- CARRBORO -- Goodness grows
in North Carolina? Not if the General Assembly approves bills that would
pre-empt local regulations on genetically modified crops and trees.
- House Bill 671 and Senate Bill 631 aim to prevent towns,
counties or cities from passing any ordinance, regulation or resolution
to control any kind of plant or plant pest (including invasive plant species).
The bills would usurp local control by making the state Department of Agriculture
the only body in North Carolina with the authority to regulate plants.
- These bills are not a homegrown initiative, but part
of a nationwide biotech industry campaign. Similar bills, containing identical
language, have cropped up in at least nine other states as part of a campaign
by industry to prevent citizen initiatives like those passed in three California
counties last year that prohibited cultivation of genetically modified
- Proponents of the seed pre-emption bills, including the
Agriculture Department, are championing the interests of corporate "gene
giants" such as Monsanto and Syngenta -- not citizens. Whether you're
for or against genetically modified seeds, the pre-emption bills represent
an anti-democratic measure to take control away from communities. Just
as the corporate hog industry won legislation to prohibit local jurisdictions
from keeping out supersize hog farms in North Carolina, now the gene giants
are trying to muzzle debate by eliminating options for local regulation
of genetically modified crops.
- The issue has immediate relevance in Eastern North Carolina,
where Ventria Bioscience has a permit to grow an open-air, experimental
plot of rice engineered with synthetic human genes (to produce artificial
human milk proteins) near the state Agriculture Department's Tidewater
Research Station in Plymouth, in Washington County. Two earlier attempts
by Ventria to grow its genetically modified "pharma rice" --
a crop that yields drugs for use in human and veterinary medicines -- were
opposed by farmers, food companies and environmentalists in California
and Missouri because of concerns that the genetically altered pharma rice
could cross-pollinate with conventional rice, thus contaminating the food
- Last month, California-based Ventria Bioscience requested
a permit from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to grow up to 70 acres
of pharma rice on two additional plots in Eastern North Carolina. If the
pre-emption bills pass, communities would have no authority to regulate
genetically modified crops.
- Everyone agrees that unintended gene flow from genetically
modified plants is unavoidable. The organic food market is the fastest-growing
segment of the farm economy, but organic farmers risk losing organic certification,
and markets, if genetically modified DNA contaminates their fields. Local
governments should have the ability to protect growers who worry about
- The biotech industry and federal regulators have repeatedly
failed to contain and control genetically modified organisms. The science
journal Nature revealed in March that Syngenta had inadvertently sold an
unapproved strain of genetically modified corn to farmers for four years.
During that period, 146,000 tons of the corn were marketed as animal feed
and corn flour in the U.S., in Europe and in Asia. Syngenta informed federal
authorities about the illegal corn in late 2004, but the public and unsuspecting
farmers were in the dark until four months later. To keep out the unlicensed
strain, the European Union threatened to boycott U.S. corn imports valued
at $347 million. As usual, farmers were left holding the bag. Syngenta
was let off with a fine.
- This was not the first time genetically modified corn
has entered the food supply. In 2000, Starlink corn, approved only for
use as animal feed, was found in taco shells, causing a nationwide recall
of food products containing yellow corn.
- Eliminating options for local authority over plants/seeds
is risky business. The farm biotech business is controlled by five multinationals,
the world's largest seed and agrochemical companies: Monsanto, Dupont,
Syngenta, Bayer and Dow. Monsanto's genetically modified seed technology
accounted for about 90 percent of the total worldwide area devoted to such
crops last year. Seed industry concentration means fewer choices for farmers
and consumers and unacceptable levels of control over the seed supply.
- For all these reasons, North Carolina towns and communities
must preserve options for local regulation of plants, and for public debate
of genetically modified crops and trees.
- - Hope Shand is research director of the ETC Group in
Carrboro, a non-profit focusing on socioeconomic impacts of new agricultural
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