States' rights vs. the Farm Bill

Squeezed in with cheddar price supports and swine surveillance: An amendment forbidding local bans on USDA-approved genetically modified organisms

Published May 24, 2007 7:43PM (EDT)

The House Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry held a hearing Thursday morning to consider some proposed changes to the Farm Bill. Among the details under deliberation were fine-tuning price supports for cheddar cheese ($1.13 per pound for blocks, $1.10 per pound for barrels), various dairy incentive programs, and the establishment of a "swine surveillance program" to guard against the dread threat of pseudorabies spread by feral pigs.

Tucked in at the very end of the document is a provision that includes no explicit mention of livestock, dairy, or poultry: Section 123 reads: "Notwithstanding any other provision of law, no State or locality shall make any law prohibiting the use in commerce of an article that the Secretary of Agriculture has -- (1) inspected and passed; or (2) determined to be of non-regulated status."

The Center for Food Safety sent out an alert Thursday morning, moments before the hearing began, declaring that the amendment's purpose was to prevent local communities from banning the farming of genetically modified organisms that had already been deemed "safe" by the USDA. If true, the episode offers a good example of why every step of the ongoing Congressional deliberations over the Farm Bill needs to be scrutinized as if one were a pig farmer on the lookout for pseudorabies. Whether you're pro or con GMOs in the food supply, enacting a federal law that would disempower every town, city, county and state in the country from determining local standards for what can or cannot be farmed seems like a big deal.

Take California, for example. Four counties in California -- Santa Cruz, Marin, Mendocino, and Trinity -- have passed bans on the farming of GMOs. Another ten or so counties have either rejected proposed bans, or affirmatively declared protection of the right to farm GMOs. A state proposition that would have ended the ability of counties to individually set policy has failed to make it out of committee two years in a row. Clearly, the topic is a serious issue in California, where sentiment appears split along fairly predictable grounds: liberal counties with a high interest in organic agriculture are opposed to GMO farming (although Sonoma is a notable exception) and Central Valley counties dominated by industrial scale agribusinesses are pro.

Should local communities be able to set agricultural policy? That's a hard question. Drawing the correct line between local autonomy and federal control is one of the stickiest problems a democracy faces. It's especially tough when one feels a certain, shall we say, lack of confidence in how rigorous the USDA is in determining the safety, environmental impact, or economic consequences of the cultivation of new genetically modified organisms. Certainly, the decision by a San Francisco judge that the USDA had failed to conduct an adequate environmental impact assessment on genetically modified alfalfa lends support to those who feel that the federal government is not proceeding with the proper care.

But a county-by-country hopscotch approach to genetic modification also seems a bit screwy. Geneflow doesn't respect country borders -- if Sonoma says yes and Marin says no, that doesn't mean organic farmers in Marin are protected from Monsanto-itis spread from Sonoma. Some level of higher coordination seems essential.

Which provides all the more reason why the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry is probably not the ideal venue for determining national policy on the issue.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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