fresh. sustainable. local.
Editor’s Note: Pre-emption bills such as the looming SB 633 affect our ability to maintain reliable, diverse, safe, healthy and plentiful local food systems. In effect, they represent how Big Government helps Big Corporations force their products (such as poisons like pesticides and genetically-engineered foods) on local communities. More than that, when those products cause real harm to us, our food and our environment, pre-emption bills also deny us our right to protect ourselves and hold offenders accountable for the harm they cause.
As a followup to our previous post on Senate Bill 633, we’d like to share an overview of pre-emption bills by Kim Goodwin of Oregonians for Farm & Food Rights, and how they erode public freedom, limit localized self-determination and threaten food security and eliminate accountability for the harm people cause to the environment.
What’s the Deal with Seed Preemption Bills?
For those of us who care about having a local food system, seed preemption legislation is very concerning. It’s the predictable response of industry to citizen- and farmer-motivated efforts to make community decisions about farming. In Oregon, seed preemption bills are the latest attempt to “preempt” our community rights to make local laws regarding agriculture.
Why a seed preemption?
Industrial agriculture is very concerned that more anti-GMO legislation will pass at a county level, like has happened in San Juan County, Washington. So, corporate agriculture, organizations like American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and some of our legislators are working together to eliminate a basic community right to decision-making. It’s ridiculous. Farming, by its very nature, is a local, regional practice. The decision-making process regarding farming should happen locally. Do we want legislators in Washington, DC, deciding what’s best for Willamette Valley farmers? Or state legislators from the coast making decisions for farmers in Eastern Oregon?
Seed preemption laws have been pushed for a decade or so, but are just now being proposed in Oregon. In Oregon, the lobbying group Oregonians for Food and Shelter (OFS) are the offensive front for the GMO, pesticide and aerial spray industries. They are our pesticide/aerial spray/gmo lobbyists. OFS has members from Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, and RISE (Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment – a national pesticide lobby) on their Board of Directors – if that gives you any hints about their motives. (Oregonians for Food and Shelter is the organization that helped tank the first GMO labeling measure in Oregon (and the U.S.) over ten years ago. Over $5 million was funneled into Oregon by chemical companies like Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow, Bayer Crop Science, and Dupont to oppose the GMO labeling citizen initiative. This successfully frightened consumers into opposing labeling– just as happened with California’s labeling initiative Prop 37 last year.)
Here is a great resource that explains the purpose of seed preemption laws in detail: http://environmentalcommons.org/seedlawbackgrounder.html
Preempt now – before it’s too late
This attempt to take away our local rights is a direct response against Benton and Jackson counties’ anti-gmo initiatives. It’s the typical way industry deals with citizen concern about industrial practices – any practice. For example, the documentary A Chemical Reaction explains the story of the anti-pesticide laws passed in Hudson, Canada, in the mid-1990s. Chemical companies sued, took the little community of Hudson all the way to Canada’s Superior Court, and lost. The court ruled in favor of the local community’s right to ban lawn pesticides, and in favor of the “precautionary principle” (which is also used in Europe). Unfortunately, the U.S. does not use the precautionary principle. The precautionary priniciple allows that when a practice could harm the public, the burden of proof must be placed on proving safety – rather than harm. Simply said, it’s “better safe, than sorry.” You’d certainly want your child’s babysitter to use this principle. We use this approach in the development of new food sweeteners, children’s car seats, and toys. But it’s not required for the makers of pesticides.
What does this have to do with preemption laws? Well, after the town of Hudson passed anti-pesticide laws and won against the pesticide giants in Canada’s Superior Court, the chemical industry in the U.S. was very, very concerned. With the help of the national pesticide lobby RISE, they lobbyied for and successfully passed state-level pesticide preemption laws in 40 states – including Oregon. Now, the biotech/pesticide industry is responding in the same way with seed preemption bills.
“Seed preemption” legislation has already passed in about a dozen states. The anti-gmo citizen’s initiatives in Benton and Jackson counties, and the Willamette Valley canola controversy have spurred seed preemption bills here.
Where does preemption legislation come from?
An interesting thing is that the preemptive legislation is written almost exactly the same for each State. This kind of legislation is not citizen-motivated – how many times have you called your legislator and asked “Please take away my community’s rights to make laws?”
Instead, it’s provided to each state through member legislators of the national organization American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC touts itself as a conservative “think-tank” non-profit that creates model legislation for states. ALEC writes model legislation at the urging of corporate donors, then ALEC’s legislative members propose it in their state. This is a convenient way for the multi-national, corporate biotech industry to keep their practices legal and take priority over community rights, across the U.S. This way, they “preempt” opposition by local farmers and communities. The irony is that ALEC claims to subscribe to the traditional libertarian value of local control. Clearly, they do not.
Read more about ALEC’s Biotechnology State Uniformity Resolution (note how they mention Mendocino County’s Measure H – the first GMO ban in the U.S.): http://www.alec.org/model-legislation/biotechnology-state-uniformity-resolution/
Read more about who funds ALEC, and how ALEC legislation has been used to usurp community rights across the U.S.: http://www.prwatch.org/news/2011/08/10922/alec-exposed-protecting-factory-farms-and-sewage-sludge
So, what can we do?
The first key to understanding how to effectively deal with a problem is learning the source of the problem. It’s helpful to know that this form of preemptive legislation is not only standard practice as a response to citizen uproar against harmful industrial practices, but it’s also already here. Oregon already has preemptive agricultural laws, called the Right to Farm Act, which take away communities’ rights to make laws affecting agriculture – including making laws affecting seeds. The currently proposed seed preemption bills are just a re-affirming layer, and another way to discourage community participation in agriculture.
Communities around our state and the country are organizing in spite of these corporate attempts to undermine our rights. They are pushing back at the point where individual citizens are strongest – in their own communities, towns and cities. In Oregon, Benton and Jackson counties are leading the effort. The public interest law-firm, Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) is supporting Benton county’s community rights group (Benton County Community Rights Coalition –BCCRC)to organize around a Food Bill of Rights. Food Bills of Rights have been popping up in communities across the U.S. They are one way communities are taking back control of their local food system and reclaiming their rights to make local agricultural choices. CELDF has developed innovative ways for communities to reinstate this local decision-making power, in spite of preemptive law.
It’s not just possible, it’s already happening around the country. But that’s another post…
Kim Goodwin, Oregonians for Farm & Food Rights www.farmandfoodrights.org