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Debate over Biocrops heats up in California

SACRAMENTO - Negotiations are heating up over legislation that would prevent local governments from banning genetically modified seeds. One of the most closely watched agriculture bills of the year, the legislation pits large-scale growers against environmentalists and organic farmers.

Senate Bill 1056, by Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, was introduced last year in response to moves by several counties to prohibit biotech farming. The counties with bans - Marin, Mendocino, Santa Cruz and Trinity - would be exempt from the legislation.

The bill passed the Assembly Agricultural Committee in June and will likely be taken up by the Senate and Assembly before the session ends Aug. 31.

California growers use genetically modified seeds to grow crops that are resistent to weed-killing sprays. In the Central Valley, the technique is mostly used to grow cotton.

Opponents say biotech farming is a potential environmental and health hazard. Organic growers, meanwhile, fear that traits from genetically modified crops can spread to their crops, rendering them unmarketable as organic crops.

Until lawmakers enact statewide protections, such as labeling laws, "we think it's the right and responsibility of local governments to protect their citizens and environments," said Renata Brillinger of Californians for GE-Free Agriculture, a coalition of environmental groups and family and organic farms.

Florez said parties on both sides of the debate are trying to broker a last-minute deal more palatable to bill opponents. But he is prepared to move the bill forward if no changes are made, he said.

"We have the votes to get it off [the Assembly floor]," he said.

The bill's aim is to create a level playing field for California growers. Supporters include the California Farm Bureau Federation as well as several cities and counties in the agricultural-rich San Joaquin Valley.

County-by-county ordinances pose "serious financial and practical problems concerning the orderly marketing and sale of agricultural commodities within the state," supporters say in the Assembly bill analysis.

There is a mixed view among counties on biotech crops. Voters in some counties have rejected proposed bans. Some Valley governments have gone a step further, passing resolutions in support of biotechnology.

Fresno County passed its resolution in 2004 in response to a request by the Fresno County Farm Bureau.

"We are the biggest ag county in the United States, and there's been a tremendous advantage to the ag industry" from growing genetically modified crops, said Fresno County Supervisor Judy Case, who grew up on a family farm in Sanger.

About half of all cotton grown in California is genetically modified, said Fresno County Agricultural Commissioner Jerry Prieto Jr. Because the cotton is resistent to herbicides, growers don't have to use hoods or shields to protect the crop when spraying.

"It's a huge cost savings from them," Prieto said. "Farmers here in California and in the United States should have the same tools the rest of the world is using, and the rest of the world is using biotechnology."

But Brillinger, of the GE-Free coalition, said there is not enough research on biotech farming and because of that "we can't even know if there are health risks."

The California State Association of Counties and the League of California Cities fear the legislation is written too broadly.

The bill prohibits local governments from regulating "any matter relating to the registration, labeling, sale, storage, transportation, distribution, notification of use, or use of seeds or nursery stock," according to the latest bill analysis.

That would prevent cities and counties from doing things such as prohibiting seed trucks from parking in residential areas, according to a letter the two government groups sent to Assembly members last week.

The provisions are "so sweeping that they would restrict the ability of cities and counties to engage in basic local government regulation," the groups said.

The reporter can be reached at or (916) 326-5541.

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