, September 3, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: In California, a proposed state law lapsed without a Senate vote Sept. 2, ending, at least for now, a campaign by agribusiness corporations to outlaw a precautionary approach to genetically modified crops.]

By Bert Muhly

[RPR introduction: This article describes California Senate Bill 1056, an attempt by agribusiness firms to pass a state law preempting county ordinances that have banned genetically modified crops in Marin, Mendocino, Trinity and Santa Cruz counties. Senate Bill 1056 was passed by the Assembly but failed in the Senate Sept. 2.)

It is officially recorded as Senate Bill 1056, but it is popularly known in the halls of the California State Legislature as the Monsanto Bill as it streaks along a well-greased track through the legislative process toward Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's desk for signing, guided by its handpicked author, state Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter.

It is called the Monsanto Bill because it was apparently introduced at the behest of the corporate agribusiness giant Monsanto, whose objective is to continue its presently unregulated and unaccountable practices of genetically engineering foods in California.

If SB 1056 is enacted, it would prevent local governments from legislating against genetically modified crops, in spite of indisputable proof that the federal government and state government have heretofore defaulted in the responsibility of each to assure the protection of the health, safety and general welfare of the people.

The proof is contained in the extremely well researched 56-page report to the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors by the Genetic Engineering GE Subcommittee of the Public Health Commission of the County of Santa Cruz. The report's findings and recommendations caused the board, on June 20, to approve unanimously an ordinance that established a precautionary moratorium prohibiting the planting and production of genetically engineered crops in Santa Cruz County.

The GE report to the board was the result of a 10-month study by the aforementioned subcommittee. The 14 members of the subcommittee were picked from diverse sectors of county agricultural interests and qualified members of academia to undertake the required research. The report includes findings that emphatically challenge assertions by supporters of the Monsanto Bill who claim that regulation by local government is unnecessary because the industry is already highly scrutinized by the federal government. See Santa Cruz Sentinel, Saturday, Aug. 26, page A10, a report by Kimberly Geiger, under the headline, "Bill would ban local rules on bioengineered crops."

Critical issues of concern that led the GE subcommittee to recommend the countywide adoption of a precautionary moratorium, which is in direct opposition to the supporters of SB 1056, are as follows, taken directly from the executive summary of their report.

** Inadequate regulatory monitoring and oversight of genetically engineered crops at the federal and state level to ensure public health and environmental safety. A recent audit conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's inspector general found that the agency is not living up to its own protocols for GE crop regulation. The report found that the USDA did not know the location of many of the GE test sites being used; some GE test crops, including drug-containing crops, remained the test fields and contaminated subsequent harvests; and some crops not approved for human consumption have found their way in to the food supply.

** Health testing of the effects of exposure to GE organisms is not required by any government agency. The lack of comprehensive safety testing leaves a potentially dangerous scientific void in the knowledge available about the short- and long-term health effects of GE foods.

** Farmers and gardeners who choose not to grow GE crops have no legal recourse if contaminated by GE pollen or seeds.

** There is no legal requirement to label GE seeds or rootstock, thus eliminating farmers' or gardeners' choices.

** Adequate safeguards do not exist to prevent GE contamination of non-GE crops plants, insects, domesticated animals, wild life and wild lands, that can result from forces of nature and human causes. Once GE pollen is released into the environment, there is no known ability to reverse the process. The resulting impacts on ecosystems are unknown.

The Santa Cruz study and the report clearly exposes the GE issue as more of a public health issue than an agricultural issue, certainly of a magnitude not to be summarily handed over the domains of corporate agribusiness and/or the California Farm Bureau Federation.

At the Assembly Agriculture Committee hearing on June 26, those of us from Santa Cruz among the overflow crowd from throughout the state were there in opposition to the bill. Our testimony was dismissed by the committee chairwoman as being irrelevant to the issues presented by the content of SB 1056. As a retired practitioner and teacher of urban and regional planning, and as a former mayor and city councilman, I was told by the chairwoman that I could only state my name and whether I was for or against the bill, while I was trying to support testimony of the legislative representatives from the League of California Cities and the California State Association of Counties, who have consistently been in opposition to the bill because of its ill-thought-out potential negative impacts on zoning and related local regulatory ordinances.

Although the Santa Cruz County delegation was not allowed to testify at this so-called "hearing," we distributed copies of this report, or the executive summary thereof, to each member of the Assembly Agriculture Committee before early August, when they voted the bill out of the Assembly committee. Obviously, they were not inclined the read the material, since six committee members were co-authors of the bill.

On Aug. 24, the Assembly voted for passage of the bill 51-24. Assemblyman John Laird should be given great credit and thanks for his vigorous opposition to the bill. He garnered at least 24 votes to slow down the Monsanto Express heading full throttle toward Gov. Schwarzenegger's office. As may be expected, Florez, the author of the bill, has already received assurance from the governor's office that Schwarzenegger will sign the bill. But the governor and his staff will have every opportunity to read the full Santa Cruz report before the bill reaches his desk. And if he should then wish to take a responsible position on this industry-generated bill, he would be wise to tell Sen. Florez to yank the bill from the Senate floor and to read the Santa Cruz GE report in its entirety. He should then advise Sen. Florez that if confronted with the need to veto the bill, he will include in his veto message this belief, borrowed from the Santa Cruz Health Commission report.

"It is the responsibility and purview of the State of California to establish regulatory oversight to ensure public and environmental health and safety, which, to this date, the State has clearly not done. In the absence of that oversight every county and every city of California has the right and responsibility to take action by implementing a Precautionary Moratorium that protects the health of each county and city and its residents, and in doing so, sends a strong message to the State to follow suit."


Bert Muhly, a former Santa Cruz mayor, is a Santa Cruz resident.

Copyright 1999-2006 Santa Cruz Sentinel.