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"These bills represent a pledge of allegiance to Monsanto," said Hope Shand, Research Director of ETC Group, formerly known as RAFI - the Rural Advancement Foundation International, "and the North Carolina Department of Agriculture was quick to take the pledge, followed by their friends in the General Assembly. But what's good for Monsanto should not dictate what's best for local communities."
The bills are not a home grown initiative, but part of a nationwide agribusiness effort. Similar bills, containing identical language, have cropped up in at least nine other states as part of an orchestrated campaign by industry to prevent citizen initiatives like those passed in three California counties last year that prohibited cultivation of genetically modified crops. (See Daily News.) The aim is to prevent towns, counties or cities from passing any ordinance or resolution to control any kind of plant or plant pest. The bills would usurp local control by making the state departments of agriculture the only body with authority to regulate plants.
North Carolinian House Bill 671 passed 114-1 two days ago in the evening. The counterpart Senate Bill 631 will soon go up for a vote. Both bills were introduced by the House and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairs, Rep. Dewey Hill (Dem.), and Senator Charles Albertson (Dem.), with support from the NC Department of Agriculture (NCDA). Another bill, Senate Bill 681, sponsored by Senator David Hoyle (Dem.) and Tom Apodaca (Rep.), prohibits local regulation of forestry and agricultural activities.
The issue has immediate relevance in eastern North Carolina where Ventria Bioscience is now growing an experimental plot of rice engineered with synthetic human genes (to produce proteins found in mother's milk) on a farm in Washington County. Two earlier attempts by Ventria to grow its genetically modified "pharma rice" - a crop that yields pharmaceutical proteins for use in human and veterinary medicines - were rejected by farmers, food companies and environmentalists in California and Missouri because of concerns that the pharma rice could cross-pollinate with conventional rice, contaminating the food chain. In April 2005, California-based Ventria Bioscience requested a permit from the U.S.D.A to grow up to 70 acres of the genetically modified "pharma rice" on two plots in eastern North Carolina.
While the bills aim squarely to preempt local restrictions of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the innocuous language never mentions genetic engineering. The ambiguous text creates additional concerns. For example, invasive plants and noxious weeds are a serious problem across the state, threatening native ecosystems. They can also have a huge impact on local economies, from aquatic invasives clogging drinking water intakes to noxious weeds forcing major weed control costs on farm and forest production. This bill would eliminate local authority to take swift action to deal with invasive plants. The legislation would also prevent other state agencies - such as Environment or Public Health - from restricting plants in any way.
Questions about genetically modified crops and trees are abundant - whether they are economically beneficial or harmful, whether they threaten public health, how to manage "drift" of genetic material onto neighboring crops and native ecosystems. All these questions remain unanswered in the scientific and policy-making arena.
One option for squelching this debate is to eliminate local control, confining the discussion to an industry-friendly Department of Agriculture. Just as the hog industry won legislation in North Carolina to prohibit local jurisdictions from keeping out super-sized hog farms, the Gene Giants are attempting to muzzle public debate in North Carolina by eliminating local options for the protection of the economy and public health - and state officials so far seem more than willing to comply.
For more information on the implications of preemption bills for organic farmers, contact:
Kleese, Executive Director
TAKE ACTION: North Carolinians should call state representatives in the Senate before May 19th and urge them to REJECT Senate Bill 631. For representative contacts and talking points, visit: Agricultural Resources Center.