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A Review of State & Local GMO Legislative Activity in 2016

December 21, 2016
As we count the days until Santa’s reindeer soar through the sky, let’s take a quick look back at the notable state and local GMO related activity that took place in 2016.

The Last of State GMO Labeling Bills?

At the outset of the year, many observers predicted that a number of Northeastern states would pass GMO labeling legislation in the coming months. In early February, however, the New Hampshire House of Representatives defeated such a measure by a 239-122 margin and that vote seemed to set the tone for the outcome of other state GMO labeling bills.  Indeed, over the next several months, bills requiring food containing GE ingredients to be labeled were defeated in New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and many other states.

In late July, President Obama signed into law bipartisan legislation establishing a national uniform GE food disclosure requirement and preempting states from adopting their own standards.  While the law clearly precludes states and local governments from legislating in this space, it would not be surprising to see legislators in some states continue to introduce GMO labeling bills in 2017.

All Politics is Local

In March, the Boulder County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) directed staff to develop a plan phasing out the cultivation of GE crops on county owned land.  On November 30, the BOCC approved a plan to phase out GE crops on county-owned agricultural land.

In November, voters in Sonoma County, CA approved a ballot initiative banning the growing of GE crops in the county.  Meanwhile, the residents of Monroe County, FL – the county encompassing all of the Florida Keys –voted 58 percent to 42 percent in favor ofreleasing GM mosquitoes aimed at reducing populations of Aedes aegypti, the mosquito species responsible for transmitting Zika virus and Dengue fever.  However, voters in Key Haven – the Key West community where a GM mosquito field trial was slated to be conducted – opposed the measure by a 65-35 margin.  While both ballot questions were non-binding, the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District Board in late November voted to conduct the field trial in a location other than Key Haven.

Additional anti-GMO activity is expected at the local level in 2017.

But Are All Local GMO Laws Legal?

In mid-November, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit struck down ordinances adopted by three Hawaii counties - Hawaii, Kauai and Maui – that sought to restrict the use of pesticides and ban or restrict the cultivation of GE crops, ruling that each of the local laws was preempted by state law or a combination of state and federal law.

Specifically, the judges found that Hawaii statutes create a comprehensive scheme that impliedly preempts counties from regulating GE crops that are deregulated (cleared for commercial cultivation, after extensive regulatory reviews) by USDA, and also from regulating pesticides.  The court also determined that the federal Plant Protection Act’s express preemption provision bars counties from regulating genetically engineered crops that are regulated by USDA.