By Kristina Hubbard – Organic Seed Alliance, 16 February 2017
Senate Bill 155 is part of a national strategy to eliminate the authority of local government over one of our most valuable natural resources: seed. The bill restricts Montana farmers’ control over seed through a top-down corporate solution in search of a problem.
What does SB 155 do? The bill prohibits local government regulation of agricultural seed through sweeping preemption language that is taken from model text developed by the American Legislative Action Council (ALEC). The language specifically prohibits local government from exercising any power to regulate the cultivation, harvesting, production, processing, registration, labeling, marketing, sale, storage, transportation, distribution, possession, notification of use, use, and planting of agricultural seeds or vegetable seeds.
ALEC is an industry front group funded by some of the largest corporations in the world, including Monsanto and Bayer. These two firms enjoy monopoly power over segments of the seed and chemical markets, and may soon merge to sell nearly one-third of the world’s commercial seed and a quarter of all pesticides. ALEC has also led efforts across the West to privatize public lands, advocating for the transfer of federal and public lands to state and private interests.
Like many preemption bills, SB 155 is a response to initiatives in other states. In this case, SB 155 is a reaction to county initiatives in other states that ban genetically engineered (GE) crops, namely Oregon. The bill should be viewed for what it is: an abuse of power in the quiet form of establishing mechanisms that prevent conflict and debate from arising in the first place. It’s this fundamental restructuring of power that Montanans should be worried about – not hypothetical restrictions on GE crops.
Quelling the fears of out-of-state interests is not worth forfeiting our local democracy. The proponents of this bill should be brave enough to name the real issue at hand and engage the public in honest debate if they have genuine concerns based on fact. Better yet, let’s focus our energy on our shared interest in growing the diversity of seed available to Montana’s farmers. Let’s create a regional seed system that is truly independent of shareholder interests and responsive to the ever-changing needs of all growers – regardless of their scale or location or crop of choice. And if conflict arises on GE crops or other seed issues, we know Montanans will roll up their sleeves and establish sound and fair seed policy when there’s an actual problem to solve. They at least deserve the chance.
The Senate Agriculture Committee held a hearing on SB 155 on February 9th and took executive action on Tuesday, February 15th. It passed and is now headed to the Senate floor.
Why is SB 155 terrible public policy? There are good reasons and a long history for local regulations on seed based on the fact that seed biology and climatic conditions for seed production vary dramatically by crop and region. Montana is a good example of a state that has diverse agricultural landscapes throughout the state. The risks and impacts on seed production associated with disease control, weed management, and cross-pollination are therefore very different across counties. A recent example is the quarantine on untreated Brassica seed in the Willamette Valley, where the quarantine was in response to an economically devastating seed borne disease called Black Leg. In short, agricultural communities hold long histories of self-imposed regulations by geographical region that statewide legislators and voters may be unaware of; meaning, we can’t put our lucrative agricultural markets at risk by removing the local regulation of seed when it’s necessary – especially in emergency situations.
The language in the bill is so broad that the unintended consequences could be severe. There hasn’t been an analysis of how this bill may affect local regulations already on the books. Local governments have a role in matters that impact local agriculture and natural resources in their areas. SB 155 eliminates a local government’s ability to address local needs for agriculture and natural resource management related to seed.
As we face some of the most historic seed industry mergers in history, it’s imprudent to dismantle the infrastructure and systems that allow for decentralized decision-making and power. Those who support self-governance and home rule should rally against this usurpation of local power for corporate gain.
What are proponents saying? Proponents say that SB 155 is necessary to ensure consistency in seed regulations. Fortunately the state’s seed law already provides clear requirements, and according to testimonies at last week’s Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on this bill, the current law works well and there are no inconsistencies or problems. In other words, this is a solution in search of a problem. There is no state precedent or relevant example that serves as evidence that this bill is needed.
Proponents compare this language to similar text created for prohibiting local regulations on fertilizer. But seed should not be treated like fertilizer. Seed is a living, natural resource fundamental to all forms of agricultural production, and should not be equated to – or regulated the same way as – chemical fertilizers.
Questions? Contact: Kiki Hubbard Director of Advocacy & Communications Organic Seed Alliance (406) 544-8946 firstname.lastname@example.org