In the midst of September’s busy harvest, California farmers and gardeners received good news from the state capitol. Governor Jerry Brown signed two important amendments to the California Seed Law that critically support the practices of farmers who do not use genetically-engineered (GE) seed or the pesticides that go with them.
These new provisions faced strong corporate opposition. Governor Brown fought the muscle of GE seed and chemical corporations Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta and others (teamed together in the California Seed Association) to get this legislation to the finish line.
Seeds & democracy: AB 1810
Signed into law on September 9, the Seed Exchange Democracy Act, AB 1810, removes regulatory barriers — such as industrial labeling, testing and permitting requirements — for noncommercial seed sharing activities. The law supports small farmers and home gardeners who grow, breed and share seeds with their communities. Such efforts, sometimes organized into seed libraries like this one in California, can now move forward outside of regulations designed for larger, commercial operations.
California is the fourth state in the last two years to pass legislation protecting and promoting seed saving and sharing. The precedent for defending these community-based initiatives was set by Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Nebraska after the USDA and state Departments of Agriculture threatened to close regional seed libraries in 2014.
A press release from the Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC) highlights all of the organizations that supported the California law, including PAN and many of our partners, and underscores the collaborative efforts behind the legislative win. Here's SELC’s Food and Farm Attorney, Neil Thapar:
We share a common belief that a resilient food system starts with a resilient seed system based on locally adapted varieties that represent genetic diversity and a longstanding cultural heritage and tradition of seed saving and sharing.”
This state bill is part of a global movement to maintain a diversity of seeds and food crops, an effort often termed “seed sovereignty.” Seed sovereignty advocates hope to keep seeds within the public domain rather than having them controlled by large, profit-motivated agrichemical corporations.
Local power vs. corporate interest: AB 2470
Governor Brown’s repeal of harmful sections of AB 2470 was a defensive win that assures the right of local governments to protect farmers in their community.
The bill started as a simple authorization for California’s Secretary of Food and Agriculture to prohibit a group of noxious weeds from being grown in the state, promising benefit to the entire agricultural sector. But AB 2470 was then amended to include a provision prohibiting any city, county or district from regulating plants, crops or seeds. Most troublesome, the new provision specifically prohibited counties from adopting or enforcing laws banning or regulating GE crops without consent of the Secretary of Agriculture.
County GMO bans have been adopted in California and across the country to protect growers from the pesticide damage and genetic contamination associated with GE crops. A non-GMO county also protects its local farmers from potential lawsuits launched by agricultural corporations, often on the lookout to bankrupt any grower who has unintentionally sown — or been contaminated by — their patented product.
It’s no surprise that AB 2470’s sole supporter was the self-same California Seed Association that opposed the Seed Exchange Democracy Act described above.
Senator Mark Leno, chair of the budget committee, worked with other legislators and Governor Brown’s administration to repeal the harmful section of AB 2470. Governor Brown signed the repeal, Senate Bill 839, in September, once again making it legal to adopt or enforce an ordinance that regulates plants, crops or seeds — including GMOs — at the county level. For example, the current initiative to ban GMO crops in Sonoma is no longer under threat of being preempted by state law, and will be on the ballot in California in November.
PAN’s Sacramento-based Organizing Director Paul Towers notes that local governments often reflect a more direct democracy and stronger commitment to healthy food systems:
Monsanto and their lobbyists hoped to steal this control from residents. With Governor Brown and Senator Mark Leno's help, the recent policy fixes an error and rights a wrong, returning power back to Californians who deserve a voice in how their food is grown, and protections for the state's farmers.
Our congratulations to California for supporting seed production in the public domain and the right of local governments to take a stand against corporate agriculture. Seeds — and the policies that regulate them — are at the core of a farmer’s choice of how they want to farm.