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Los Angeles Wants to Ban GM Crops

At best it's a symbolic action.
Photo: Quinn Dombrowski/Flickr

Los Angeles may again dive head first into the highly contentious and potentially litigious fight over genetically modified food production and labeling. Last Friday, two city council members proposed a motion that would ban the cultivation and sale of GMOs within Los Angeles city limits. The proposed motion would be the fourth time the LA City Council has voted to regulate or prohibit GMOs.

The motion, introduced by Paul Koretz and Mitch O’Farrell, instructs the City Attorney,


To prepare and present an ordinance which would prohibit the growth of genetically modified crops within City limits. Specifically, the ordinance should prohibit each [of] the following practices related to the growing of GM crops with City limits: the planting of GM seeds; the sale of GM seeds by vendors; the sale of any seeds that could potentially be contaminated by other genetically modified organisms; the sale of GM fruit trees and plants.

Last year, following a well-funded opposition campaign backed by the biotech industry and retailers, California’s proposed statewide GMO labeling ballot measure, Prop 37, was defeated. In Los Angeles County, however, the measure was supported by 52 percent of the population. But this latest action isn't a revival of Prop 37, and would be nearly entirely symbolic.

Assuming that the likes of Monsanto would not sue or threaten to sue to prevent such an ordinance coming into force—which runs against the precedent set in efforts to label GM ingredients in Connecticut and Vermont—without at least state-level action each of the proposed points is moot.

Corn, cotton, soybeans, sugar beets, and rapeseed make up the bulk of genetically modified crops currently planted. LA isn’t exactly known for cultivating any of these at any scale. Any companies currently selling GM seeds could simply locate outside LA city limits, continuing business as usual. There have been efforts to modify tomatoes, which California grows a lot of, but those largely died out in the 90s. So if LA does ban the growing of GM crops, what will actually change?

The ordinance could be written so that it would come into force only after similar actions are taken by neighboring areas or after some state-level action is taken. Several of the bills passed recently legalizing industrial hemp cultivation have included similar language, wherein the bill would come into effect only after federal action. There’s some wisdom in preparing the ground, as it were, for implementation once wider action is taken, and there can be value in symbolic action. But I can’t help but think that the wording of all this is sloppy and somewhat reactionary.

Concerns over GM crops, whether from the perspective of human health, corporate control of agriculture, or biodiversity, are fair to have. While it hasn’t been conclusively proven that GM crops do cause harm, there's also been evidence that transgenic crops can hybridize with wild plant species, and long-term studies are lacking. Plus, the GM debate has also absorbed concerns about industrial farming and monoculture crops, which adds another layer of complexity to the issue.

But one city banning GMOs, even if it would be the largest GMO-free area in the US, isn’t going to keep GM crops from growing.. If the motion does become an ordinance, Los Angeles would join San Juan County, Washington; Mendocino and Marin counties in California; and the city of Arcata, California in banning the cultivation of GM crops.

Assuming surveys finding that a majority of consumers would shun GM ingredients if they were labeled as such are correct, a ban may be unnecessary anyway. Of course, the US and Canada stand alone among wealthy nations in not mandating the labeling of GM ingredients, which industrial agriculture interests have fought hard to keep.