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Oregon’s GMO Sellout

By: Rebekah Wilce Thursday May 22, 2014 10:30 am

- by Rebekah Wilce, originally published in the June 2014 issue of The Progressive magazine.

Gov. John Kitzhaber signed into law a corporate-backed bill overriding local counties’ ability to regulate their own food systems.

Even though the state of Oregon enacted a law to override the ability of localities to regulate their own food systems, local ballot measures to ban GMO crops passed overwhelmingly in Jackson and Josephine Counties on May 20, according to news reports. “We fought the most powerful and influential chemical companies in the world and we won,” Elise Higley, a local farmer with the anti-GMO group Our Family Farms Coalition, told The Oregonian. The Progressive magazine tells the backstory below and reveals that the preemption measure shares language with an ALEC model bill.

When the headline said that Oregon’s Democratic governor, John Kitzhaber, had signed into law a corporate-backed bill overriding local counties’ ability to regulate their own food systems, Lisa Arkin was shocked.

“I can viscerally remember the day I looked at the headline,” she says. “It was such a deep feeling of disgust and disbelief. I couldn’t believe that any amount of money from outside corporations could convince our elected leaders in Oregon to abandon the democratic process in that way.”

Arkin is the executive director of a small nonprofit organization called Beyond Toxics that works to protect human health and the environment in Oregon by reducing the use of toxic herbicides and pesticides on farms, in forests, and along roadsides.

Arkin’s group sees every day the effects of herbicides like Monsanto’s Roundup® glyphosate. Most genetically modified crops (GMOs) in the United States are engineered to withstand especially heavy application of this herbicide.

In a special session called for late September and early October 2013 to address Oregon’s Public Employees Retirement System and education funding, legislators jammed through a bill that preempts Oregon counties from regulating their own agriculture and seeds.

The law, which Arkin and other critics call the “Monsanto Protection Act,” is eerily similar to a piece of “model” legislation from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). The new law and ALEC’s bill, entitled “Preemption of Local Agricultural Laws Act,” both contain this crucial passage: “A local government may not enact or enforce a . . . measure, including but not limited to an ordinance, regulation, control area or quarantine, to inhibit or prevent the production or use of agricultural seed, flower seed . . . or vegetable seed or products of agricultural seed, flower seed . . . or vegetable seed.”

The effort to block local democratic control of food issues in Oregon began after family farmers and sustainable food advocates in Jackson County gathered enough signatures in January 2013 to put a local GMO ban on the ballot in the spring of 2014.

“Our main goal is to protect family farmers and keep local family farmers sustainable in the Rogue Valley,” says Elise Higley, a Jackson County farmer and director of Our Family Farms Coalition. “Having the counties decide on our own is imperative because in every county the layout of the land is so different.”

“All of a sudden, there was tremendous activity in Salem,” says Oregon state Representative Peter Buckley (D-Ashland). Lobbying groups for agricultural interests, he added, “became very active. They immediately put a statewide preemption bill onto the legislative agenda.”

The “Monsanto Protection Act” was first introduced in February 2013 by state Senator Bill Hansell (R-Athena), along with a bipartisan group of legislators: state Senators Jeff Kruse (R-Roseburg), Arnie Roblan (D-Coos Bay), Herman Baertschiger (R-Grants Pass), and Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose). Johnson later voted against the bill after protest from her constituents, saying she had “rarely heard from as many constituents as we did on this issue.”

John DiLorenzo is a lobbyist for the pesticide and GMO industry trade group Oregonians for Food and Shelter, which has ties to global giants like Monsanto and Syngenta. He reportedly took credit for having drafted the bill. He testified in support of it before the Senate Committee on Rural Communities and Economic Development in March 2013, recommending it as an extension of another ALEC bill: the “Right to Farm Act,” adopted in Oregon as the “Right to Farm and Forest Act.” The bill passed the Senate in May 2013, but stalled in the House before the end of the session in July.

Family farmers, consumers, and environmentalists thought they had put this one behind them. “There was this sense of victory when the bill ultimately died in the regular session,” says Ivan Maluski of Friends of Family Farmers, a local advocacy group that spearheaded opposition to the bill. “It was a big surprise when it came up out of the blue as part of a negotiated package of five bills in the special session in early October.”

At the time of ALEC’s fortieth Anniversary Annual Meeting in Chicago in August 2013, Oregon state Representative Sal Esquivel (R-Medford) and Jeff Case, senior director of government affairs at CropLife America, a national pesticide and GMO industry trade group, were the co-chairs of the Agriculture Subcommittee of ALEC’s Energy, Environment and Agriculture Task Force. Case said he “couldn’t remember” who sponsored it, but it was “probably” one of the Oregon legislators.

The “Preemption of Local Agricultural Laws Act” became an official ALEC “model” bill to be taken to other states.

Meanwhile, in Oregon, state politicians were gearing up for a special session called by Governor Kitzhaber in order to come to a “grand bargain” on state pensions and education funding.

