Until it was pulled from consideration late in the Missouri legislature's spring session, Senate Bill 1009 had promised a vigorous tussle between farmers, politicians and biotech lobbyists. SB 1009 called for giving the state power over the “regulation, labeling, sale, storage and planting of seeds.”
Before the bill's language was changed late in the debate, it would also have prohibited the state from enacting any seed regulation exceeding federal requirements.
Many farmers, an independent lot by nature, were not happy at the prospect of turning over local controls to the state or federal government. But the ceding of local control over crops planted — “pre-emption language” is the term favored by proponents — isn't just happening in Missouri. More than 10 state legislatures have passed similar bills in recent sessions.
Opposition to the wave of pre-emption legislation hasn't been especially loud. But Bootheel rice farmers had their antennae up because just last year a crisis erupted when GMO/pharmaceutical rice was to be planted near commercial fields. Rice farmers claimed the pharma rice — to be grown by Ventria BioScience — was a threat to their markets.
(For more, see http://deltafarmpress.com/news/050525-ventria-rice/index.html)
Their claims gained little traction with leading state politicians despite backing from Riceland, the largest rice co-op in the nation. Plans to grow the pharma rice were scuttled only after St. Louis-based Anheuser Busch, the largest buyer of Delta rice, threatened to stop buying the home-grown commodity over fears of a beer consumer backlash.
“If (SB 1009) had passed, we'd have had no say about what could, or couldn't, be planted,” says Sonny Martin, a prominent Bootheel rice producer and chairman of the Missouri Rice Research and Merchandising Council. “If (the bill) had been in place last year, Ventria could have come in here and planted their rice within 50 feet of all the commercial rice in the Bootheel. There would have been nothing we could've done about it.”
Labeling the charge “absolutely untrue,” Kelly Gillespie, who heads MOBIO (a trade organization funded by private corporations like Monsanto, Pfizer, and Johnson and Johnson), says after consultations with Anheuser Busch and other companies, the amended bill dropped the “no stricter than federal” provision. In doing so, “Busch agreed to endorse and support the county pre-emption bill. They didn't have a problem with it.”
Asked for comment, Anheuser Busch sent Delta Farm Press this statement: “Anheuser-Busch was willing to support a compromise version of SB 1009 that would have contained a state pre-emption on regulations pertaining to research, development and use of seed technologies and that maintained the state's authority to regulate in these areas.”
According to Gillespie, others supporting the bill included the Missouri Farm Bureau, the Missouri Soybean Association, the Missouri Corn Growers Association, Syngenta, Monsanto, Bayer, Pioneer and Dupont.
On the other side, it wasn't only rice farmers who were opposed. Farmers and ranchers from around the state were also part of the pushback.
“This would have affected wheat, cattle, hog farmers and everyone else,” says Greg Yielding, a field representative with the U.S. Rice Producers Association. “When it comes to making a living, farmers know what works. They don't want some… bureaucrat with a lobbyist in his ear making decisions on what can be planted next door.”
“Right now,” says Tim Gibbons, communications director for the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, “(Bootheel) counties could enact some kind of regulation to keep GMO rice out. This bill would take that possibility away.”
Gibbons says the crisis center is focused on family farms. “We try to defend the rights of family farmers. It's important to keep up with legislation because nowadays many politicians are chipping away at local control of agriculture. We try and keep that from happening. We're for local control, for government that's closer to the people.”
Bill proponents said, “‘we don't need a patchwork of different ordinances around the state,’” says Yielding. “Well, from our standpoint, that takes the farmers — especially in the Bootheel — out of the equation. As we saw in the (Ventria situation), they have a hard enough time getting the state's attention, much less defeating companies with a bunch of money behind them.
“If there's no possibility southeast counties can pass an ordinance saying, ‘we want no pharmaceutical rice,’ then (these companies) can come in and do whatever they want. There would be no threat the farmers could muster.”
Those arguing for the bill claim a desire to head off GMO-growing bans like those enacted in California.
“The bill was more a direct response to activities that occurred in 2003 in Mendocino County, Calif.,” says Gillespie. “An initiative passed there specifically related to the selling of GMO seed — something as basic as Roundup Ready soybeans (would be prohibited).”
