States Introduce Numerous Bills to Regulate Genetically Modified Foods (13/5/2007)

States Introduce Numerous Bills to Regulate Genetically Modified Foods
by Britt Bailey

Following a two-year span during which the corporate farming sector lobbied heavily in support of state bills aimed at keeping local governments from regulating genetically modified organisms (GMOs), 2007 state legislatures are now filled with bills confirming farmer and consumer concerns about such foods and crops.

It has been a decade since multinational corporations began blanketing the planet with their patented varieties of genetically modified seed. With little government oversight, poll after poll has shown that consumers would like to see greater supervision of genetic engineering including all-out limitations on their cultivation.

From late 2004-2006, nearly twenty state legislatures attempted to subdue the growing resistance to genetically modified organisms. In the wake of four California counties and numerous New England towns passing local measures restricting the growing of genetically engineered foods, states began passing "preemption" laws removing the ability of local governments to regulate seeds and plants.

Nearly every state hearing on the preemption bills erupted into an emotional discourse on the specific impacts of growing GMOs and the toll which this mode of farming exacts on the environment and public health. Inadequate federal oversight, economic impacts, risks to organic practices, lack of legal liability in the event of contamination, need for public notification, potential health concerns, and harm to natural resources were all listed as reasons why local communities should be able to decide whether genetically modified foods should or should not be grown. Thus far, Missouri is the only state that seems to be shoving the concerns related to genetic engineering under the rug. Unlike prior years, when state preemption bills had company, Missouri's SB364 is the only bill in 2007 introduced to remove local authority over anything related to farming.

Legislators seem to be responding to the wishes of the people. Already in 2007, state capitols are filled with bills aimed at protecting small family farming systems and consumers from the impacts of genetically modified foods. Perhaps it is a combination of continued public outcry, along with the rice contamination fiasco that occurred in August 2006 (when an unapproved genetically engineered rice variety caused billions of dollars of damage to farmers throughout the United States), that is giving legislators enough backbone to defy the wishes of the multinational corporate agriculture industry.

Under current US law, the makers of the genetically modified crops bear no responsibility for damages caused when the crops spread through environmental or human action. Now, four states are carrying bills making the agricultural biotechnology industry liable in the event another contamination occurs. Three states are hearing bills calling for a moratorium on food crops genetically engineered to produce pharmaceuticals. Illinois and Tennessee are calling for labeling of foods derived from genetically engineered crops. Five states, California, Hawaii, Minnesota, New York, and South Dakota, are calling for notification systems in which genetically modified foods become a part of the public record.

After ten years of national public debate over the effects of commercializing genetically modified organisms, we seem to be turning a regulatory corner. Perhaps State legislators have recognized that federal regulations are inadequate to protect their state farming interests. Perhaps they have recognized that the regulatory offices of Monsanto and Dow are simply too close to the offices of the USDA, FDA, and Congress. As states continue to introduce bills protecting against the impacts arising from growing genetically modified organisms, will the federal government act next to preempt the states?

All of this begs the question, where is the oversight of farming and agriculture best deliberated - at the local, state, or national level? Given the federal government's track record on the issue, we may want keep it local and allow communities and farmers to decide how best to regulate their soils and foods.

To stay up to date on GMO bills introduced in states across the United States, see Environmental Commons' "Food Democracy Tracker," http://environmentalcommons.org/gmo-tracker.html

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