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Turning Point for California's Farm Industry

By Britt Bailey and Becky Tarbotton
Popular Science
July 20, 2005

Industry aims to strip local control of food supply

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 public-policy organization.

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 democracy."

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 yourleg. html), Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (senator.perata@ and Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez ( 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. For updated information on the seed and plant pre-emption bills, visit gmo-tracker.html. Becky Tarbotton is campaign coordinator for Californians for GE-Free Agriculture (, a statewide coalition promoting ecologically and economically viable agriculture.


How to Fight Preemptive Legislation in Your State

By Environmental Commons
July 2005

What is Preemption?

Preemption is a legislative action in which higher levels of government (state or federal) strip lower levels of government of their control and regulatory authority over a specific subject matter.

Legislation has been introduced in sixteen states to remove local control of seeds and plants. The bills have been introduced in response to local governments and communities passing restrictions on the planting of genetically modified organisms. To date, three California counties, two cities, and nearly 100 New England towns have passed local ordinances and resolutions limiting genetically modified organisms. These restrictions are in response to the growing concerns that genetically modified organisms will produce ecological contamination and prove detrimental to less intensive, more sustainable farming systems.

Preemptive legislation's sole purpose is to revoke local control and decision-making. The bills are sweeping in their effect. They do not just preempt local control of genetically modified organisms, but strip local authority of all seeds, and, in some cases, all plants including trees.

Why is Preemption Used?

In the past twenty years the majority of states have hosted numerous pieces of legislation removing the authority of local decision-making. Much of this legislation was supported by politically influential industries. The pesticide, tobacco, fertilizer, and now biotechnology corporations have strongly encouraged the passage of some form of preemption.

As an example, currently 40 states have preemptive pesticide laws prohibiting local control of pesticides; 20 states have preemptive tobacco laws that revoke local control over clean air policies; and a number of states have passed laws restricting local control of fertilizers including the deposit of sewage sludge.

Like the tobacco industry, the biotechnology corporations brought model legislation to statewide legislatures. The seed and plant preemption language is eerily similar from state to state and has been traced to a May 2004 summit of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). At this summit, ALEC members passed a resolution on "Biotechnology State Uniformity"

"Regardless of how you feel about the GMO issue, taking away local voters' rights is a very serious threat to democracy."- California Senator Wes Chesbro

What You Can Do to Prevent the Passage of Preemptive Legislation

DON'T WAIT! Start now and be a part of the offense, RATHER than the defense!

Find out where your state senators and representatives stand on the issue of preemption. Be sure to let your representatives know that you are opposed to preemption - that you believe in the rights of local communities to protect health, safety, and welfare.

Target Key Legislators Early! Identify legislators who may oppose preemption as a tactic. Many of these legislators may have started their careers in local government, and are opposed simply because they believe in local authority. Other legislators may be sympathetic to the issue itself. Explain to legislators that the seed and plant preemption laws originated with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Many legislators know of this public policy group and find their tactics dubious. Preemption is not necessarily a partisan issue.

Be vigilant against last minute maneuvers. Last-minute amendments have been added in two states that have introduced preemptive laws pertaining to seeds and plants. In Ohio, a preemptive seed amendment was added to a 2500 page operating budget bill. In Kansas, a preemptive seed amendment was added (at the last minute) to a fertilizer bill.

Build Coalitions. Many of the preemption bills are broad-reaching. Identify all possible allies and include them in all activities to oppose preemptive legislation. Allies can include organizations, businesses, and associations such as the National Association of Counties, League of Cities, Native Plant Societies, and Environmental organizations.

Develop an opposition letter that allies can sign and present to the legislature. A model letter is available at:

Track state legislation. Most state legislatures have user-friendly bill tracking services available on the Internet. Spend a little time looking for bills that strip local controls. Words to use in your searches include; seeds, plants, and weeds. Search any and all of these key words.

Words to Watch For

While the first wave of seed and plant preemption bills used the words "preempt," the industry can achieve state authority using a myriad number of words. When searching legislation be aware that the following words could all remove local control.

Express Preemption: An Act relating to agriculture; providing for certain jurisdiction for seeds; preempting local jurisdiction for seeds; providing for codification; and providing an effective date. Okalahoma, HB1471, Passed April 2005.

