And the bill does not mention enforcement.
Still, that has not prevented Monsanto, which is developing genetically modified wheat, and some farm groups opposed to the bill from putting up a stiff fight. So while the bill breezed through the state's House last month by a vote of 68 to 29, its passage in the Senate is far from assured.
In other states as well, biotechnology and food companies, not eager to deal with a patchwork of laws, have lobbied heavily against some bills, say legislators who proposed them. Many other bills, however, fail simply for lack of support.
Many farmers like genetically engineered crops because they contain useful traits, like pest resistance. But critics say that they have not been studied thoroughly enough to rule out health problems like allergies or unanticipated ecological effects, including the killing of monarch butterflies.
The first genetically altered crops — herbicide-resistant soybeans and pest-resistant corn and cotton — were snapped up by farmers. About half of the soybeans and a quarter of the corn grown in the United States last year were genetically modified. And many farmers, including some in North Dakota, are continuing to grow these crops, despite a rise in consumer resistance.
But genetically modified crops like wheat that are not already established are having a harder time catching on because farmers and food companies fear they will not be able to sell them.
Genetically altered potatoes never gained much of a foothold after major potato processors and fast-food companies indicated they would not buy them. Monsanto is discontinuing its potato product. And farmers in the main tobacco-growing states are refusing to grow crops that are genetically modified to reduce nicotine. The farmers and some cigarette companies worry that smokers, particularly in Europe and Japan, might shun modified cigarettes, even as they accept the risk of cancer.
Genetically modified wheat probably will not reach the market before 2003, Monsanto says. The company is developing wheat resistant to its Roundup herbicide, which would allow the herbicide to kill weeds while leaving the wheat unscathed.
Still, wheat millers in Europe and Japan have already warned American industry trade organizations that they would not accept any wheat that has been genetically modified.
Concerns among wheat farmers have increased in the wake of the StarLink corn fiasco, in which genetically modified corn not approved for human consumption found its way into taco shells and other foods, causing recalls and numerous other disruptions to farmers, grain elevators and food companies and leading to a decline in corn exports to Japan.
That is why backers of the North Dakota measure say a moratorium is needed. If even a few farmers were to plant genetically modified wheat, they say, the state's whole crop could become contaminated and exports jeopardized, particularly if competitors like Canada were to grow only nonmodified wheat.
Neal Fisher, administrator of the North Dakota Wheat Commission, a marketing group financed by farmers, said that North Dakota's wheat crop was valued at about $1 billion annually, about half of it exported. The state is the leading producer of hard red spring wheat, a premium crop used in breads and rolls.
There have been 77 bills related to agricultural biotechnology introduced this year in 27 states, said Chip Kunde, vice president for state affairs at the Grocery Manufacturers of America, which represents food companies. The list overstates the amount of legislative activity somewhat because in about 10 cases, the same piece of legislation introduced into two legislative chambers is counted as two separate bills. Nonetheless, the number of bills is up from 50 bills in 16 states last year and only 12 bills in 1999.
Much of the increase, Mr. Kunde said, is from what might be characterized as pro-biotech bills, in that 19 bills in 15 states are intended to penalize protesters who tear up genetically modified crops.
But there are eight bills in six states that would ban or put a moratorium on the planting of genetically engineered crops, compared with seven bills in four states last year, Mr. Kunde said. There are nine bills in seven states that would require foods made from bioengineered crops to be labeled, up from six bills in five states last year.
Other bills deal with seed sales. Still, virtually all the crop moratorium and labeling bills have made little headway. The one bill that did pass last year was in Mississippi, which required more extensive labels on bags of genetically modified seeds. That bill, like the North Dakota one, was backed by farmers.
Douglas Farquhar, a program director at the National Conference of State Legislatures, said the bills have not progressed because the federal government "keeps on saying we've got this covered." He said a state law might be subject to challenge on the grounds that it interfered with interstate commerce.
But that is not clear. States can enact regulations that are stricter than federal ones, unless federal law specifically prohibits them, Mr. Kunde said. He said he was not aware of any pre-emptive federal rule related to bioengineered crops.
The North Dakota bill, introduced by Representative Phillip Mueller, a wheat farmer himself, allows a committee of state officials and farm representatives to lift the ban earlier if Canada approves genetically engineered wheat. Research would be exempt from the ban.
In lobbying against the bill, Monsanto has told legislators that a moratorium by a major wheat-growing state would discourage the company from doing research on improved wheat, particularly for varieties grown in North Dakota.
Mark Buckingham, a Monsanto spokesman, said a moratorium was not needed because the company was willing to work with farmers to resolve their concerns. "It is absolutely not in our intentions to press forward with a product until it's wanted," he said.
A similar bill proposing a two-year moratorium on genetically modified wheat appears to have died in Montana. The North Dakota bill is now before the Senate Agriculture Committee. Terry Wanzek, a Republican and the chairman of the committee, said he had sensed some momentum to defeat the bill and instead require a study of the issues.
"A lot of farmers are for the bill and a lot of farmers are against it," said Mr. Wanzek, another farmer. "It's not an easy position to be in the middle of right now."
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company