What does Frankenstein have in common with your food? Potentially, a lot, if House Bill 379, an Act to Clarify the Authority of the Board of Agriculture Over Plants, becomes state law.
Dubbed "Frankenfood legislation" by the nonprofit Toxic Free NC, the bill would grant the North Carolina Department of Agriculture total authority over the regulation of plants and crops; local governments and other regulatory bodies would have no say in those decisions. The bill passed the House Agriculture Committee last week, and is under review by the House Committee for the Environment.
"The bill does not specifically mention genetically modified organisms (GMOs)," says Toxic Free NC Executive Director Fawn Pattison, "but we know that's what the bill is about. An identical bill has been passed in many other states."
HB 379 was filed at the behest of the N.C. Department of Agriculture and comes courtesy of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC); critics of the bill say it's designed to standardize agricultural laws across the country to favor seed conglomerates such as Monsanto and Syngenta, which make and sell GMOs. The bill has a precedent in North Carolina—HB 671, Regulation of Genetically Altered Plants, was filed, and failed, in the House in 2005.
The legislation that spawned HB 379 came after Mendocino and other counties in California, where organic farming is a mainstay, passed local ordinances outlawing genetically modified crops. GMOs contaminate other crops via cross pollination; organic farming does not allow for GMOs, and in some places—Japan and parts of the European Union—they are banned altogether. In response, Big Ag companies argued that these local regulations interfered with their ability to do business; they lobbied state legislatures to centralize agriculture lawmaking.
"I don't see a purpose for the bill," Pattison says. "There aren't any counties in North Carolina who are trying to do what those counties in California have done. We don't have that scale of an organic industry; it's a totally different place. It's not actually happening here so there's no reason to pass this legislation."
Brian Long, public affairs director for the N.C. Department of Agriculture, agrees that local governments in North Carolina have never attempted to exercise authority over what farmers can grow. He wrote in an email, "This bill would simply state what is already implied—that local governments cannot tell farmers what plants or crops they can grow, because the state already exercises this authority."
The bill would protect state and private investments in biotechnology and crop science, Long says, adding an estimated 95 percent of the corn, cotton and soybean varieties grown by North Carolina farmers "have been developed through biotechnology, or genetic modification."
Agribusiness companies would likely benefit from the bill, although Long says the measure is "not intended to hamper organic farmers, or any farmers."
"If anything, the bill includes a measure of protection because it would prevent cities or counties from further regulating what farmers can plant. In states with local regulation of plants, there is an uneven playing field because farmers in County A can't grow a certain type of plant while farmers in County B can. These local regulations unfairly restrict a farmer's ability to decide what to grow, simply because of where the farm happens to be located."
Pattison says that the importance of localized regulation of plants and crops should not be understated. For example, if an invasive plant, such as bamboo, was growing out of control in a county, that local government could pass an ordinance prohibiting people from planting bamboo.
But if HB 379 passes, local governments will no longer have that, or more stringent, authority. "They certainly wouldn't be able to say don't grow GMOs here," Pattison adds. That is the worry: The bill would strip local governments and farmers of their ability to protect themselves against GMOs within their own county or in neighboring counties.
"I clearly see how the bill benefits big agriculture corporations and it's what they want, but I don't see how it benefits their constituency, the farmers and consumers," Pattison says. "You would think that [the agriculture department] would be filing legislation to support organic farmers, to help grow that industry, to help small farmers navigate this crazy world with these big companies. Instead they're filing a bill that benefits these great big corporations, to the detriment of small farmers."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Seeds of discontent."