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[SANET-MG] Seeds of legislative meddling
Detroi Free Press
Seeds of legislative meddling
Don't prohibit local standards on genetically engineered crops
BY CATHERINE BADGLEY and IVETTE PERFECTO
January 18, 2006
A national food controversy is now simmering in Michigan, as the state
Senate considers a bill that would bar towns and counties from enacting
local legislation to regulate genetically engineered seed. This bill
poses a threat to our democracy and could prove especially harmful given
the serious concerns raised by genetically engineered crops.
Genetically engineered organisms are created by inserting pieces of DNA
from a distantly related organism into the DNA of a host plant or
animal. For example, in one common GE crop, bacterial genes are
genetically engineered into corn to create corn plants that produce
their own pesticide.
GE crops, especially corn and soybeans, are widely grown in Michigan and
across the United States. They are found in many processed foods in U.S.
Yet controversy swirls around GE foods, and they have been banned or
require labels in some countries. At issue are concerns about inadequate
evaluation of the health risks and environmental consequences of GE
crops currently in use, genetic contamination of organic and
conventional crops, and the ability to regulate GE foods within the food
A related looming issue is the production of biopharmaceutical crops --
food crops engineered to produce prescription drugs or industrial
chemicals. Currently, outdoor experimental plots of biopharmaceutical
crops -- such as corn engineered to produce blood clotters and
contraceptives -- present significant contamination risks to the food
In response to these uncertainties, citizens in three counties in
California passed ordinances in 2004 to ban the raising of GE crops and
livestock, and local action has been taken in nearly 100 New England towns.
Agribusiness reacted swiftly to these local initiatives. Its legislative
supporters have introduced preemptive bills in 18 states to prevent
local governments from enacting legislation about seeds and plants.
Fourteen states already have passed these bills into law; Michigan's
version, SB 777, is scheduled to get another committee hearing Thursday.
The public should be concerned about this bill for four reasons.
GE foods pose genuine health and environmental concerns. Scientific
experiments where laboratory mammals were fed GE food resulted in
allergic reactions in one instance and toxic effects in another. Threat
of allergic reaction led to the recall of hundreds of products
containing genetically engineered corn in 2000.
The Food and Drug Administration still does not require premarket safety
testing for GE foods.
The legislation prevents local enactment of the precautionary principle.
The precautionary principle advocates thorough investigation of the
risks posed by a new technology before it's adopted.
Following the precautionary principle, GE organisms would be required to
demonstrate they do no harm before they are grown and consumed, based on
rigorous testing of health and environmental impacts.
Preemptive legislation of this sort violates democratic principles and
citizen involvement in issues of public well-being. It takes away local
control, the authority of local governments, and the ability of voters
to pass local ballot initiatives -- important tenets of our democracy.
Pre-emptive legislation, when it is justified in the public interest,
should establish minimums for general health and safety, not set the
upper limit on what is permitted. SB 777 would legally prohibit local
regulation of GE seeds, thereby creating a ceiling for all Michiganders
to live under, regardless of the risk factors.
SB 777 does not deserve the support of legislators or the public,
whether the reason is GE plants specifically or the right to precaution
and self-governance in general.
CATHERINE BADGLEY and IVETTE PERFECTO are on the faculty at the
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, at the Museum of Paleontology and the
School of Natural Resources & Environment, respectively.
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