These activists, however, would be wise to remember the wisdom of Winston Churchill: “Political ability is the ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month, and next year. And then to have the ability afterward to explain why it didn’t happen.”
That’s because the anti-biotech backlash they’ve been working and hoping for simply hasn’t materialized in the United States. In fact, it has fizzled. Aside from a few exceedingly minor successes in places such as Santa Cruz County, where farming is not a major economic presence, it has been a dud.
The friends of biotechnology certainly cannot afford to be complacent. The anti-biotech crowd is passionate and committed–its complete immunity to the facts of science, the needs of growers, and the interests of consumers means that it will stop at nothing to halt progress. And it has enjoyed distressing levels of success in Europe.
At the same time, it’s obvious that we’re making it clear why access to new technology is so important to agriculture in one of the most critical political venues in the nation: the 50 state capitols.
A new report by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology makes this plain. Last year, state lawmakers introduced 117 pieces of proposed legislation related to agricultural biotechnology, in 33 states plus the District of Columbia. Some were pro-biotech, some were anti-biotech, and, as is typical in any legislative body, only a few of them actually became laws.
Among those that succeeded, however, a number of states now prevent localities from outlawing GM crops–in other words, pro-biotech, doing the exact opposite of what the supervisors in Santa Cruz just did. Eight states passed these ‘preemption’ laws: Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and West Virginia.
“Bills preempting (disallowing) local regulations regarding the advertising, labeling, distribution, sale, transportation, storage, or use of GM crops or seeds were the most notable legislative trend of 2005,” says the Pew study.
Another popular category of proposed legislation sought to do on the state level what Santa Cruz did on the county level: ban genetically-enhanced crops entirely. To me, that’s the ultimate type of preemption because it denies individual farmers the freedom of choice to make their own legal management decisions about what they plant, grow, harvest and market on their farms.
Whatever you call them, these bills flopped. They weren’t formally rejected–bills that are bound to fail generally aren’t even voted on–but they were ignored, which is its own kind of legislative death. In Arkansas and Minnesota, there were efforts to ban GM wild rice. In Massachusetts, there was an attempt to outlaw pharmaceutical crops. In Oregon, there was a bill to ban biotech plants. In total, 14 similar bills saw the light of day followed by the darkness of inaction.
Hawaii accounted for more proposed legislation than any other state. Lawmakers in Honolulu introduced 33 bills. New York was second, with 12 bills originating in Albany.
The large number of bills in Hawaii reflects the importance of that state for agricultural biotechnology. Its climate makes it well suited for field tests, because plants grow quickly there and scientists can analyze the results of their research in short order. Anti-biotech activists know this, so they’ve concentrated on passing restrictions in Hawaii. They haven’t made much progress, but Hawaii remains on the front lines of the political war over biotechnology.
The opponents of biotechnology scored only one substantial victory on the state level in 2005: A new law in Alaska that calls for special labels on packages of genetically modified fish. There is no scientific reason for this requirement; it is simply meant to alarm buyers. Given that their other efforts largely have failed, I’m guessing that we’ll see more attempts to label GM fish.
But whatever they do, I’m reminded of an old joke: There’s a fine line between fishing and standing on the bank of a river and looking like a fool.
We do not want to appear to be fools by rejecting one of the most promising technologies in history to come onto the agriculture scene. We want to be sure that nationwide, state level anti-biotech legislation efforts keep getting skunked!
Terry Wanzek grows corn, soybeans, and wheat on his family farm in North Dakota. A former ND state legislator, Mr. Wanzek serves as a board member of Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org)