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
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."
Please voice your opposition to SB1056, which impedes our ability as
community members to protect and create a sustainable food supply. Contact
your legislator (to find out who that is, go to leginfo.ca.gov/yourleg.html), Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (firstname.lastname@example.org) and
Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez (email@example.com). This
legislation does not represent the freedoms our country was founded upon.
Britt Bailey is director of Environmental Commons in Gualala (Mendocino County) and environmental policy instructor at the College of Marin in Kentfield. For updated information on the seed and plant pre-emption bills, visit www.environmentalcommons.org/gmo-tracker.html. Becky Tarbotton is campaign coordinator for Californians for GE-Free Agriculture (www.calgefree.org), a statewide coalition promoting ecologically and economically viable agriculture.
© 2005 San Francisco Chronicle