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State ag official: New law does not impact GMOs

A spokesman for the state Department of Food and Agriculture said Friday that a new law that has sparked alarm across California among opponents of genetically modified organisms will not impact the ability of local jurisdictions to regulate GMOs.

“It is clear that the legislative intent does not extend to the issue of GMOs,” Steve Lyle said via email.

However, the eagerly anticipated interpretation of Assembly Bill 2470 failed to ease concerns for Sonoma County GMO opponents, who vowed Friday to continue pressing for a countywide ban prior to the law’s taking effect Jan. 1.

“What if somebody else comes along and interprets it (the law) another way?” said Karen Hudson, coordinator of the group Sonoma County Label GMOs.

The Sebastopol City Council on Tuesday is scheduled to debate a resolution calling on the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors to enact an ordinance banning GMOs. Similarly, Santa Rosa Mayor Scott Bartley sent a letter to the board calling on supervisors to protect local authority over plants, seeds and crops.

Bartley on Friday said Santa Rosa’s concern isn’t with GMOs, but with maintaining “local ?control.”

The controversy centers on a single paragraph inserted late into an Assembly bill to reportedly deal with a narrow conflict - a proposed invasive plant policy in the city of Encinitas, in San Diego County. The final legislation has had a much wider fallout, leading GMO opponents statewide to wonder how the bill managed to get so little attention prior to Gov. Jerry Brown’s signing it Aug. 25.

Critics accuse the bill’s author, Assemblyman Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield, of quietly inserting the controversial language this past summer at the behest of agricultural interests. Salas has not responded to repeated requests for comment.

Lyle, the spokesman for the state ag agency, said via email that “at no point does the language of the bill reference GMOs. In fact, the Senate floor analysis explicitly states that ‘the request for this preemption arose from a proposed policy for invasive plants drafted by the city of Encinitas.’?”

However, the scope of the new law could be much broader than GMOs under the state’s interpretation of the controversial bill language, in particular the provision 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.”

Lyle on Friday said state agricultural officials going forward will “review applicable ordinances on a case-by-case basis.” He said the state still is determining what that review entails. Many observers presume it to mean that the state will have veto power over any local ordinances pertaining to practically everything grown in the state.

“It is very broad language that could encompass all city and county ordinances,” Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner Tony Linegar said Friday.

Linegar did not express concerns about the state’s having that authority, which he said is sometimes necessary when dealing with issues of statewide importance. He cited as examples the measures needed to address plant diseases and pests, as well as the specific need cited in the legislation, which is to combat invasive plant species.

“It’s not particularly surprising to see a policy like this being implemented at the state level because that is consistent with the way other agricultural laws and regulations are implemented, such as plant quarantines,” Linegar said.

Asked for examples of local plant regulation, Linegar cited the county’s Vineyard Erosion and Sediment Control Ordinance, known as VESCO, which he said includes provisions on how and where vineyards can be planted. He said he doesn’t foresee the state weighing in on such ordinances under the new law.

“It’s certainly not something CDFA would want to review or provide consent for because there aren’t statewide implications,” Linegar said.

Activists have been lobbying the county Board of Supervisors to enact an ordinance banning GMOs prior to the law’s taking effect. But a majority on the board did not back Supervisor Susan Gorin’s effort on Nov. 4 to get the matter placed on the agenda of an upcoming meeting. Instead, the board directed county staff to come back to them with a legal analysis of AB 2470.

Gorin, who could not be reached for comment Friday, said in a previous interview that she has not made up her mind whether she supports a ban on GMOs. Her concern was with the county’s maintaining local control over agricultural ordinances.

County Counsel Bruce Goldstein said he’s hoping to have a memo prepared next week.

Sebastopol Mayor Robert Jacob on Friday urged county supervisors to support a GMO ban, which he called a “public health issue.”

The city’s proposed resolution seeks a ban on “any person, partnership, corporation, firm or entity of any kind to propagate, cultivate, raise, or grow genetically engineered organisms in the county.”

“At a minimum, the supervisors should put an interim ordinance in place to allow voters to decide whether or not we ban GMOs in Sonoma County,” Jacob said.

The current debate over genetically modified organisms centers on plants that have been 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 a measure that failed in Colorado last week. A similar measure in Oregon appears also to have failed, although supporters are hoping a count of remaining ballots will be enough to reverse the outcome. 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.

Anti-GMO activists claim there are two dairies in Sonoma County that use genetically modified corn. Linegar said he’d heard of one dairy that used such feed.

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

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