Sole Authority: The Board of Agriculture shall have sole authority for the banning of plants as defined in G.S. 106 202.12(7). North Carolina, H671, Introduced March 2005.

Enjoin: Enjoin the enforcement of any ordinance, regulation, or action of any political subdivision of this state which is in conflict with any provision of this chapter or any rule promulgated pursuant to § 38-12A-20. South Dakota, SB152.

Uniform Statewide Regulation: It is the intent of the general assembly in enacting this Act to accomplish uniformity in oversight and regulation of seed used in agriculture. It is not intended that this Act preclude a local governmental entity from pursuing governmental activities not in conflict with this Act. Iowa, HF642, Passed April 2005.

Statewide Concern: The regulation and use of seeds are of statewide concern. The regulation of seeds pursuant to this article and their use is not subject to further regulation by a county, city, town, or other political subdivision of this state. Arizona, SB1282, passed April 2005.

What if My State Already has Passed Preemptive Legislation?

  1. Continue to make use of Local Government. Even if your state has passed preemption legislation, work closely with government officials to draft and pass local resolutions. This not only serves to document the values and ideals of your community, but these resolutions form a dossier of sorts that you can present to your legislators when seeking repeal of these undemocratic laws.

  2. A Model for Repeal: Restoring Local Control

    Once on the books, preemption laws are very difficult to repeal. This does not mean it cannot be done. It will take a well-strategized and persevering campaign. For example, Illinois passed a tobacco preemption law in 1989. It has taken 15 years for clean air activists to repeal the preemption law. It looks as if 2005 will be the year that local control of tobacco related issues is restored in Illinois.

    Key elements of a repeal campaign should include:

    • Dedication to education on the issue.
    • Effective collaboration amongst allied, broad-based organizations
    • Strong grassroots support. The grassroots remains strong when they are activated. Offer numerous opportunities to communicate to legislators, media, and other citizens.
    • Identify and consistently communicate with supportive legislators
    • Always return to your community and strengthen local legislation.
  3. Write your state senators and representatives. Write them to either thank them for preserving local control or to let them know that you are disappointed in their voice/vote in support of stripping of local control.

Please go to for more information.

How To Secure Local Control of Our Food & Environment:
Toolkit on Fighting Preemptive Legislation in Your State

Preemption Toolkit (PDF 380K)

With sixteen state legislatures introducing seed and plant preemption bills, this toolkit is available to assist groups in fighting preemptive legislation in your state. If your state already has a preemption bill in place, there are also tips on repealing such legislation. And, of course, all of the organizations listed are available to assist with any questions as well as more in depth strategizing.

This "toolkit" has been developed by the Center for Food Safety, Environmental Commons, Organic Consumers Association, CA GE-Free, Ohio Environmental Council, Institute for Social Ecology, Southern Forests Network, and the Farmer to Farmer Campaign on Genetic Engineering.

For up to date information on local food control activities within your state, see the GMO Tracker


Modified Rape Crosses with Wild Plant to Create Tough Pesticide-resistant Strain

By Paul Brown, environment correspondent
The Guardian
July 25, 2005

GM crops created superweed, say scientists

Modified genes from crops in a GM crop trial have transferred into local wild plants, creating a form of herbicide-resistant "superweed", the Guardian can reveal.

The cross-fertilisation between GM oilseed rape, a brassica, and a distantly related plant, charlock, had been discounted as virtually impossible by scientists with the environment department. It was found during a follow up to the government's three-year trials of GM crops which ended two years ago.

The new form of charlock was growing among many others in a field which had been used to grow GM rape. When scientists treated it with lethal herbicide it showed no ill-effects.

Unlike the results of the original trials, which were the subject of large-scale press briefings from scientists, the discovery of hybrid plants that could cause a serious problem to farmers has not been announced. The scientists also collected seeds from other weeds in the oilseed rape field and grew them in the laboratory. They found that two - both wild turnips - were herbicide resistant.

The five scientists from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the government research station at Winfrith in Dorset, placed their findings on the department's website last week.

A reviewer of the paper has appended to its front page: "The frequency of such an event [the cross-fertilisation of charlock] in the field is likely to be very low, as highlighted by the fact it has never been detected in numerous previous assessments."

