Biotech Regulatory Update

Biotech Regulatory Update

If you plant corn, cotton, soybeans or sugarbeets, you most likely use seeds that have been improved through genetic engineering. Although paying tech fees is about as much fun as a trip to the dentist, most farmers recognize the economic, agronomic and environmental benefits provided by biotech traits. Farmers have choices when it comes to seeds, and most continue to purchase seeds with biotech traits.

Although the scientific community is in general agreement that commercially available biotech traits are safe for human consumption and the environment, the anti-GMO activist community remains vocal and still has the upper hand in the court of public opinion. Without any scientific findings to back their positions, these activists turn to speculation and fear-mongering to slow down progress in plant genetics. Unfortunately, their efforts have gained a toe-hold amongst some state and local lawmakers. 

Here is where some of the anti-biotech efforts stand at press time.

Cultivation bans: Throughout the years, a few scattered counties across the country have sought to implement cultivation bans on genetically engineered crops. Most of these bans were symbolic because they were in areas where biotech crops were not grown. However, some counties in Hawaii and Oregon have attracted attention with efforts to prohibit genetically engineered crops. The legal challenges to these bans have had conflicting results.

In Hawaii, three counties (Hawaii, Kaui and Maui) have recently enacted laws to ban the cultivation of biotech crops. Hawaii is very critical to the seed industry because much of the seed that is planted is actually grown in Hawaii due to its ability to produce multiple crops every year. All three of the county cultivation bans in Hawaii were overturned because they were in conflict with state law. 

Oregon is another story. Voters recently passed biotech cultivation bans in two counties, Jackson and Josephine. The Oregon legislature has passed state legislation pre-empting local cultivation bans, but it specifically exempted Jackson County. In a recent lawsuit by local farmers challenging the ban, a federal judge upheld the Jackson County ban, holding it did not conflict with federal law or Oregon’s Right to Farm Act.

GMO labeling: Anti-GMO activists have not succeeded in getting biotech traits banned by federal agencies. But they have turned to state-level labeling measures in an effort to stigmatize biotechnology.

Unless courts intervene, Vermont will become the first state to require GMO labeling on July 1, 2016. In 2014, the Vermont legislature voted to require labels on certain foods sold at retail establishments, such as grocery and convenience stores. 

Several food industry groups have challenged Vermont’s law. The federal court for the District of Vermont upheld the labeling law on First Amendment and Commerce Clause grounds. The decision is now being appealed to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.

To avoid the potential for a 50-state patchwork of labeling laws, Congress is currently considering a bill by Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) and Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) that would pre-empt state-level labeling measures. It has a good chance of passing the House, but it is uncertain whether the Senate will adopt it.

Hopefully, these anti-biotech efforts are not a precursor of more things to come. Anti-GMO activists’ efforts primarily serve to make the biotech trait approval process more expensive and might prevent several useful traits from reaching the marketplace. In the fight to feed a hungry planet, we should not take any solutions off of the table. 

This column is not a substitute for legal advice. 

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