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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.

The county’s reaction has frustrated anti-GMO activists.

“Sometimes, precedent needs to be put aside,” Hudson said.

Humans have been altering the foods they consume for millennia. The current debate centers on genetically modified plants that are engineered to resist insecticides and herbicides, add nutritional benefits or improve crop yields and increase the global food supply. Most corn, soybean and cotton crops grown in the United States today have been genetically modified.

Efforts by activists to ban such products or require labeling of food containing GMO ingredients have been shot down repeatedly by voters, including measures that failed in Oregon and Colorado last week. A statewide measure in California failed in 2012 and in 2005 Sonoma County voters rejected a ballot measure that would have banned certain GMO products for 10 years, ostensibly to allow more time for testing.

Hudson claims there are two dairies in Sonoma County that use genetically modified corn.

“What is going to stop other farms and dairies from growing genetically engineered corn?” she wrote in an email.

The federal government, many scientists and food producers say the technology is safe.

The new flashpoint sparked by the California Seed Law stems from a paragraph that Salas introduced as an amendment to his bill in the Senate on June 11, after lawmakers in the Assembly voted unanimously to approve it. The paragraph states simply that “a city, county, or district, including a charter city or county, shall not adopt or enforce an ordinance that regulates plants, crops, or seeds without the consent of the secretary. An ordinance enacted before January 1, 2015, shall be considered part of the comprehensive program of the department and shall be enforceable.”

Anne Megaro, an analyst for the Senate’s Agriculture Committee, wrote that the request for preemption arose from an invasive plant policy under consideration in the city of Encinitas. She wrote that the argument in opposition to the city’s proposed action was grounded in the assertion that the state has an existing model to assist horticulturists in phasing out invasive plants. News reports at the time cited concerns raised by nursery operators who would have been unable to sell plants prohibited by the city.

Megaro also noted that opponents of the Encinitas move argued that the secretary of the state Department of Food and Agriculture — currently it is Karen Ross — has the expertise and authority to regulate what plants are grown in California, and that the bill “would strengthen the secretary’s authority while maintaining local authority for existing ordinances.”

There was no mention of a possibly broader interpretation of the wording, including one that would include genetically modified seeds and plants. Megaro declined to speak for the record last week.

City officials in Encinitas did not return messages seeking comment last week. The city’s website states that its invasive- plant policy was adopted.

What Salas accomplished with his bill had been attempted previously in 2006, when Dean Florez, then a Central Valley senator, authored a bill seeking to classify nursery stock and seed as a “statewide concern” to the “exclusion of all local regulations.”

Supporters of that bill claimed it would protect growers and consumers by bringing uniform regulation of seeds and crops throughout the state. Critics, however, saw it as a blatant attempt to usurp local authority and to override GMO regulations enacted at that time in four California communities. SB 1056 died in committee.

Evans voted against that bill, according to the legislative record. Wes Chesbro, then a state senator representing the North Coast, supported it.

The California Association of Nurseries and Garden Centers and the California Seed Association backed the 2006 bill and were the main supporters of AB 2470 this year. Representatives for both organizations did not return messages last week seeking comment.

Charla Lord, a representative for Monsanto, said she was not aware of the bill. The Press Democrat provided her with a legislative summary of the bill and links to news stories about the issue and requested a response within 24 hours. Lord responded by saying this was the first she had heard of the legislation and had no information about the measure. She had no further comment.

Monsanto, the world’s leading developer of agricultural biotechnology based in St. Louis, donated $4,300 to Salas’ re-election campaign this year. The Seed Association donated $1,500, according to campaign finance records.

The Senate Ag Committee on June 17 unanimously approved AB 2470 with Salas’ amendment to the bill. The approval included a “yes” vote by Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, whose Senate district includes parts of Sonoma and Napa counties. She did not respond to a message last week seeking comment.

A spokesman for Gov. Brown referred questions to state agriculture officials.

Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada, whose district includes parts of Sonoma County, supported Salas’ bill in committee before it was amended, and she also voted for it when the bill returned to the Assembly floor for what is known as a concurrence vote Aug. 11. Her press aide on Friday said the assemblywoman couldn’t speak with a reporter because her schedule was “packed.”

Chesbro, who is wrapping up his career in Sacramento as a member of the Assembly, voted against AB 2470 on Aug. 11 after the Arcata Democrat originally supported the bill. Only one other lawmaker, Al Muratsuchi, D- Torrance, opposed the bill.

Chesbro declined numerous requests for an interview last week through his staff. But in a written statement, he said that he changed his vote because of the amendment to the bill, which he said prohibits local jurisdictions from regulating seeds and plants.

“I opposed and voted against this new version of the bill because I support Mendocino, Trinity and Humboldt counties’ ability to continue their GMO ban and preserve other local governments’ ability to regulate these issues if they choose,” Chesbro said.

However, Chesbro apparently did not share his newfound concerns with his North Coast colleagues. As late as last week, Evans was under the mistaken impression that Chesbro had voted for the bill. She said she believed she was voting to give Encinitas the tools to regulate invasive plant species in that city and nothing more.

“When we debated this bill, GMOs were not an issue,” she said.

Lobbyists for organizations that are opposed to GMOs said they did not pick up on the bill until after it was signed into law.

“Did we drop the ball? In one sense you could say we did,” said Bill Allayaud with the Californians for GE Food Labeling Coalition. “We didn’t know, tucked away in a bill about seeds, was something that could preempt local control.”

Mike Greene, director of legislative affairs for the California State Grange, which worked with Evans this year on the senator’s failed attempt to get a GMO labeling bill into law, said AB 2470 “did not come up on our radar at all.”

At the urging of anti-GMO advocates, Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin brought the issue before the board at last Tuesday’s meeting, saying the bill “concerns me greatly.” But her suggestion to place the issue on the agenda of a board meeting prior to the law taking effect in January, possibly so that the board could consider a “placeholder” ordinance preserving local control, did not gain traction.

Supervisor David Rabbitt, the board’s chairman, expressed concerns that doing so would not allow enough time for interested parties to weigh in on the issue. He said he found it “ironic” that anti-GMO advocates wanted the board to act quickly on an ordinance, while he said at the same time they were expressing concerns about the manner and speed in which Sacramento lawmakers went about passing the state bill in question.

“I think there’s a knee-jerk reaction out there, personally, on this,” he said.

Supervisor Shirlee Zane was the only other member of the board to voice support for making the issue a future agenda item. In the end, the only direction to staff was for an analysis of the bill to be brought back to the board.

The state Department of Food and Agriculture also is reviewing the bill and could complete its analysis this week, according to Supervisor Mike McGuire. In an interview, McGuire, who was elected to the state Senate last Tuesday, said he would be “shocked” if the interpretation is that local control has been upended by the bill.

“I cannot imagine that the state Senate would vote unanimously to preclude local control on an issue as important as this,” he said.

Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, who voted for AB 2470, said last week that the new law “does not prohibit local ordinances from being adopted, and it shouldn’t.”

But if that’s the interpretation, Levine said lawmakers “will have to revisit the issue in 2015.”

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to more precisely describe Monsanto’s response to a request for comment.

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