Agribusiness Targets State Legislators to Pre-empt Local Laws on Seeds
Agribusiness Targets State Legislators to Pre-empt Local Laws on Seeds
Legislators in eight states have passed bills preventing counties, towns and cities from introducing ordinances, resolutions, or other legislation relating to agricultural seeds. These seed pre-emption bills are an orchestrated industry response to recent local actions on genetically modified organisms. For example, ballot initiatives in three California counties have prohibited the cultivation of genetically modified crops, livestock, and other organisms, and nearly 100 New England towns have passed various resolutions in support of limits on genetically engineered crops.
"Pre-emptive seed laws serve the agribusiness industry by weakening local laws and precluding the introduction of stronger protections in the future," said Britt Bailey of Environmental Commons. "They are industry’s stealth response to a growing movement of people that are seeking to protect their communities at the local level."
“Over the past several years in Iowa, we've seen local control be taken away for the benefit of the corporate hog industry,” said George Naylor, an Iowa farmer and President of the National Family Farm Coalition. "With this seed pre-emption legislation recently signed into law, we are now losing our ability to protect ourselves from irresponsible corporations aiming to control the agricultural seeds planted throughout the state."
In the past decade, the same preemptive strategy has been used by the tobacco industry and the National Rifle Association to thwart local efforts to introduce more stringent smoking and gun laws, respectively. As Tina Walls of Phillip Morris & Co. admitted, “By introducing preemptive statewide legislation, we can shift the battle away from the community level back to the state legislatures where we are on stronger ground.”
See attached backgrounder (online at www.environmentalcommons.org/seedlawbackgrounder.html) for contacts, resources, and discussions of:
* Why this is a challenge to local rights.
* Who is behind this strategy of state pre-emption.
* Why this is a matter for wide public concern.
* What the legal precedents are for local action.
Background: Agribusiness Industry Passing State Laws to Pre-empt Local Initiatives on Genetically Modified Organisms
As of April 12th, legislators in twelve states have introduced bills that would override local and county measures relating to the registration, labeling, sale, storage, transportation, distribution, or use of agricultural seeds. These bills have already been signed into law in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Idaho, North Dakota, and South Dakota, and are rapidly working their way through the legislatures in Arizona, Oklahoma, Ohio, and West Virginia. Similar bills in Indiana and Kansas have passed both houses of the legislature and are awaiting the governor’s signature. Additionally, the Maine Department of Agriculture is seeking to forestall local action around genetically modified organisms (GMOs) via an overreaching interpretation of the state’s ‘Right to Farm’ Law. For a continually updated tracking of seed pre-emption legislation, see http://www.environmentalcommons.org/gmo-tracker.html.
Why this challenge to local rights?
Since 2002, towns, cities and counties across the US have passed resolutions seeking to control the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) within their jurisdiction. Close to 100 New England towns have passed resolutions opposing the unregulated use of GMOs; nearly a quarter of these have called for local moratoria on the planting of GMO seeds. In 2004, three California counties, Mendocino, Trinity and Marin, passed ordinances banning the raising of genetically engineered (GE) crops and livestock. Advocates across the country believe that the more people learn about the potential hazards of GE food and crops, the more they seek measures to protect public health, the environment, and family farms. They have come to view local action as a necessary antidote to inaction at the federal and state levels.
Who is behind this strategy of state pre-emption?
These pre-emption bills are being introduced by state legislators who support large-scale industrial agriculture, and are often funded by associated business interests. These bills are mainly supported by Agribusiness Councils and Farm Bureau chapters in the various states. They represent a back-door, stealth strategy to override protective local measures around GMOs.
The industry proposal for a “Biotechnology state uniformity resolution” was first introduced at a May 2004 forum sponsored by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC claims over 2000 state legislators as members and has more than 300 corporate sponsors, according to People for the American Way (see Resources). The organization has its origins in the efforts of political strategist and fundraiser Paul Weyrich to rebuild a Republican power base at the federal and state levels in the aftermath of Watergate. Other recent measures supported by ALEC include efforts to deregulate electric utilities, override local pesticide laws, repeal minimum wage laws, limit class action lawsuits and privatize public pensions.
The tobacco and handgun industries have mounted similar efforts in recent years to circumvent local smoking ordinances and restrictions on handgun use. Ironically, many of the interests now promoting state pre-emption have vociferously opposed federal regulations designed to pre-empt weaker state laws.
Why is this a cause for wide public concern?
