Sunday, June 25, 2006

Pre-emptive Strikes - States and Counties Battle over GM Regulation

In the United States, a recent factsheet suggests a rise in state bills supportive of agricultural biotechnology, to head off attempts by local and county authorities to regulate genetically modified (GM) crops.

The US-based Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology (Pew) was established in 2001. Its mission is "to be an independent and objective source of credible information on agricultural biotechnology for the public, media and policymakers." Importantly, the Initiative recognises the significance of consumer perspectives and attitudes not only to the technology, but also to the regulatory system itself. Indeed, as discussed here in a recent post on consumer attitudes to biotechnology in Europe, the latest Eurobarometer report suggests that resistance to GM food in Europe is not resistance to the technology as such, but rather, lack of confidence in the ability of regulatory mechanisms to mitigate perceived risks to the environment and to organic and traditional agricultural markets.

Pew's recent factsheet (accompanied by a legislation tracker) concludes that state legislatures are acting to stifle local and county attempts to limit GM crops. In a press release, Michael Fernandez, executive director of Pew, describes states as having "little choice but to address new policy issues, even before they emerge at the federal level." However, it is arguable that this approach of a futures market in policy might suggest a worrying trend for consumers and other groups seeking greater information and transparency in the way in which GM agriculture is introduced - especially in Europe.

The announcement by Pew follows an interesting event in California, where Santa Cruz County supervisors have recently banned the cultivation of GM crops, approving a moratorium on GM crops within County lines last week. The ban was imposed after the findings of a 9 month study of the laws and risks. According to an article by Genevieve Bookwalker, published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, there was no opposition to the ban by those in attendance at the meeting, and all written comments showed support for the measure.

Santa Cruz is currently "GM-free," with no GM crops grown within County lines. This is largely attributable to the nature of agriculture in Santa Cruz. The dominant GM crops in the US (and indeed elsewhere) include corn, cotton, and soybeans; whereas the dominant crops in Santa Cruz are berries and lettuce. The moratorium comes as companies have commenced research into crops such as flowers, strawberries, and applies, traditionally grown north of the Pajaro River.

Pew's factsheet highlights an obstacle expected to be faced by Santa Cruz County as well, with the moratorium under threat if a State Bill passes that will remove the authority of local jurisdictions to regulate GM crops. Senate Bill 1056 is sponsored by Monsanto and has been introduced by Senator Dean Florez. The Bill was last amended 19 June, and has a hearing date of 28 June. Patenting Lives will be following its progress.