Fresh off a big win in Congress, the pro-GMO lobby is working its legislative magic again—this time at the state level.
If passed, an Oregon law would prevent individual towns and counties from regulating the planting, production and sale of genetically engineered crops and products. Behind Oregon's Senate Bill 633—which could come to a vote as early as the end of this week—are cleverly named advocacy groups like Oregonians for Food and Shelter, which actually are lobbyist groups for biotech giants that produce GMO seeds.
And the language of the law is tricky too. “This bill never mentions the word genetic engineering or GMO once—it’s merely a preemption about seeds,” Ivan Maluski, Policy Director for Friends of Family Farmers, tells TakePart. “It applies to county and local regulations on the display, notification, planting, and planting of seeds, as well as the products.”
Essentially, the law would limit local governments from passing any legislation relating to seeds (either vegetable or flower seeds) and their products. “Makes legislative finding and declaration that regulation of agricultural seed, flower seed and vegetable seed and products of agricultural seed, flower seed and vegetable seed be reserved to state,” is how its stated in SB 633.
“It’s actually incredibly broad. It goes way beyond GMO crops. It could affect protecting certain orchards from an invasive species. It poses a real threat to a lot of different agricultural operations where they are regulated at the local level.”
Maluski sees the state bill as a pre-emptive attack on efforts by residents of Jackson County, which is near the California stateline, to force a vote that would ban the planting of genetically engineered crops in the district.
“The reason that so many in Jackson County want to see GMO propagation criminalized is not to limit the freedoms of their fellow farmers or to jeopardize their livelihoods, it is because they want to protect and maintain their freedom to choose, and to maintain and protect their livelihoods,” wrote farmer A.J. Boulton to agriculture news website Capital Press.
Senate Bill 633, should it pass, would render any regulations on genetically modified crops—not just bans, like so many in Jackson County want to see—illegal.
“We believe this is an anti-democratic piece of legislation because it takes away the rights of people in Jackson County to vote on these issues, and takes away the rights of other local jurisdictions to make decisions about their own future as it relates to local agriculture and food,” Maluski says.
Genetically modified organisms are plants or animals created by splicing the DNA from different species to create combinations that would not occur naturally. Biotechnology companies like Monsanto mostly engineer crops to resist direct application of herbicide, allowing plants to live while surrounding weeds die. In Oregon, for instance, the biotechnology company Syngenta engineered an herbicide-resistant sugar beet seed that is grown throughout the state.
But more than 40 countries have written laws regulating the planting and labeling of GMO crops, and a handful have banned them altogether. While the long-term health effects of human consumption of GMO crops have yet to be determined, genetically engineered feed has been linked to cancer, miscarriage, and organ damage when fed to some animals.
Several states, including Oregon, have introduced measures to regulate the expansion of GMOs in recent years, the most famous of which was Proposition 37, which would have mandated that genetically engineered foods be labeled in California. Voters rejected the bill by a slight margin, following a campaign influenced by more than $46 million worth of No on 37 advertisements leading up to election day—much of which was paid for by food giants like Monsanto, Kellogg’s, Kraft Foods, and Coca-Cola.
At the federal level, Monsanto actually helped craft a “biotech rider” attached to a sweeping budget bill that requires the USDA to approve the harvest and sale of crops from genetically modified seed even if a court has ruled the environmental studies on the crop were inadequate. President Barack Obama signed the bill, dubbed the “Monsanto Protection Act,” into law a few days later.
In Oregon, Maluski says counties have taken up the issue of genetically modified foods because the state legislature has appeared unwilling to pass any meaningful regulations. At the outset of the current legislative session, he adds, several bills that would set out rules for GM crops were being considered—only three of which are still standing. House Bill 2319 authorizes the Oregon Department of Agriculture to set rules and regulations regarding GE crops; HB 2715 allows counties to establish control areas for GE crops; and HB 2736 would exempt farmers from liability for inadvertent acquisition or use of GE plants or seeds. Opponents of such bills call them “unwise” and “technologically regressive.”
Should SB 633 pass the Senate this week and move onto the House of Representatives, Maluski says his organization would work to have the bill debated alongside these other house bills. At least that way, he says, legislators could have a robust conversation about the state’s role in regulating the ever-changing landscape of GE foods. On SB 633, Maluski remains baffled that it has garnered so much support—including the cosponsorship of two Democrats.
“It’s stunning that the state would be considering giving a handout to the biotech industry,” he adds. “Oregon family farmers are up against a lot, and one of those challenges is out-of-state companies like Monsanto taking control of our landscape. It’s important for Oregon senators to know the country is watching, and we believe they should slow down on this and ultimately vote no.”
What do you think: should towns and counties be able to pass laws regulating the planting, production, and sale of GE crops?
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Steve’s story about healthy fast food was anthologized in Best Food Writing 2011. His food and general interest stories regularly appear in Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other places. Email Steve | @thebostonwriter