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Florez’s GE crops bill gets tentative Assembly approval

A controversial agriculture bill from Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, has gotten tentative approval in the Assembly.

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 counties with existing bans on bio-engineered crops–Marin,
Mendocino, Santa Cruz and Trinity–would be exempt.

On Thursday, the 46 members of the Assembly voted in favor of the bill. The bill is now on-call, awaiting final approval in the Assembly.

For the past several days, lobbyists on both sides of the GE-seeds debate have been trying to work out a compromise set of statewide standards. Environmental groups have insisted that any ban on local ordinances must be accompanied by statewide rules. Joseph Lang, a lobbyist for the California Seed Association (CSA), is the lead negotiator for agribusiness, Florez said, while environmental lobbyist Pete Price is representing the opposition.

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
a law would not be followed by effective statewide regulation. The
California State Association of Counties also has opposed the bill because
it would limit the power of their members to regulate GE crops.

“This one piece of legislation has probably received more calls and e-mails
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 agriculture. 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 CSA.

“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.

There was a large turnout when the committee took up the bill. 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 addressed properly. He pointed
toward Oregon, where cross-pollination with genetically modified grasses has
threatened to destroy the states $300 million a year grass-seed industry.

Many other governments 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, he said, was the
suggestion that all fields with GM crops be covered in heavy plastic to
prevent pollen from escaping–something Tarbotton said she had never heard
of.

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

Florez traditionally has 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 $6,844 to his campaigns
since the beginning of 2001. This includes $1,500 from the CSA, 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 Mason
where 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 renewed easily, she said, while big agribusiness
could hold off effective limits on GE crops.

“They will have no incentive to negotiate toward statewide legislation if
they are not threatened by local county ordinances,” Tarbotton said.


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