The move to pass pre-emption language across the nation is a response to the actions of that single county?
“Absolutely,” says Gillespie. “(Such bans) would be devastating. What happens if a farmer's land is on the border of two counties? He could put one set of seeds here and not over there?”
Martin laughs at the comparison. “They're pointing to California as an example to scare everyone into this. But California is off by itself in so many ways, you know? This is Missouri! We're not against GMOs here — farmers are growing Roundup Ready crops all over this state. But we can't let someone else decide what does or doesn't (constitute) a threat to our markets.”
Not surprisingly, Yielding agrees. “There hasn't been any movement in California's rice-growing area to pass anything like this. Actually, what they want to do is make Missouri essentially a regulatory-free zone for GMOs. These politicians think biotech will be Missouri's savior and there will be a business boom.
“But from the rice farmers' perspective, we can't have pharma-rice grown near commercial. This was just an attempt by the GMO companies to do what they want in Missouri. And it's so shortsighted. No one was thinking about what it means to markets in the long run.”
Gillespie concedes it is unlikely county GMO bans will pop up in the Bootheel. But he says such a ban in a “liberal community” that is “easily guided by an outside national organization…is a possibility.”
“We're not trying to close markets for any farmer. We're trying to expand them, open them, and leverage the technologies as they become accepted.
“We want to give farmers another option. There are many farmers who'll choose to grow organic. Others will grow conventional. Yet others will choose to grow biotech crops. We think the coexistence among those camps is a strong suit for American farmers.”
Actually, not one but three California counties have passed GMO bans. Are they really a countrywide threat? In a column last November, Harry Cline, Western Farm Press editor, addressed the situation.
“Of course, the anti-GMO crowd gloats about victories in Mendocino, Marin and Trinity counties,” wrote Cline. “They won in Mendocino with a sneak attack where no grassroots opposition was mounted. They won in Marin by default. There was no organized opposition because there is no agriculture there. The ‘victory’ in Trinity was an ordinance hastily passed by the board of supervisors partly to avoid a costly county referendum.
“There have been at least a dozen California counties that have passed ordinances supporting biotechnology and at least one county rejecting a proposed anti-biotech ordinance.
“The way I figure it, the score is at least 15 to 3 and 3 is being generous. Game's over.”
Back in Missouri, trying to work within the bill's framework, rice farmers proposed several amendments that bill proponents rejected. “One proposal was a 200-mile restriction for GMOs from commercial rice growing areas,” says Martin. “Pass that and they could have done whatever else they wanted. If wheat wanted to fight it more, if pork folks want to fight it, fine. I bet (those commodity groups) were trying to cut their own deals. We were trying to protect the rice crop and still work with (the proponents). But they wouldn't go for that. They wouldn't agree to any compromise.”
Since the blanket term “GMO” covers so many aspects of biotechnology and only certain ones — like plant-made pharmaceuticals — are controversial in Missouri, why lump them all together? Why not break the pre-emption legislation into separate GMO components?
“In the world of business attraction… do you want to be known as a science-friendly and biotech-friendly state?” asks Gillespie. “Is there a welcoming environment for these types of companies? Thirteen or 14 states have said, ‘Yes,’ not only as a public policy stance but as a marketing stance. They want such companies to know they won't be exposed to the wacko element from California that sees a problem where there is none.
“What kind of message (would breaking the GMO components up) send? When you begin to carve out (such an) approach — ‘not in my backyard’ or ‘not in my territory’ — where do you draw the line? How many others would say, ‘Oh, me too! Make sure you exclude me, as well.’”
The counter argument, Martin points out, is counties banning pharma crops could actually strengthen their markets. Buyers may be more willing to buy — perhaps even pay a premium for — a crop they know has less chance of being contaminated.
Despite the bill being pulled, many expect it to resurface during next year's legislative session.
“This is going to haunt us again,” says Martin. “Hopefully, before it does, common sense will catch on. This needs to be talked out so people understand what's going on.”
“Don't forget, this is an election year,” says Gibbons. “(For fear of losing votes) I think a lot of contentious issues were passed on. They'll bring this back.”
Yes, they will, confirms Gillespie. “We certainly intend to bring forward the bill in 2007. But if there are legislative changes we can make to improve it in the meantime, we will.”