Consigning Citizens to Spectator Status Through Seed Laws
by Britt Bailey

Honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress —Mahatma Gandhi 

In late 2004, the American Farm Bureau Federation, with support from the biotechnology industry, began a march of preemption through state legislatures. Thus far, twelve states have introduced bills prohibiting local communities from introducing policies related to seeds. These states include Pennsylvania, Iowa, Idaho, North Dakota, Georgia, Oklahoma, Indiana, and West Virginia. These preemptive laws have been introduced in response to the passage of local initiatives, resolutions, and ordinances restricting genetically modified organisms. Three Californian counties and nearly one hundred towns in New England have passed policies that limit the growing of genetically modified seeds and livestock. Fearing the spread of this kind of popular backlash against genetically modified food products, preemptive seed law proponents are conducting an underhanded and well organized attack against citizen's rights to participate in the legislative process. 

Preemption is a judicial principle that declares the supremacy of one level of government over another in a specific subject area. In this latest example of seed laws, it is the states claiming primacy over local legislation pertaining to seeds. Essentially, preemption at the state level is a trump card used to remove communities' rights to enact stronger laws at the local level. According to Bob Campbell of the State of California Department of Finance, “state preemption laws can do two things. They can overturn the will of the people in the event an initiative has passed, and they can prevent the introduction of laws on the same subject from being introduced in the future.”

The virtually identical language used in different states' preemption bills illustrates a systematic and ordered approach to stifling community decision-making by passing laws that prevent local governments regulating genetically modified seeds. For example, North Dakota's Senate Bill states, “A political subdivision, including a home rule city or county, may not adopt or continue in effect any ordinance, resolution, initiative, or home rule charter regarding the registration, labeling, distribution, sale, handling, use, application, transportation, or disposal of seed.” Likewise, Idaho's House Bill 38 states, “no ordinance, rule or regulation of any political subdivision may prohibit or in any way attempt to regulate any matter relating to the registration, labeling, sale, storage, transportation, distribution, notification of use, or use of seeds.” 
In addition to using similar language, the bills' proponents in the various state legislatures have personal backgrounds and campaign contributors in common as well. Most of these legislators hail from rural farming and ranching communities. Most receive funds from state farm bureaus. Some even receive direct funds from biotechnology companies such as Monsanto. One example of this is Sandy Greiner, the House Representative in Iowa, who receives campaign contributions from the Iowa Farm Bureau, Monsanto, Iowa Agribusiness Employees, and John Deere.[1]

When I contacted the office of Georgia Representative John Bulloch to question the reasoning behind the states preemptive seed law, a staff member stated, “the genesis came from what is happening in California. We wanted to keep authority pertaining to seeds within the Department of Agriculture. The Department has the knowledge; the brain trust, if you will, to better control the types of foods we grow. We do not want a small voting segment of the population which has limited knowledge to wipe out a sector of our crops.” Supporters of this bill include the Georgia Agribusiness Council and the State Farm Bureau. 

Laws establishing preemption are not a new industry strategy. From 1982 to 1997, the tobacco industry worked diligently to introduce state laws that prevented cities, towns, and counties from initiating and introducing restrictive tobacco laws. They were on the defensive; by 1997, nearly 1,200 cities and towns had implemented tobacco related legislation, including laws that restrict smoking in restaurants, limit youth access to cigarettes, and control advertising and promotions for tobacco products. According to Victor Crawford, a tobacco industry lobbyist: 

“We could never win at the local level. The reason is, all the health advocates, the ones unfortunately I used to call 'health Nazis,' they're all local activists who run the little political organizations. They may live next door to the mayor, or the city councilman, and they say 'Who's this big-time lobbyist coming here to tell us what to do?' When they've got their friends and neighbors out there in the audience who want this bill, we get killed.”[2] 

Just as the tobacco industry acted to influence and introduce preemptive legislation restricting local tobacco laws, it is clear that biotech corporations and their affiliated associations are behind the moves to thwart local efforts to better protect public welfare and small family farmers by creating more sustainable visions for our food supply. Members of the biotech industry know that at a local level — the level where citizens actually gets to participate first-hand in decision-making — it will lose its ability to introduce and sell genetically modified seeds. 

The body of laws produced by all levels of our country's legislative branch is dynamic. The law follows our struggles and reflects our progress, our difficulties, and our exchange of ideas. Even our state and federal constitutions are living documents. Since their ratification, we have acquired a more equitable system of representation where women can vote and African-Americans are no longer considered property. We have imposed alcohol prohibitions, and then later repealed such measures after grappling with and discussing such bans. We have debated abortion, marriage, healthcare, and greenhouse gas emissions, among any number of other topics, to see how the law should treat new developments in our society. 

It is this dialogue that makes for a better government and a better society. Philosopher John Dewey points out that democracy is not an end in itself, but is rather a means for individual discovery and self-actualization. He argues that people are shaped by the degree to which they can participate in the democratic process. For it is through discussion and involvement in government and its outcomes that individuals become more publicly spirited, tolerant, knowledgeable, and self-reflective.[3] 

Preemptive legislation stifles citizen participation. The legislators introducing these bills concerning seeds are not acting on behalf of the people; they are acting despite the will of the people. Furthermore, preemption restrains our body of laws from changing and growing. It prevents social progress from being made and fair and reasoned opinions from being expressed.

A democracy devoid of discussion is hardly a democracy. As preemption laws march through state legislatures, we cease to be players in the political field. Instead, we are relegated to being mere spectators.

Britt Bailey, director of the non-profit Environmental Commons, is the co-author of Against the Grain: Biotechnology and the Corporate Takeover of Your Food (Common Courage Press, 1998) and is Senior Editor of Engineering the Farm: The Social and Ethical Aspects of Agricultural Biotechnology (Island Press, 2002). Britt is currently working on a third book pertaining to GMOs titled Home Field Advantage (forthcoming Common Courage Press). For more detailed information pertaining to legislative seed laws and preemption see: gmo-tracker.html . A version of this article appeared in the Farm Policy Network News.


1 Institute on Money and State Politics, Candidate Database, Accessed Feb. 17, 2005. StateGlance/ contributor_details.phtml?si=200412
2 M. Siegel, J. Carol, J. Jordan et al, “Preemption in tobacco control. Review of an emerging public health problem,” JAMA 1997;278:858-863. 
3 David Held, Models of Democracy, Second Edition, Stanford University Press, 1996

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