Statehouses are the latest front in the international fight over regulating genetically engineered plants.
Seed companies, pharmaceutical makers and biotechnology groups are pushing legislators to limit oversight of the experimental crops designed to resist disease and insects or to produce chemicals and enzymes for scientific research. But environmentalists and food and beverage producers are urging caution, warning lawmakers of unknown economic and health risks of genetically engineered crops that could cross-pollinate with regular plants.
State lawmakers, so far, are siding mostly with biotechnology proponents. Seven states -- Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, North Dakota, South Dakota and Pennsylvania -- have enacted laws to prohibit counties and other local governments from banning or regulating genetically enhanced seeds in their jurisdictions. A similar bill, supported by the agri-business industry, is awaiting action by the governor in Georgia. And like-minded measures are being considered by legislatures in Arizona, Oklahoma and West Virginia.
At the same time, two states are considering new restrictions and penalties designed to limit bioengineered crops. A bill in the Vermont Legislature would make seed companies, instead of farmers, liable for damage from genetically modified plants. And in Oregon, a bill has been introduced to ban the outdoor growing of genetically engineered plants intended for industrial or pharmaceutical uses.
While genetically engineered plants have long been controversial in Europe, the issue erupted in the United States last year when voters in three California counties banned high-tech crops within their borders. Those actions have sparked a state-by-state effort to prevent local governments from enacting similar prohibitions.
"We think local governments have enough problems without having to incur the costs of regulating an industry monitored by three federal agencies," said Ab Basu, who lobbies states for CropLife America, an association that represents ag-business giants such as BASF, Bayer CropScience, Dow Agrosciences, Monsanto, and Syngenta. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency already put limits on genetically modified plants, and farmers do not want unnecessary and overlapping local laws, he said.
Growers come down on both sides of the issue. Iowa state Rep. Sandy Greiner (R), a farmer and supporter of her state's new seed law, said the measure prevents a patchwork of varying regulations within the Hawkeye State. She notes that states already have jurisdiction over other widely used agricultural products, such as fertilizer and pesticides.
But Iowa state Rep. Mark Kuhn (D), also a farmer, said local governments should have the ability to protect growers who worry about contamination from genetically modified plants, especially farmers trying to meet the standards for certified organic crops. Kuhn sponsored a failed amendment to the Iowa bill that would have given counties the right to establish limited zones prohibiting bioengineered plants.
Some opponents of the high-tech crops also want to preempt local governments -- by imposing stricter rules against growing those plants. Rick North, an advocate of the Oregon bill limiting genetically engineered plants statewide, said that experimental crops would inevitably contaminate the food supply if they were not properly controlled. "We don't want drugs ... or industrial chemicals" in our food, said North, a spokesman for the Oregon chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility.
That's a sentiment reflected in the attitudes of many major food and beverage companies that must ensure the safety of their products to consumers worldwide. Brewery giant Anheuser-Busch has threatened to stop buying rice -- a common ingredient for some mass-produced beers -- from Missouri farmers if the pharmaceutical company Ventria Bioscience is allowed to plant an experimental variety of that crop in the Show Me State. "Because Ventria's Pharma rice is not 'generally recognized as safe' ... it is not appropriate for food consumption, and even if it were, Anheuser-Busch believes that genetically modified rice should be segregated from traditional rice varieties to give food manufacturers and consumers the choice to use such rice," the company stated in written comments to the FDA.
Riceland Foods Inc., which markets rice, soybeans and wheat grown by roughly 9,000 farmers in five states, also opposes Ventria's experimental rice in Missouri, as does the National Food Products Association, which is the largest trade association serving the food and beverage industry in the United States and worldwide.