However, he adds: "This unusual occurrence merits further study in order to adequately assess any potential risk of gene transfer."

Brian Johnson, an ecological geneticist and member of the government's specialist scientific group which assessed the farm trials, has no doubt of the significance. "You only need one event in several million. As soon as it has taken place the new plant has a huge selective advantage. That plant will multiply rapidly."

Dr Johnson, who is head of the biotechnology advisory unit and head of the land management technologies group at English Nature, the government nature advisers, said: "Unlike the researchers I am not surprised by this. If you apply herbicide to plants which is lethal, eventually a resistant survivor will turn up."

The glufosinate-ammonium herbicide used in this case put "huge selective pressure likely to cause rapid evolution of resistance".

To assess the potential of herbicide-resistant weeds as a danger to crops, a French researcher placed a single triazine-resistant weed, known as fat hen, in maize fields where atrazine was being used to control weeds. After four years the plants had multiplied to an average of 103,000 plants, Dr Johnson said.

What is not clear in the English case is whether the charlock was fertile. Scientists collected eight seeds from the plant but they failed to germinate them and concluded the plant was "not viable".

But Dr Johnson points out that the plant was very large and produced many flowers.

He said: "There is every reason to suppose that the GM trait could be in the plant's pollen and thus be carried to other charlock in the neighbourhood, spreading the GM genes in that way. This is after all how the cross-fertilisation between the rape and charlock must have occurred in the first place."

Since charlock seeds can remain in the soil for 20 to 30 years before they germinate, once GM plants have produced seeds it would be almost impossible to eliminate them.

Although the government has never conceded that gene transfer was a problem, it was fear of this that led the French and Greek governments to seek to ban GM rape.

Emily Diamond, a Friends of the Earth GM researcher, said: "I was shocked when I saw this paper. This is what we were reassured could not happen - and yet now it has happened the finding has been hidden away. This is exactly what the French and Greeks were afraid of when they opposed the introduction of GM rape."

The findings will now have to be assessed by the government's Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (Acre). The question is whether it is safe to release GM crops into the UK environment when there are wild relatives that might become superweeds and pose a serious threat to farm productivity. This has already occurred in Canada.

The discovery that herbicide-resistant genes have transferred to farm weeds from GM crops is the second blow to the hopes of bio-tech companies to introduce their crops into Britain. Following farm scale trials there was already scientific evidence that herbicide-tolerant oilseed rape and GM sugar beet were bad for biodiversity because the herbicide used to kill the weeds around the crops wiped out more wildlife than with conventionally grown crops. Now this new research, a follow-up on the original trials, shows that a second undesirable potential result is a race of superweeds.

The findings mirror the Canadian experience with GM crops, which has seen farmers and the environment plagued with severe problems.

Farmers the world over are always troubled by what they call "volunteers" - crop plants which grow from seeds spilled from the previous harvest, of which oilseed rape is probably the greatest offender, Anyone familiar with the British countryside, or even the verges of motorways, will recognise thousands of oilseed rape plants growing uninvited amid crops of wheat or barley, and in great swaths by the roadside where the "small greasy ballbearings" of seeds have spilled from lorries.

Farmers in Canada soon found that these volunteers were resistant to at least one herbicide, and became impossible to kill with two or three applications of different weedkillers after a succession of various GM crops were grown.

The new plants were dubbed superweeds because they proved resistant to three herbicides while the crops they were growing among had been genetically engineered to be resistant to only one.

To stop their farm crops being overwhelmed with superweeds, farmers had to resort to using older, much stronger varieties of "dirty" herbicide long since outlawed as seriously damaging to biodiversity.


KVIE Show Criticized Over Its Sponsors

By Jim Wasserman
Sacramento Bee
July 26, 2005

A 40-member coalition of food safety groups, environmentalists and anti-biotech organizations is demanding that a Sacramento public television station withdraw its national weekly TV series on U.S. food production scheduled to debut in September. The groups claim that sponsorship of "America's Heartland" by agricultural biotechnology giant Monsanto Co., the American Farm Bureau Federation and other national farm organizations will present viewers "biased" programming favoring genetically engineered crops and other conventional farming methods.