Local governments have historically overseen policies related to public health, safety, and welfare. Preventing local decision-making contradicts the legitimate and necessary responsibilities of cities, towns, and counties. Traditionally, laws enacted at the state level have set minimum requirements and allowed for the continued passage and enforcement of local ordinances that establish greater levels of public health protection. Preemptive legislation reverses this norm.
* Pre-emption undermines democracy and local control, and is a threat to meaningful citizen participation around issues of widespread concern. Communities enact local measures as an expression of their fundamental right to shape their future, whereas wealthy corporate interests are far better able to wield power and influence policy in state capitols.
* Local actions around GMOs, in particular, are designed to address important gaps in federal and state policy, and mitigate potentially serious threats to public health, the environment, and survival of local farm economies. Additionally, some communities are taking a further step, and benefiting economically from the positive effect of becoming known as “GE-Free,” supporting farmers and the local food system by promoting organic and sustainable agriculture in their jurisdictions.
* In recent years, similar local measures have sought to address a variety of industry practices not adequately regulated at higher levels of jurisdiction, including pollution from factory farms, use of sewage sludge as fertilizer, uncontrolled pesticide use, and mismanagement of water resources. The current pre-emption campaign is part of a strategy aimed to weaken all such protective measures; it is part of a well-funded, highly-orchestrated, and frequently stealthy corporate effort to rewrite public policies at all jurisdictional levels.
What are the legal precedents for local action?
According to the Washington-based Center for Food Safety, local measures to restrict the use of GMOs are generally on a sound legal footing:
* Local rights of self-governance and protection of health, safety and well-being are guaranteed by most state constitutions. Local governments are free to be more protective of their citizens and unique communities than lowest-common-denominator state laws can provide.
* The federal government does not have specific mandatory safety testing requirements for most GE crops, instead allowing companies to voluntarily determine what tests are needed; also there is virtually no monitoring of commercial GE crops for persistent hazards.
* No state has yet enacted comprehensive regulations governing GE crops and livestock that protect public health and the environment.
Historically, American custom and tradition has granted local communities considerable autonomy. Local sovereignty has its foundation in the Town Meetings of colonial New England. While some states have come to view local jurisdictions as creations and agents of the state, others endow municipalities with varying degrees of “home rule,” an established legal principle with origins in the 19th century.
Town Meetings and subsequent local decision-making procedures are further rooted in Common Law, which has hinged on the traditional maxim, “Use your property as not to injure another’s.” Harmful activities affecting the public commons, such as over-cutting timber or spreading noxious weeds, have traditionally been restricted in the name of the greater public good.
For more information:
Pre-emption Bill Tracker
For a continually updated tracking of seed pre-emption legislation, see http://www.environmentalcommons.org/gmo-tracker.html
Institute for Social Ecology
Californians for GE-Free Agriculture
Center for Food Safety
Sixth-generation Iowa family farmer
National Family Farm Coalition
Resources on Pre-emption and GMOs
County Ban on the Planting of Genetically Engineered Crops: Background on Legal Authority, Center for Food Safety, March 2004, at http://www.environmentalcommons.org/CFSlegal.pdf.
Michael E. Libonati, “Local Government,” from Subnational Constitutions and Federalism: Design and Reform Conference, Center for State Constitutional Studies, Rutgers University, March 2004, available at http://www.environmentalcommons.org/locgov.pdf.
New England local measures on GMOs: http://www.nerage.org. California counties: http://www.calgefree.org.
People for the American Way profile of ALEC: http://www.pfaw.org/pfaw/general/default.aspx?oid=6990.
Karen Olsson, “Ghostwriting the Law,” Mother Jones, September 2002, at http://www.motherjones.com/news/outfront/2002/09/ma_95_01.html.
Margaret Mellon and Jane Rissler, Gone to Seed: Transgenic Contaminants in the Traditional Seed Supply, Union of Concerned Scientists, February 2004, at http://www.ucsusa.org/news/press_release.cfm?newsID=382.
Charles M. Benbrook, Genetically Engineered Crops and Pesticide Use in the United States: The First Nine Years, BioTech InfoNet Technical Paper Number 7, October 2004, at http://www.biotech-info.net/technicalpaper7.html.
Richard Caplan, Raising Risk: Field Testing of Genetically Engineered Crops in the US, U.S. PIRG Education Fund, April 2005, at http://uspirg.org/reports/Raising%20Risk%202005%20Final.pdf
GRAIN, “Farmers’ Privilege Under Attack,” at http://www.grain.org/briefings/?id=121.