A Dozen States Introduce Bills to Regulate GE Foods
More States Try To Weigh In On Genetically Modified Food

St. Louis Post-Dispatch
2000-04-02

* A flurry of bills has shown up in legislatures this year, taking stands on
everything from "Terminator" seed technology to labeling of gene-altered
foods. But the response has been swift from biotechnology companies like
Monsanto, who vigorously oppose such measures.

When Dan Morhaim introduced his bill in the Maryland Legislature this year
to ban "Terminator" seed technology, a group of biotechnology
representatives and lobbyists visited his Annapolis office.

Morhaim was surprised when a woman from Monsanto introduced herself, because
he knew that the St. Louis-based biotechnology leader had disavowed the
Terminator technology last fall.

"They said that there was no reason to do this bill and that it could give
biotech an undeserved black eye," Morhaim, a Democrat and a physician,
recalled of the meeting in early February.

Monsanto officials insist that they have not retreated from a promise in
October never to develop the Terminator, which renders seeds sterile to
force farmers to buy new seed each spring. Monsanto canceled plans to
acquire the company that co-owns the technology.

"A bill can change," said Monsanto spokesman Dan Verakis, explaining the
reason for the visit. "They went in and provided themselves as a source of
information and to answer questions on biotechnology."

Monsanto and its allies in the industry are paying more such visits in
response to a spate of bills related to genetic engineering introduced this
year in legislatures from coast to coast and as far away as Hawaii. None
have surfaced as yet in Missouri or Illinois.

More than two dozen bills related to biotechnology were filed in
legislatures this year in at least 13 states; last year just a few were
filed.

The flurry reflects a burgeoning debate over genetic engineering that has
moved from Europe to Washington and now is reaching into states. So far,
American consumers have expressed few of the concerns voiced in Europe about
the safety and the wisdom of genetically modified food. Even so, legislators
say they are beginning to hear from their constituents, so they are
responding with legislation.

Most of the proposals this spring come from critics of biotechnology and
focus on labeling products and giving the public more information. Some are
from supporters, too.

In the California state assembly, a pro-biotech bill aims at the vandals who
have been destroying fields of modified crops. It prescribes that anyone
caught must pay twice the value of what they destroyed. In Hawaii,
resolutions applaud the benefits from genetic engineering to that state's
papaya industry.

Until this year, few legislatures had entertained biotechnology proposals,
pro or con. That is one reason that most sponsors expect an outcome similar
to the fate of Morhaim's proposed Terminator ban in Maryland.

When it came up in front of the House Environmental Matters Committee last
month, the gathering of opponents was impressive. Monsanto didn't show that
day, but its main rival, Swiss-based Novartis, did. Among others: Delta and
Pine Land, the Mississippi company with a patent on the Terminator; the Farm
Bureau; and lobbyists for a high-tech consortium. "It drew quite a crowd,"
observed Morhaim after the bill was voted down. "When they're coming from so
far away and sending in high- powered f olks like they did, you have to
think you're on the right track."

Seeds of change

The bills suggest that farmers are worrying about more than the seeds'
capacity to sprout. In Iowa, a bill headed nowhere attacked companies'
practice of charging "technology fees" on top of the price of modified
seeds.

* In Mississippi, legislators want the state to be able to keep track of the
sale of gene-altered seeds.

* In Oklahoma, a bill is pending to study the challenge of segregating
modified crops from conventional hybrids and varieties.

* In Vermont, a proposal would require farmers to notify the town clerk if
they were planting modified seeds.

Nebraska Sen. Merton "Cap" Dierks encountered a potent lobby when he
introduced a related bill this spring. Unlike Morhaim, a relative newcomer
in Maryland, Dierks is the chairman of the Agriculture Committee in
Nebraska's unicameral legislature.

Dierks wanted to spur a debate on a genetic engineering matter that neither
the government nor companies cares to talk much about: liability. Dierks,
reflecting fears of some farmers in his state, worries about who will be
blamed if wind-blown pollen from genetically modified corn "contaminates"
the produce of organic growers or crops of neighboring farmers.

With two pieces of legislation this year, Dierks tried to make sure th at
seed companies and not farmers were liable if problems occur in Nebraska.

Rick Leonard, his assistant, described the industry's reaction when the bill
came up for a hearing in February. "Every man and his dog showed up to
testify. The response was overwhelming condemnation," he said. Dierks
decided not to call a vote.

Support for labeling

Michigan Rep. Laura Baird insists that she's not anti-technology and she's
mindful that Michigan State University, in her East Lansing- area district,
might soon win a federal designation as a regional research center for
biotechnology.

Nonetheless, Baird is among state legislators pushing to require labeling on
the packaging of food with genetically modified ingredients. Similar
legislation is pending in Congress.

"I think the technology needs to go forward. But as the parent of a child, I
think we need to know what's in our food," she said.

Baird, a Democrat, doesn't expect her bill even to get a hearing, let alone
pass. So she's looking to the federal government for help. "Frankly, this is
a subject that is too complicated for the average legislature to get its
arms around," she said. "It needs big thinkers."

In California, state Sen. Tom Hayden believes he's done the thinking needed
to prepare for a pivotal committee hearing next week on his labeling
legislation. Hayden, a Democrat from Santa Monica, has been known for
espousing liberal causes since his days with Students for a Democratic
Society in the 1960s.

One of Hayden's bills would require labeling on any modified whole food or
on processed food containing at least 1 percent modified ingredients.
Another approach, similar to a proposal that languished in West Virginia,
sets up a task force to determine whether schools should be serving food
with modified ingredients.

In New York, state Rep. John McEneny introduced a bill recently that goes
much further: It calls for a five-year freeze on planting genetically
modified crops. "I don't think it is a good idea to go willy-nilly planting
all these seeds without knowing what the results are going to be," he said.

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