The campaign against KVIE and American Public Television represents a new front in a global fight between groups favoring organic agriculture and companies modifying crops by moving genes between different plant species. At least one national group of food producers and restaurateurs said it typifies attacks from groups funded "by a relative handful of deep-pocketed philanthropies." "Groups like the Center for Food Safety have (aligned themselves) ... with activists who believe that Americans should be building a bridge back to the 19th century in regard to agriculture," said David Martosko, spokesman for the Center for Consumer Freedom.

The 30-minute show, which targets an urban audience for agricultural stories, remains on track for a September debut on KVIE, said Jim O'Donnell, the station's director of program marketing. Donna Hardwick, director of communications for American Public Television, confirmed the same on Monday.

Groups including the Center for Food Safety, Sierra Club and Greenpeace USA say the show needs new sponsors to guarantee its integrity. The coalition sent letters Friday to KVIE and its national distributor for the show, Boston-based American Public Television, saying promotional materials for the show suggest its content "may be used to promote the interests of industrial agriculture."

O'Donnell, pointing to the station's long history of producing "California Heartland," rejected claims that Monsanto and other financial sponsors will improperly influence the national show's stories and tone.

"The editorial content and mission of the show was established in the eight years that 'California Heartland' was produced, and that die was cut before we even began fundraising for the national show," O'Donnell said.

Station officials have said costs to produce the series are in "seven figures."

A Monsanto official also called the campaign "unfortunate."

American Farm Bureau Federation spokesman Don Lipton said Monday: "Nobody has pushed any agenda on the producers of this show."

Craig Culp, spokesman for the Center for Food Safety, suggested otherwise Monday, saying: "They have an absolute obligation as stewards of public television to find underwriters for this series that do not include industries and organizations that can directly benefit from the airing of that program."

Culp was critical specifically of a 2002 "California Heartland" show on genetically modified foods, saying the segment "was clearly developed to, if not actively promote GE (genetically engineered) foods and crops, certainly to place it in a favorable light and put the opposition in a sort of negative or questionable light."

O'Donnell said the episode was "literally one of hundreds we've done about organic farming, biotech and food safety."


Ghana Stops Importation of GM Foods

By Joseph Coomson
Ghanaian Chronicle
July 28, 2005

Ghana has taken a strong stance against the importation and cultivation of Genetically Modified (GM) foods in Ghana.

The Food and Agriculture minister, Mr. Ernest Debrah said the country would reject, without hesitation, the importation of any Genetically Modified (GM) foods, crops and materials into the country although it might solve the famine problems being experienced, especially in the Northern part.

This implies that the government of Ghana has resolved to oppose anything to do with GM foods. Mr. Debrah said this last Friday in Accra.

GM technology in agriculture first appeared in the mid 1990s in the United States of America (USA), which is still the world's largest grower of GM crops.

A decade later, while member states of the European Union (EU) proceed cautiously on allowing commercial plantings of GM crops, increasing numbers of developing countries are joining the US in allowing the commercial planting of GM crops.

In 2004, 81 million hectares of land were under legal cultivation of GM crops in 17 countries. This is around 1.6 % of the total agriculture land in the world and the area is growing at a rate of 20 % every year. The year also saw 8 million farmers legally growing GM crops, up from 7 million in 2003.

The actual number of farms growing GM crops and the amount of land given over to GM crops are both likely to be much higher than the official figure, as illegal planting is widespread, particularly in Argentina, Brazil, India and Mexico as well as some portions of Africa.

The majority of the crops grown on commercial scale has been developed by private companies and either crop would be used in animal feed or GM cotton.

So far, private companies have shown little interest in developing GM crops unless they have the potential to be bought and sold on a mass scale. Because of this, only four varieties of GM crops, soyabean, maize, cotton, and canola occupy 99% of commercial plantings, and are worth more than $40 million each year. Majority of the crops are modified to resist viruses and insects as well as tolerate chemical weed-killers.

By contrast, scientists and governments in developing countries are more interested in research and commercialization of GM food crops for human consumption and help ensure food security. Varieties of wheat, rice, sweet potatoes, millet, sorghum, cassava and many other fruits and vegetables are being developed in laboratories and test plots across the developing world. The traits being tried out are largely insect and virus resistant.

In developing countries, public institutions such as the Ghana Atomic Commission in Ghana, fund much of the researches into GM crops.

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Genetically engineered food is corporate bioterrorism