Opponents of genetically modified organisms are sounding the alarm statewide over a new California law they contend could derail local efforts to regulate or ban not just GMOs, but all plants, seeds or crops grown in the state.
The controversy has drawn in the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, who are divided over whether to seek immediate action, and put North Coast lawmakers on the defensive over why they voted for the bill.
That includes state Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, who has long sought to label products in California that contain GMOs. The senator last week expressed dismay over the notion she may have unwittingly supported legislation that is now anathema to GMO opponents.
“Nobody raised any concerns about this bill,” which made changes to the innocuous-sounding California Seed Law, Evans said.
While GMO activists fear the new law could undercut local governments’ ability to restrict GMOs, they say it also could affect local officials’ power to regulate any type of seed or plant, ranging from wine grapes to marijuana.
Whether the changes actually accomplish what critics fear — granting the secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture authority over all ordinances enacted by local jurisdictions pertaining to seeds and crops grown in the state — is now the focus of intense review, including by county and state lawyers.
The ongoing controversy centers on a single paragraph inserted late into an Assembly bill to reportedly deal with a narrow conflict — over a proposed invasive plant policy in the city of Encinitas, in San Diego County. But the final legislation, AB 2470, has had a much wider fallout, leading GMO opponents statewide to wonder how the bill managed to fly so far off the radar prior to Gov. Jerry Brown signing it Aug. 25.
Critics accuse the bill’s author, Assemblyman Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield, of quietly inserting the controversial language last summer at the behest of agricultural interests.
“This law was a sneak attack on local democracy. It takes away the right of local communities to regulate plants and seeds as they see fit, and hands that power over to state bureaucrats instead,” Bill Schaser, spokesman for a measure to ban GMOs in Humboldt County, wrote in a blog post. Voters in that county approved the ban, Measure P, in Tuesday’s election.
Salas did not return numerous messages left over several days last week with his office staff and on his personal cellphone seeking comment.
Karen Hudson, coordinator of the group Sonoma County Label GMOs, said she forwarded a copy of AB 2470 to supporters of Humboldt’s Measure P days prior to last week’s election after Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner Tony Linegar contacted her to inform her about the legislation. She said Linegar told her he first learned there might be an issue with the new law at a statewide conference of ag commissioners.
Linegar declined comment last week, writing in an email that he promised state agriculture officials he would hold off speaking with the media until the state Department of Food and Agriculture has completed its review of the new law.
Hudson and GMO opponents are pushing county supervisors in the meantime to enact an ordinance ahead of the law taking effect on Jan. 1, ostensibly to protect local control of crop and seed regulations. However, a majority on the board last week was not inclined to support such action, citing timing constraints and the need to involve stakeholders in the process.