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Biotech Bullying: Showdown on Bill Restricting County Rights in California This Week

Humboldt County's attempt at an anti-GMO ordinance, which failed at the polls in 2004, may be the last effort of its kind if a state bill now back in the hands of the Senate passes into law.

SB 1056, introduced by Sen. Dean Florez (D-Shafter), would ensure that the existing federal and state law governing the regulation of seeds and nursery stock is paramount: no local government could pass ballot initiatives or ordinances either going beyond or rejecting those standards.

Ordinances already in place, such as those passed in Marin, Mendocino, Santa Cruz and Trinity counties and, closer to home, in the city of Arcata, would be allowed to stand, as would any initiatives passed by voters or by a legislative body before July 1 of this year. But nothing introduced after that cutoff date would be permitted to modify, supersede or prohibit the overarching regulations.

"We're just appalled; it bodes ill for the organic community," Arcata resident Martha Devine observed. Devine, a member of the Humboldt County Green Party, was a vocal proponent of the county's Measure M, which would have prohibited the propagation or growth of genetically modified organisms.

"If this passes, what good would it be to be one of those four counties if all the other counties in the state are using GMOs?" she added. "If you're an organic consumer or an organic farmer, you don't know what you're eating or what's blowing across your field."

Humboldt State University biology professor Milt Boyd noted, however, that the practice of genetic engineering dates back for about 200 years and encompasses a number of products that are both commonly and widely used ‹ and while questions regarding potential problems are legitimate, he acknowledged, there are also certain benefits to be found.

"I'm concerned that the real intent here is to encourage local governments, especially county governments, to take positions that are all over the map with respect to genetically modified organisms," he explained Monday. "With something like this, with a forefront technology, we have to ask, where are the standards best established? Because of the widespread application of the technology, I'd prefer to see this take place at the state level."

The bill passed the state Assembly by a 51-24 vote last Thursday.

It's now headed back to the Senate for a concurrence vote on its amendments ‹ although the bill that emerged on the far side of the Assembly's gut-and-amend process bears no resemblance, other than its number, to that passed by the Senate last year, which related to air quality measures in the San Joaquin Valley Unified Air Pollution Control District.

With only four days remaining in the legislative session, Sen. Wes Chesbro (D-Arcata) observed Monday afternoon, the Senate won't have time to hear arguments for or against this version of the bill.

"I'm fighting very hard to stop it, and I'm optimistic we will defeat it," he said. "First and foremost, it's anti-democratic to deny local voters the right to speak."

Assemblymember Patty Berg (D-Eureka) voted against SB 1056 last week.

"When counties in my district voted to restrict the use of GMO crops, I supported those efforts," she said in a statement on the Assembly floor. "I still support those efforts. I believe that people have a right to say what goes on in their counties, in their fields and near their homes."

Regulation of biotechnology products currently falls under scrutiny by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Supporters of SB 1056, listed in an analysis of the bill, include the Agricultural Council of California, the California Chamber of Commerce, the California Farm Bureau, Western Growers and the Wine Institute. Opponents include the Consumers Union, Organic Consumers Association, League of California Cities and the National Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club.

As the Legislature pushes through the last hours of this session, Chesbro added, he hoped the bill wouldn't even come to a vote.

"But if it does, hopefully it'll be defeated," he said.

Thursday is the last day for each house to pass bills.

(Rebecca S. Bender is the Eureka-Arcata political affairs reporter and can be reached at
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