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Seed & Plant Preemption Bills Fail in 2006 Legislatures

Update December 2006
By Britt Bailey

Four states faced with agribusiness-backed legislation aimed at removing local decision-making authority over seeds and plants rejected those measures in 2006. Unlike 2005 legislative sessions, which saw fifteen (15) states adopt statewide preemption bills, 2006 saw the defeat of bills to strip local decision-making concerning our foods in four states, while only a single bill passed.

A combination of champions from inside the legislatures as well as from external organizations worked effectively to defeat the bills in North Carolina, Missouri, Nebraska, and California. Their votes endorsed the value of local decision-making, validated the ecological and economic risks of genetically modified organisms, and confirmed the lack of current regulations and policies pertaining to them.

North Carolina, H671

North Carolina's legislature failed to resolve H671 in Committee. The bill died as the session closed on August 1st. North Carolina's Senator Janet Cowell explained key factors in the death of H671:

  1. The Senate Pro Tem believed the bill would hurt the burgeoning organic sector.
  2. North Carolina has significant problems with invasive exotic species.
  3. Senators who have previously served as county commissioners were concerned about preemption of local authority.
  4. Some rural legislators expressed concern about open-field genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and seed drift.

A coalition of organization including Southern Forests Network, ETC Group, RAFI USA, and the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association actively fought H671.

Missouri, SB1009

In Missouri, the Missouri Rural Crisis Center and Missourians for Local Control saw the introduction of a seed preemption bill as a direct threat to community democracy. Senate Bill 1009, commonly called "The Seed Bill" would have stripped the power of local governments AND THE STATE by giving sole decision-making power over Missouri's seed industry to the federal government. The successfully defeated bill would have eliminated the authority and ability of state and local elected representatives to protect the economic interests of Missouri's family farmers.

"This win for family farmers clearly demonstrates that Missourians do not want decisions that will impact our economic livelihoods being made by corporate lobbyists and bureaucrats who have no accountability to Missouri's family farmers and rural economies," said Rhonda Perry, program director of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center.

St. Louis, Missouri is the home of Monsanto. To beat pre-emption in Monsanto's home state sends a clear message about the power of grassroots organizing and the outcomes that can prevail.

California, SB1056

California's "seed & plant preemption" bill, SB1056, was defeated in the Senate Rules Committee. There it sat without a hearing as the session came to a close September 1st. Referring to SB1056, Senator Wesley Chesbro stated, "First and foremost, it's anti-democratic to deny local voters the right to speak." Assemblywoman Patty Berg said, "I argued against that bill and I voted against that bill because I think it's bad for California. If the counties involved in giant agribusiness want to allow GMO crops, that's their business. Bottom line: if the people don't want it, it shouldn't be forced on them."

A significant number of organizations, led by Californians for GE-Free Agriculture, and individuals from throughout the State of California actively opposed the legislation.

Nebraska, LB834

In the 2006 legislative session, the Nebraska Unicameral considered a seed and plant preemption bill that was introduced on behalf of Monsanto. Because a number of issues were raised which the Agriculture Committee was unable to resolve, the bill failed to advance and died at the end of the session. According to Nebraska Senator Don Preister, these are the primary concerns heard during hearing testimony regarding the proposed legislation:

  1. Pre-emption legislation imposed on local government strips authority from duly-elected governmental bodies to protect and uphold the rights and best interests of its citizens. When local control is taken, a democratic layer of government is removed and its people silenced. Issues, which particularly affect the agricultural economy and land use, and the health and safety of community members, are particularly important policy decisions that should allow for full decision-making and debate among the affected people in the community. The seed pre-emption bill strips local communities of this local control leaving all the decisions to policymakers at the state and federal levels.
  2. Despite the best planning, research and intentions, state and federal agricultural policies and their enforcement cannot address all issues and respond to all circumstances that may arise across diverse geographical regions throughout the state.
  3. The language in seed pre-emption bills is extremely broad and may have unintended consequences, which limit the ability of local policymakers to adequately protect the land and existing community values.

The Nebraska Farmers Union, the Sierra Club, and Open Harvest Co-op opposed LB834.

Michigan, SB777

Michigan became the only state in 2006 to pass a "seed preemption" bill. Despite tremendous efforts by various organizations including the Sierra Club, Michigan Environmental Council, and Michigan Townships Association, SB777 became law.

Although the bill passed, it does include language modeled after the pesticide preemption bill that allows local governments to pass ordinances if there are "unreasonable adverse effects on agriculture, the environment, or public health" but only if the Commission of Agriculture approves those ordinances. The state Agriculture Department also would have to hold a public hearing and issue an opinion on whether environmental or public health effects will occur. This is basically equivalent to preemption, since it has proven to be a prohibitively high standard where this language has been used in other laws.

The silver lining, if there is one, is that this has sparked a debate on GMOs in Michigan unlike the state has seen before. The work expended to defeat this legislation can assist in future sustainable agriculture efforts and legislation.

Preemption Background & Overview

In the spring of 2004, an ordinance prohibiting the growing of genetically modified organisms was passed in Mendocino County, CA by a large majority of the voters. The passage of this ordinance - as well as two others in California counties and a growing number of town resolutions in New England - set off a counterattack by agrochemical-backed legislators across the country.

Worried that local regulation of genetically modified crops would hamper the consolidation and expansion of intensive agriculture, state lawmakers began introducing bills providing their respective states with sole authority over seeds and plants. In essence, lawmakers are introducing bills stripping local control of our food supply and food systems.

The origin of the "seed preemption" legislation sprang from a right-wing public policy organization, the American Legislative Exchange Council, which boasts hundreds of corporate sponsors, and is being carried to legislators by Agribusiness Councils and state Farm Bureaus.

Since November 2004, nineteen (19) "seed preemption" bills have been introduced. In fifteen states, the bills were passed into law quickly and with very little public input: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas, Michigan, and West Virginia.

Looking Ahead to 2007

All of the states that faced preemption in 2006 will likely see additional preemption attempts in 2007. In addition, it is likely that other state legislatures will have preemption bills introduced.

To Stay Updated:

Frequently updated information on seed preemption legislation is available on the Environmental Commons website's Seed & Plant Law Preemption Tracker: environmentalcommons.org/gmo-tracker.html

Schedule of State Legislatures: environmentalcommons/legislative-schedule.pdf

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"First and foremost, it's anti-democratic to deny local voters the right to speak."
- California State Senator Wesley Chesbro

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