Seeds of Dissent

Is the debate over genetically modified crops being nipped in the bud at the state capitol?

Things tend to get a little frenzied when the state Legislature is in session, but the procession scheduled to arrive at the capitol March 1 ought to turn even the most jaded head. A little before 3:00 p.m., a parade of Catholic bishops and assorted clergy is slated to file out of the St. Paul Cathedral, clamber into a waiting hay wagon, and make its way up Constitution Avenue. In addition to the collared masses, organizers expect up to 500 environmental activists to join the rally, ensuring what should be an unusual mix of vestments and flannels.

At issue for many of those participating will be Minnesota agriculture's continued reliance on "genetically modified" (GM) crops--patented corn and soybean hybrids that have been engineered to resist pests and certain herbicides. (Though no state-specific figures are available, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that one-third of the nation's corn acreage and more than half of all soybean fields are planted with genetically modified strains.)

"Our basic position," explains Debbie Ortman, a Duluth-based field organizer for the national Organic Consumers Association, "is that we need a moratorium on this technology until adequate testing proves that it's safe for human consumption and for the environment."

The debate over genetically modified crops, long a hot-button issue among environmentalists, has recently become a source of worry to many Midwestern farmers as well. Because European markets are largely closed to American exports of GM commodities, some evince concern that the price of corn and soybeans--already at a historic low--could be further depressed. In addition, a number of domestic food processors, including Frito-Lay and Gerber, have recently announced their intention not to use genetically modified crops, and the national grocery chain Whole Foods has vowed to try to keep GM products off its shelves.

Although grain merchants--including Minnetonka-based Cargill Inc.--have assured farmers that the market will absorb their GM crops, a January 13 Reuters straw poll taken at the American Farm Bureau Federation's annual meeting found growers concerned both about European resistance and "demands by U.S. environmental and consumer groups for special labels on foods made from the crops."

Back in St. Paul, the state House of Representatives is considering legislation that could profoundly affect the future of genetically modified crops in Minnesota. The most sweeping bill proposes a five-year moratorium on permits for new genetically altered seeds beginning in April of 2001. "If the Legislature had had this discussion five or six years ago," explains the bill's chief author, Rep. Margaret Anderson Kelliher (DFL-Minneapolis), "farmers would be better off economically. In a lot of cases, they were convinced to buy into the technology and now find themselves not being able to sell their crops."

Though Kelliher concedes that the moratorium has a slim chance of passage, she sees a committee hearing as a "jump-start" for debate. "I believe it's doubtful that this is going to get through," she says. "The main goal is just to bring this issue forward and get a discussion moving."

Kelliher and 15 other legislators have also signed on to a bill authored by another Minneapolis DFLer, Rep. Phyllis Kahn. Under that measure, companies producing GM seed would be held liable for losses incurred because of "genetic drift"--unintentional cross-pollination between fields planted with GM crops and their non-GM neighbors. The purpose, explains Kahn, is to ensure that organic growers will not suffer financially when their crops are "contaminated" with genetically altered material. Right now, she continues, growers' only recourse would be to sue their neighbors.

Kahn's bill would also mandate a system of "negative labeling," allowing farmers to certify their crop GM-free. The Minnesota Farmers Union last week endorsed the concept in its Legislative Update newsletter.

Nevertheless, says Kahn, both her bill and Kelliher's could be squelched in the House Agriculture Policy Committee. "The Republican House [majority] is excited about not upsetting big business," she charges. "They don't want it. The chair won't give it a hearing. I think their feeling is, 'The bill's not going to pass--why waste time on it?'"

Supporters of the measures also say their proposals must contend with powerful lobbying forces: The prominent contract lobbying firm of Spano-Janecek, for example, has been retained by St. Louis-based Monsanto, one of the world's biggest biotech companies and a strenuous opponent of GM labeling. "The chemical companies have a very strong presence here," notes Kelliher. "They have well-placed people who will try to shut this down." (Janecek, also a coeditor of the newsletter Politics in Minnesota, confirms that the firm is under contract to Monsanto, but she declines to comment further.)

State Rep. Tim Finseth, the northwest Minnesota Republican who chairs the ag policy committee, did not return City Pages' phone calls requesting comment for this story. But the committee's legislative administrator, Brad Biers, explains that Finseth and his colleagues "would not be naturally inclined to support this issue, because of how drastically it would affect the state's agricultural economy."

Rep. Robert Ness, a fellow rural Republican and chair of the Agricultural and Rural Development Finance Committee, shares the sentiment: "I would encourage those people to take a look at the Gurney's seed catalog. Those are all genetically modified products you're planting in your garden." A GM seed moratorium, Ness charges, would "change the whole landscape of agriculture in Minnesota."

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