A bill that recently passed both the House and Senate of the North Carolina General Assembly would preempt local government authorities from banning plants, seeds and plant parts in their jurisdictions. Some advocates of organic farming systems have suggested that the legislation will harm organic producers. They reason that with the legislation in place, organic farms will be more susceptible to the intrusion of genetically modified materials from other farms in the locale. They fear that local capacity to monitor and remedy such situations would be diminished or eliminated due to a policy environment controlled from Raleigh and RTP and managed by state government and technology companies.
That is all mostly irrelevant, as state agencies not local governments already have authority to monitor and eradicate invasive species, regulate seed and nursery stock, and protect human and animal health. The perception that technology companies are tilting the playing field in favor of their paying customers must be taken with a grain of salt. In fact the advocates for the organic production side of the industry are hardly immune from engaging in a game of “my gain is your loss” when it comes to the principle of “co-existence” with production agriculture. This game is likely to result in a balance of power situation where every new mainstream acre and every new mainstream product is perceived by advocacy groups to deteriorate the social and marketing position of the organic industry.
In fact it is much easier for a producer of GM crops to move into organic and specialty crop production than it is for a 100% organic producer to invest in commodity production. Perhaps that is the underlying source of tension. The balance is inherently in favor of the producer with more land, more capital and more efficiency.
Some would have us think that the simpler, the smaller, the purer, the better. Or else. This is obviously a false dichotomy. There is in fact a spectrum that accommodates even the most efficient & largest scale production systems. We see that policy matters in agriculture, technology matters, innovation matters, scale matters and markets (plural) matter. It also teaches us to be mindful of the spectrum of human values and to beware perspectives that only perceive grand forces of good and evil. It is highly suspect to attribute near-unlimited influence to any single firm in an industry, especially one in an industry as heavily regulated as agricultural plant technology.
What is the real take away of local government preemption legislation? Probably the biggest takeaway is the evidence of a much larger and more significant body of legislation to alter the balance between state government and local authority. The agricultural preemption bill is only a tiny outpost of all this and probably insignificant as the bill doesn’t actually change anything. For farmers, perhaps the real take away is to watch the three-cornered tug of war between rural governments, urban governments and state government over the allocation of resources and policy making authority. Agriculture needs to stay abreast of the changes that may be coming.