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Wednesday, July 20th, 2005
Turning Point for California’s Farm Industry
Industry aims to strip local control of food supply
Britt Bailey & Becky Tarbotton/San Francisco Chronicle
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
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 certification.
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
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 (senator.perata@
sen.ca.gov) 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. Becky Tarbotton is campaign coordinator for Californians for GE-Free Agriculture (www.calgefree.org), a statewide coalition promoting ecologically and economically viable agriculture.
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