Victory in California - communities can still ban GMOs (31/8/2006)

Efforts to take GMO control blocked
The Mendocino Beacon, 31 August 2006
Local food safety activists have apparently successfully led efforts to defeat a proposed new state law that would prevent other counties from following the lead of Mendocino County on genetically-modified (GM) farm crop regulation.

Mendocino County was specifically exempt from the effects of Senate Bill 1056. The bill was approved last week on a 46-19 vote in the California Assembly and sent back to the Senate, where it was approved previously. While the bill needed only a simple concurrence vote in the Senate, it was apparently blocked there.

State Sen. Wes Chesbro's office told pleased local activists that the bill would not get a Senate vote this week, ending its chances this year, said Els Cooperrider, a leading proponent of the controversial Mendocino county ordinance restricting GMOs. The legislative session ended Thursday, the same day this newspaper was going to press. Local activists helped lead a statewide effort to lobby Sen. Don Perata, the Senate Pro Tem. Some reports credited Perata with killing the bill.

"What I know is that a bunch of us lobbied everyone we could think of. I called Mike Thompson to call Perata as well. I figured it couldn't hurt," said Cooperrider. "We are keeping our fingers crossed and hoping Chesbro was right."

If signed into law by the governor as all sides had expected, the bill would have prevented individual counties or cities from banning the use of GM crops.

Mendocino became the first county in the United States to restrict the growing of genetically-modified organisms. Currently, there are three additional California counties and nearly 100 towns in New England which restrict the growing of GMOs, said Britt Bailey, director of Environmental Commons in Gualala.

"SB1056 strips local communities of their rights to shape their food systems [so that they] reflect the unique characteristics and features of their region," Bailey said.

The effect of moratoriums like the one passed in Mendocino County is precautionary in nature, Bailey explained.

"These communities have in essence pro-actively protected their local food supplies from possible genetic contamination which occurs when an engineered gene enters another species of crop or wild plant through cross-pollination," she said.

A genetically modified organism (GMO) is a man-made plant or animal created in a laboratory using genes from other species and patented for use in agriculture. The bill would prevent local regulation of GM seed and nursery stock.

Trinity and Marin counties have also passed ordinances restricting GMOs and would also have been exempt from the bill. Twelve other counties, mostly in the San Joaquin Valley, have passed ordinances in support of GMOs. Santa Cruz Count yhas backpedaled on a plan passed earlier. Media reports said most of the opposition was coming from Mendocino and other areas that have already banned GMOs and would not be affected.

Supporters of SB1056 say the goal is to create guidelines for consistent statewide legislation on genetically-engineered crops.

"Agribusiness lobbyists such as Dow and Monsanto claim that this statewide preemption is necessary to create uniformity and consistent statewide regulation," Bailey said.

"However, the bill puts the state in the nonsensical position of preempting local authority and declaring that it occupies the entire field' on an issue ­ genetically modified crops ­ for which there is not one law or regulation on the books. SB1056 preempts to a statutory void," Bailey said.

After Mendocino County banned GMOs, conservative think tanks in the U.S. such as the Hoover Institution launched a large-scale effort to debunk the notion that there is any threat from so-called "Frankenfoods."

At the same time, Asian and European nations have been perplexed by the American enthusiasm for freshly created life forms and have restricted imports from the United States.

"The agricultural industry has been pushing state bills like this across the country to preempt local municipalities from having local control over food safety," said Toni Rizzo of Fort Bragg, a supporter of the Mendocino County GMO ban.

"It's another way that corporate money is used to stifle the democratic process and take away our right to control the quality of the food and environment in our communities."

The Assembly passage of SB1056 was a bi-partisan effort, which included Central Valley Democrats, who normally support environmental efforts, the publication Capitol Weekly News reported. Most of the Central Valley now grows genetically-modified foods, such as tomatoes bolstered by genes from cattle. Weeds have evolved resistance to nearly all pesticides and herbicides but when combined with animal genes, more toxic sprays can be used on weeds which then don't kill the farmed crops such as rice.

Genetically-modified crops can have significant impacts on the environment, the economy, and public health, Bailey claims.

Several recent incidents highlight risks associated with inadequate control of genetically modified crops, she said. On Aug. 5, it was reported that genetically-engineered herbicide-resistant bentgras swere discovered in the wild in Oregon.

Norman Ellstrand, University of California plant geneticist, said, "Such resistance could force land managers and government agencies ... to switch to nastier herbicides to control grasses and weeds."

In another blow for GMOs, USDA Secretary Mike Johanns announced that U.S. supplies of long-grain rice have been contaminated with a genetically engineered variety not approved for human consumption, leading Japan, South Korea, and Europe to reject all U.S. long-grain rice, according to the Washington Post.

Assemblywoman Patty Berg, D-Eureka, whose district includes the coast, said she was disappointed that her colleagues approved SB1056 by Central Valley lawmaker Dean Florez.

Berg spoke against the bill, which passed despite opposition from environmental and local government interests.

"When counties in my district voted to restrict the use of GMO crops, I supported those efforts. I still support those efforts. I believe that people have a right to say what goes on in their counties, in their fields and near their homes. I oppose this bill, and I will oppose any bill that would strip from counties the right to restrict this technology," Berg said on the Assembly floor.

Florez said that some of the demands made by environmentalists in negotiations have been unreasonable - most notably the suggestion that all fields with GM crops be covered in heavy plastic to prevent pollen from escaping. Much of Florez' district is already planted in genetically engineered crops, Capitol Weekly News reported.

"This bill may come back next year in a new suit. I'm sure it will," said Cooperrider.

For more information, see http://environmentalcommons.org/food-democracy-CA.html.

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