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Fight brews over local power to ban genetically modified seed

Senator Dean Florez, D-Shafter, has put a controversial agriculture bill on hold while lobbyists try to work out a framework for statewide regulations on genetically modified crops.

SB 1056 would prevent county and local governments from banning genetically modified seeds. It states that “law relating to nursery stock and seed are of statewide concern” and would prevent what sponsors fear would be a mishmash of local regulations that would cause problems for farmers and agribusiness. Four state with existing bans on bio-engineered crops–Marin, Mendocino, Santa Cruz and Trinity–would be exempt.

Negotiators are working with a Friday deadline, Florez said. Joseph Lang, a lobbyist for the California Seed Association is the lead negotiator for agribusiness, he said, while environmental lobbyist Pete Price is representing the opposition. Their goal is to create guidelines for statewide legislation on genetically engineered crops.

If the sides cannot agree, Florez said, he has three options: send it to the Assembly as is, suspend the bill until next year, or change the terms to a two-year moratorium. The goal of the last option would be to give more time to create statewide regulations.

But the bill has prompted fierce opposition from environmentalists, who fear the law would not be followed by effective statewide regulation. The League of California Cities and the California State Association of Counties have also opposed the bill because it would limit the power of their members to regulate GMO crops.

“This one piece of legislation has probably received more calls and emails than any bill I’ve ever carried,” Florez said.

He said that he could get the bill passed in the Assembly “as is.” However, he acknowledged the Senate could be a problem, saying his only reliable Democratic votes there would be Mike Machado, D-Linden, and Denise Ducheny, D-San Diego.

In opposing SB 1056, environmentalists have run into a unified block of Central Valley Democrats who support of agricultural interests. This includes Florez, who is normally a reliable environmental vote, according to Becky Tarbotton, campaign coordinator for Californians for a GE-Free Agriculture. After all, she said, SB 1056 began its life as a piece of environmental legislation concerning agricultural burning. It was gutted and amended in July 2005 on behalf of the California Seed Association, an industry trade group.

“People are saying that Florez is trying to appease big agriculture,” she said.

Like Florez, key Democrats on the Assembly Agriculture Committee also represent agricultural areas, such as Barbara Matthews, D-Tracy, and Nicole Parra, D-Hanford. Opponents targeted these legislators over the past several months, but the committee passed AB 1056 by an 8-0 vote on August 7.

Matthews said there was a large turnout, but most of the people in opposition were from the counties that already had bans and therefore would not be affected. She added that she would support statewide guidelines for GE crops, provided that they placed only limited restrictions.

“Most of the arguments against it, in my opinion, were emotional and not based on science,” Matthews said. “That whole ‘frankenfood’ sentiment.”

Paul Mason, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club, countered that concerns about genetically modified crops have not been properly addressed. He pointed towards Oregon, where cross-pollination with genetically modified grasses has threatened to destroy the states $300 million a year grass seed industry. Many other government ban or several limit GE crops, and won’t accept imports that have been contaminated. This means that California exports could be similarly threatened by cross pollination.

“The analysis from the Agriculture Committee was especially bad,” Mason said “Not that it would have made any difference.”

Karen Keene, a legislative advocate for the League of California Cities, noted that her organization is officially supportive of genetically engineered crops. They just don’t want to see their members lose control over the issue.

“The further you get away from the local level, the more trouble it will cause,” she said.

However, the same regional politics have hindered opposition by the cities and counties. Several Central Valley cities and nine counties are official supporters of the legislation.

Florez said that some of the demands made by environmentalists in negotiations have been unreasonable–most notably the suggestion that all fields with GM crops be covered in heavy plastic to prevent pollen from escaping. Much of his district is already planted in GE crops.

“If you flew over the Central Valley, it would look like a big plastic sheet factory,” he said.

Florez has traditionally gotten much of his campaign funding from agriculture, the dominant economic force in Fresno County. However, the official supporters of the bill have donated only $6,843.73 to his campaigns since the beginning of 2001. This includes $1,500 from the California Seed Association, but not $1,250 from the company that many activists believe are behind the bill and other similar legislation around the country: Monsanto.

“Their goal is to centralize everything at the federal level,” said the Sierra Club’s Mason. Where, of course, he said, no effective regulation would happen.

Tarbotton said that she is very opposed to the bill going into place even with the two year restriction if effective state regulations are not in place. The law could be easily renewed, she said, while effective limits on GE crops would be continually held off.

“If the bill gets through, the big agribusiness players will probably stop,” Tarbotton said. “They will have no incentive to negotiate towards statewide legislation if they are not threatened by local county ordinances.”

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