Congress could shove transgenic food down states’ throats

Sorry folks, but we've got another urgent call to action for you. This one requires you to remind our politicians that they represent the people of the United States, not only its corporations.

I shouldn't be shocked by this latest pro-business, anti-consumer Machiavellian ploy, but I am. The House's Agriculture Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy and Poultry has added this language to its markup (PDF) of the Farm Bill:

No State or locality shall make any law prohibiting the use in commerce of an article that the Secretary of Agriculture has inspected and passed; or determined to be of non-regulated status.

Basically, this vague-sounding sentence would override state laws prohibiting or regulating the use of genetically modified food, food from clones, or other types of food so long as they were approved by USDA. So, bye-bye to the bans on GMO planting enacted by three California counties (Mendocino, Trinity and Marin), adios to cloned-food-labeling bills introduced by California legislators, so long to Washington State legislation that prohibits planting of GE canola in areas near the state’s large non-GE seed production. The USDA is the decider. States are the soldiers who don't question orders.

Given that the USDA has just been slapped by the courts over its failure to properly assess the risk of environmental contamination from genetically modified alfalfa, that Hawaii is desperately seeking ways to protect native crops from cross contamination, it's no wonder that few people trust the USDA to make risk-assessment decisions that take into account all stakeholders in a community. Reason to be skeptical No. 1: the revolving-door policy by which USDA personnel shuttle back and forth to industry, a trait the agency shares with the EPA and other government regulators.

Reason No. 2: The USDA is itself in the business of creating genetically modified food. As Denise Caruso points out in "Intervention," her chilling, excellent new book about the risks of the decision-making process around transgenic food (reviewing it tops my to-do list):

USDA scientists aren't just regulating biotech developers; they are biotech developers. The USDA is actually named on the patent of the "terminator" seed sterilization technology that's proposed as a method for "biocontainment" of transgenics. But that's only one of its most recent contributions. For more than 100 years, the agency has been importing new strains of fruit, inventing and deploying new herbicides and insecticides, finding replacements for harmful insecticides, inventing or importing new higher-yield or disease-resistant plant and animal breeds....In fact, in 2003 it spent nearly $180 million on biotechnology research and development.

To stretch a tired metaphor, it's bad enough that the fox is in charge of the henhouse, but this new twist basically makes the fox the only sheriff in town.

While it's already been inserted, there are several things that we can try to do. Drop the members of the Livestock, Dairy and Poultry committee a line about what you think of their little Trojan-horse change to the Food and Farm Bill and how it should not be codified into law. Let your representatives know that to vote for a Farm Bill with this language would be giving up our right to protect farmers, residents, and consumers who want to track, ban, or label genetically modified food when the federal government refuses to do so. The Center for Food Safety has a press release with more information about the kinds of state efforts the bill would negate, and hopefully soon will be coordinating an action campaign to defeat it.

After all, I'm sorry, but if states are free to overturn Roe v. Wade, then surely they should have the power to overrule the Secretary of Agriculture, which is not an elected position.

3 Responsesto “Congress could shove transgenic food down states’ throats”

  1. The current Farm Bill is little more than a blank check for Agri Business Monopolies and Corporate Welfare Hoodlums.

    It is a disaster for small farmers and the American Consumer!

    Looks like Section 121 of the draft would allow the USDA to use a mandatory animal identification system in order to implement Country of Origin Labeling ("COOL"). Current law prohibits mandatory NAIS for COOL.
    With NAIS livestock producers can just kiss their Civil Liberties good-bye.

    I'm going to be busy with letters & phone calls next week:-)

  2. Anastasia Bodnar says:

    This change in the law seems unnecessary to me, infringing on states' rights. That said...

    I just wanted to point out that the research arm of the USDA is separate from the regulatory arm. I know that some people think any research on technology involving food is a bad thing, but someone is going to do it regardless. In my opinion, it's better for the USDA or other not-for-profit organizations to do the research than to leave it exclusively in the hands of corporations.

    It's comparable to research on health - if all research was done by big drug companies, we'd have lots of treatments for big money problems like impotency and obesity. We'd have very little research on rare diseases or on fundamental things like development of cancer. Thankfully, we have the NIH.

  3. Taylor says:

    Other important contacts for opposing this (other than House members) would be State Attorney's General, 37 of whom wrote congress to oppose the National Uniformity for Food Act in March of last year on the grounds that it would preempt state food safety laws, and importantly, Senators, since the Senate version of the bill does not yet include this section. NUFA was also opposed by the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, and The Association of Food and Drug Officials, so contacting your State Ag. Dept. as well as local and state Depts. of Health could be useful too.

    In terms of USDA research, I agree, some of it is good - the SARE program for example is great. But USDA is a not a not-for-profit organization, it is a government agency, run by political appointees. It has always been influenced by big ag-business, and research has tended to focus on improving commodity crop yields, not on sustainability.

    In addition the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 has allowed Universities to retain patent rights on products developed with public research funds. These patents have now become an important source of University funding, and encourage the development of products for corporations, to whom they are licensed. Thus USDA funded research does tend to disproportionately focus on big money products and facilitate corporate profit.