Seeds of legislative meddling (18/1/2006)

Seeds of legislative meddling
by Catherine Badgely and Ivette Perfecto

*CATHERINE BADGLEY and IVETTE PERFECTO are on the faculty at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, at the Museum of Paleontology and the School of Natural Resources & Environment, respectively.*

A national food controversy is now simmering in Michigan, as the state Senate considers a bill that would bar towns and counties from enacting local legislation to regulate genetically engineered seed. This bill poses a threat to our democracy and could prove especially harmful given the serious concerns raised by genetically engineered crops.

Genetically engineered organisms are created by inserting pieces of DNA from a distantly related organism into the DNA of a host plant or animal. For example, in one common GE crop, bacterial genes are genetically engineered into corn to create corn plants that produce their own pesticide

GE crops, especially corn and soybeans, are widely grown in Michigan and across the United States. They are found in many processed foods in U.S. supermarkets

Yet controversy swirls around GE foods, and they have been banned or require labels in some countries. At issue are concerns about inadequate evaluation of the health risks and environmental consequences of GE crops currently in use, genetic contamination of organic and conventional crops, and the ability to regulate GE foods within the food system.

A related looming issue is the production of biopharmaceutical crops -- food crops engineered to produce prescription drugs or industrial chemicals. Currently, outdoor experimental plots of biopharmaceutical crops -- such as corn engineered to produce blood clotters and contraceptives -- present significant contamination risks to the food system

In response to these uncertainties, citizens in three counties in California passed ordinances in 2004 to ban the raising of GE crops and livestock, and local action has been taken in nearly 100 New England towns.

Agribusiness reacted swiftly to these local initiatives. Its legislative supporters have introduced preemptive bills in 18 states to prevent local governments from enacting legislation about seeds and plants. Fourteen states already have passed these bills into law; Michigan's version, SB 777, is scheduled to get another committee hearing Thursday.

The public should be concerned about this bill for four reasons

*GE foods pose genuine health and environmental concerns.

Scientific experiments where laboratory mammals were fed GE food resulted in allergic reactions in one instance and toxic effects in another. Threat of allergic reaction led to the recall of hundreds of products containing genetically engineered corn in 2000

The Food and Drug Administration still does not require premarket safety testing for GE foods

*The legislation prevents local enactment of the precautionary principle.

The precautionary principle advocates thorough investigation of the risks posed by a new technology before it's adopted

Following the precautionary principle, GE organisms would be required to demonstrate they do no harm before they are grown and consumed, based on rigorous testing of health and environmental impacts

*Preemptive legislation of this sort violates democratic principles and citizen involvement in issues of public well-being

It takes away local control, the authority of local governments, and the ability of voters to pass local ballot initiatives -- important tenets of our democracy

*Pre-emptive legislation, when it is justified in the public interest, should establish minimums for general health and safety, not set the upper limit on what is permitted. SB 777 would legally prohibit local regulation of GE seeds, thereby creating a ceiling for all Michiganders to live under, regardless of the risk factors

SB 777 does not deserve the support of legislators or the public, whether the reason is GE plants specifically or the right to precaution and self-governance in general

CATHERINE BADGLEY and IVETTE PERFECTO are on the faculty at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, at the Museum of Paleontology and the School of Natural Resources & Environment, respectively. Write them in care of the Free Press Editorial Page, 600 W. Fort St., Detroit 48226


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