Legislation aiming to prevent counties, towns and cities from making local decisions
about our food supply is being introduced in states across the nation. Fifteen
states recently have introduced legislation removing local control of plants and
seeds. Eleven of these states have already passed the provisions into law.
These highly orchestrated industry actions are in response to recent local
decisions to safeguard sustainable food systems. To date, initiatives in three
California counties have restricted the cultivation of genetically modified
crops, livestock, and other organisms and nearly 100 New England towns have
passed various resolutions in support of limits on genetically engineered crops.
These laws are industry’s stealth response to a growing effort by people
to protect their communities at the local level. Given the impacts of known
ecological contamination from genetic modification, local governments absolutely
should be given the power to protect the health, safety, and welfare of its
citizens. Local restrictions against genetically modified crops have provided
a positive and hopeful solution and allowed citizens to take meaningful action
in their hometown or county.
“Over the past several years in Iowa, we’ve seen local control
taken away for the benefit of the corporate hog industry,” said George
Naylor, an Iowa farmer and President of the National Family Farm Coalition.
“With these pre-emption laws signed into law, we are now losing our ability
to protect ourselves from irresponsible corporations aiming to control the agricultural
seeds and plants planted throughout the state.”
According to Kristy Meyer of the Ohio Environmental Council, “The amendment
to our House Bill 66 would strip cities and villages of their authority to implement
safeguards and standards concerning seeds. Supporting local control is quintessentially
American, clearly reasonable, and represents the standards our country was founded
In the past decade, the same preemptive strategy has been used by the tobacco
industry to thwart local efforts to introduce more stringent smoking and gun
laws, respectively. As Tina Walls of Phillip Morris & Co. admitted, “By
introducing preemptive statewide legislation, we can shift the battle away from
the community level back to the state legislatures where we are on stronger
Why this challenge to local rights?
Since 2002, towns, cities and counties across the U.S. have passed resolutions
seeking to control the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) within their
jurisdiction. Close to 100 New England towns have passed resolutions opposing
the unregulated use of GMOs; nearly a quarter of these have called for local
moratoria on the planting of GMO seeds. In 2004, three California counties,
Mendocino, Trinity and Marin, passed ordinances banning the raising of genetically
engineered (GE) crops and livestock. Advocates across the country believe that
the more people learn about the potential hazards of GE food and crops, the
more they seek measures to protect public health, the environment, and family
farms. They have come to view local action as a necessary antidote to inaction
at the federal and state levels.
Who is behind this strategy of state pre-emption?
State legislators who support large-scale industrial agriculture, and are often
funded by associated business interests are introducing these pre-emption bills.
Farm Bureau chapters in the various states are key supporters. The bills represent
a back-door, stealth strategy to override protective local measures around GMOs.
The industry proposal for a “Biotechnology state uniformity resolution”
was first introduced at a May 2004 forum sponsored by the American Legislative
Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC claims over 2000 state legislators as members
and has more than 300 corporate sponsors, according to People for the American
Way (see Resources). The organization has its origins in the efforts of political
strategist and fundraiser Paul Weyrich to rebuild a Republican power base at
the federal and state levels in the aftermath of Watergate. Other recent measures
supported by ALEC include efforts to deregulate electric utilities, override
local pesticide laws, repeal minimum wage laws, limit class action lawsuits
and privatize public pensions.
The tobacco industry has mounted similar efforts in recent years to circumvent
local ordinances restricting youth access to cigarettes as well as smoking in
restaurants, bars, and workplaces. Ironically, many of the interests now promoting
state pre-emption have vociferously opposed federal regulations designed to
pre-empt weaker state laws.
Why is this a cause for wide public concern?
Local governments have historically overseen policies related to public health,
safety, and welfare. Preventing local decision-making contradicts the legitimate
and necessary responsibilities of cities, towns, and counties. Traditionally,
laws enacted at the state level have set minimum requirements and allowed for
the continued passage and enforcement of local ordinances that establish greater
levels of public health protection. Preemptive legislation reverses this norm.
Pre-emption undermines democracy and local control, and is a threat to meaningful
citizen participation around issues of widespread concern. Communities enact
local measures as an expression of their fundamental right to shape their future,
whereas wealthy corporate interests are far better able to wield power and influence
policy in state capitols.
Local actions around GMOs, in particular, are designed to address important
gaps in federal and state policy, and mitigate potentially serious threats to
public health, the environment, and survival of local farm economies. Additionally,
some communities are taking a further step, and benefiting economically from
the positive effect of becoming known as “GE-Free,” supporting farmers
and the local food system by promoting organic and sustainable agriculture in
In recent years, similar local measures have sought to address a variety of
industry practices not adequately regulated at higher levels of jurisdiction,
including pollution from factory farms, use of sewage sludge as fertilizer,
uncontrolled pesticide use, and mismanagement of water resources. The current
pre-emption campaign is part of a strategy aimed to weaken all such protective
measures; it is part of a well-funded, highly-orchestrated, and frequently stealthy
corporate effort to rewrite public policies at all jurisdictional levels.
What are the legal precedents for local action?
According to the Washington-based Center for Food Safety, local measures to
restrict the use of GMOs are generally on a sound legal footing:
Local rights of self-governance and protection of health, safety and well-being
are guaranteed by most state constitutions. Local governments are free to be
more protective of their citizens and unique communities than lowest-common-denominator
state laws can provide.
The federal government does not have specific mandatory safety testing requirements
for most GE crops, instead allowing companies to voluntarily determine what
tests are needed; also there is virtually no monitoring of commercial GE crops
for persistent hazards.
No state has yet enacted comprehensive regulations governing GE crops and livestock
that protect public health and the environment.
Historically, American custom and tradition has granted local communities considerable
autonomy. Local sovereignty has its foundation in the town meetings of colonial
New England. While some states have come to view local jurisdictions as creations
and agents of the state, others endow municipalities with varying degrees of
“home rule,” an established legal principle with origins in the
Town meetings and subsequent local decision-making procedures are further rooted
in Common Law, which has hinged on the traditional maxim, “Use your property
as not to injure another’s.” Harmful activities affecting the public
commons, such as over-cutting timber or spreading noxious weeds, have traditionally
been restricted in the name of the greater public good.