Detroit Free Press  [Printer-friendly version]
January 18, 2006


Don't prohibit local standards on genetically engineered crops

[Rachel's introduction: The genetically-engineered-food industry has
introduced legislation in 18 states to prohibit towns and counties
from enacting local laws to regulate genetically engineered seeds.
The legislation would prevent local adoption of the precautionary

By Catherine Badgley And Ivette Perfecto

A national food controversy is now simmering in Michigan, as the state
Senate considers a bill that would bar towns and counties from
enacting local legislation to regulate genetically engineered seed.
This bill poses a threat to our democracy and could prove especially
harmful given the serious concerns raised by genetically engineered

Genetically engineered organisms are created by inserting pieces of
DNA from a distantly related organism into the DNA of a host plant or
animal. For example, in one common GE crop, bacterial genes are
genetically engineered into corn to create corn plants that produce
their own pesticide.

GE crops, especially corn and soybeans, are widely grown in Michigan
and across the United States. They are found in many processed foods
in U.S. supermarkets.

Yet controversy swirls around GE foods, and they have been banned or
require labels in some countries. At issue are concerns about
inadequate evaluation of the health risks and environmental
consequences of GE crops currently in use, genetic contamination of
organic and conventional crops, and the ability to regulate GE foods
within the food system.

A related looming issue is the production of biopharmaceutical crops
-- food crops engineered to produce prescription drugs or industrial
chemicals. Currently, outdoor experimental plots of biopharmaceutical
crops -- such as corn engineered to produce blood clotters and
contraceptives -- present significant contamination risks to the food

In response to these uncertainties, citizens in three counties in
California passed ordinances in 2004 to ban the raising of GE crops
and livestock, and local action has been taken in nearly 100 New
England towns.

Agribusiness reacted swiftly to these local initiatives. Its
legislative supporters have introduced preemptive bills in 18 states
to prevent local governments from enacting legislation about seeds and
plants. Fourteen states already have passed these bills into law;
Michigan's version, SB 777, is scheduled to get another committee
hearing Thursday.

The public should be concerned about this bill for four reasons.

GE foods pose genuine health and environmental concerns. Scientific
experiments where laboratory mammals were fed GE food resulted in
allergic reactions in one instance and toxic effects in another.
Threat of allergic reaction led to the recall of hundreds of products
containing genetically engineered corn in 2000.

The Food and Drug Administration still does not require premarket
safety testing for GE foods.

The legislation prevents local enactment of the precautionary
principle. The precautionary principle advocates thorough
investigation of the risks posed by a new technology before it's

Following the precautionary principle, GE organisms would be required
to demonstrate they do no harm before they are grown and consumed,
based on rigorous testing of health and environmental impacts.

Preemptive legislation of this sort violates democratic principles and
citizen involvement in issues of public well-being. It takes away
local control, the authority of local governments, and the ability of
voters to pass local ballot initiatives -- important tenets of our

Pre-emptive legislation, when it is justified in the public interest,
should establish minimums for general health and safety, not set the
upper limit on what is permitted. SB 777 would legally prohibit local
regulation of GE seeds, thereby creating a ceiling for all
Michiganders to live under, regardless of the risk factors.

SB 777 does not deserve the support of legislators or the public,
whether the reason is GE plants specifically or the right to
precaution and self-governance in general.

Catherine Badgley and Ivette Perfecto are on the faculty at the
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, at the Museum of Paleontology and
the School of Natural Resources & Environment, respectively. Write
them in care of the Free Press Editorial Page, 600 W. Fort St.,
Detroit MI 48226.

Copyright 2005 Detroit Free Press Inc.