But a week before the official start of the session, Republican legislators seized on it as a way to do Monsanto a favor. Governor Kitzhaber acknowledged to The Oregonian that the GMO preemption bill had “nothing to do with the purposes for which I originally called the session” and that there was no “rational reason for it to be in” the bill package. But he added: “Apparently, the Republicans needed it to get enough votes.” He said he supported it because “it was the reality of the negotiating process.”

Ivan Maluski of Friends of Family Farmers told The Oregonian that “the bill takes away the rights of local communities to set local food and agriculture policies. . . . This bill obviously came up as part of a backroom deal to move the larger package forward. That sort of political trading really isn’t the Oregon way. The governor and legislative leaders should be embarrassed.”

State Representative Buckley was surprised by the amount of lobbying on this. There were “remarkable displays of special interest power,” he says. “These guys came into the legislative process in a way that is rarely equaled in the state of Oregon. We are a small state. There was a lot of money put in, a lot of lobbying effort, far above what is regular procedure in our state, and they were able to force the issue to the top of the agenda for our state.”

Oregonians for Food and Shelter spent more than $200,000 lobbying the Oregon state legislature in 2013, and the Oregon Farm Bureau Federation spent well over $150,000, according to the Oregon Government Ethics Commission.

Governor Kitzhaber signed the preemption bill into law on October 8, 2013, and because the bill also declared an “emergency,” the law went into effect immediately.

In last-minute negotiations, Buckley was able to insert an exemption into the bill for his district, Jackson County, so that its ballot initiative to ban the growth of GMOs in the region remains on the ballot later this spring. All six of the world’s biggest pesticide and GMO companies—BASF, Bayer, Dow, DuPont, Monsanto, and Syngenta—donated $455,000 to the effort to overturn the ballot initiative. Buckley said it was “more than eight times more” than any other county ballot measure has ever received.

“As more money is flooding in from out-of-state,” says Higley of Our Family Farms Coalition, “residents of the county are getting really activated to educate themselves, and getting so frustrated that they’re actually getting more involved in the campaign.”

Josephine County will also vote on a similar measure this spring, in defiance of the preemption law. But in general, counties’ efforts to exercise their rights to create or maintain a viable food system appropriate for their own region were preempted by the special interests behind this state law.

Oregon is a “home rule” state: A 1958 amendment to the state constitution allows counties to adopt charters and a 1973 state law granted the same authority to non-chartered as well as chartered counties. The national Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations says that Oregon county governments have the highest degree of local discretionary authority of any state in the nation, according to the Oregon Secretary of State.

Opponents of preemption like Ivan Maluski of Friends of Family Farmers saw the “Monsanto Protection Act” as a removal of local democratic decision-making that is guaranteed by the state constitution.

In response, Lane and Benton Counties are working to pass “community rights” ordinances instead of straight GMO bans.

Both Lane and Benton Counties are in the Willamette Valley, an area of deep and fertile agricultural soil surrounded by tall mountain ranges to the east, west, and south. Its richness and geographic isolation make it an ideal area for growing organic and heirloom seed varieties for use by family farms and gardens across the country.

But the area also grows the vast majority of the sugar beet seed for the country, and as of 2010, 95 percent of sugar beets grown in the United States are GMOs engineered to be resistant to heavy applications of Monsanto’s Roundup® glyphosate. Beets can cross with other beets as well as Swiss chard, interfering with the specialty seed farms.

So in Benton County, as in Lane County, local citizens have filed an initiative that “establishes certain rights to a local food system while banning GMO agriculture,” according to attorney Ann Kneeland, who is working with both counties to get their ordinances on the ballot. The initiative, she says, would “prevent corporations from eviscerating local law-making.” Their commercial rights should not trump “the community’s right to protect residents’ health, safety, and welfare,” she says.

As Kai Huschke, a local organizer for the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, notes, “We don’t really have a food issue problem as much as we have a democracy problem.”

 

Hundreds of Thousands of Dollars Distributed to Right Wing State Think Tanks without Disclosure

By: Rebekah Wilce Thursday April 4, 2013 8:00 am

New Resource Details “Think Tanks” Tanking Americans’ Rights

State Policy NetworkMADISON, WI — The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), the publisher of the award-winning ALECexposed.org investigation, is releasing a new web resource for reporters and citizens about the activities of Tracie Sharp’s State Policy Network (SPN) and its state “think tank” members. Although the funding of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is approximately $7 million a year, funding for SPN, its 59 state operations and the controversial Heartland Institute (a SPN ally like ALEC that tries to change both state and federal law) has topped $80 million in recent years. And these SPN operations often function like an echo chamber of the corporate-funded ALEC agenda.

WTO Un-COOL: Rules Against Popular U.S. Meat Labeling Law

By: Rebekah Wilce Friday June 29, 2012 2:05 pm

This article was originally published by the Center for Media and Democracy at PRWatch.org.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) issued a final ruling today against the U.S. country-of-origin labeling (COOL) law. This popular pro-consumer policy, which informs shoppers where meat and other foods were raised or grown, enjoys the support of 93% of Americans, according to a 2010 Consumers Union poll. Now Congress must gut or change the law to avoid the application of punitive trade sanctions.

WTO vs. Consumers

Country-of-Origin LabelThe original meat labeling law passed as part of the 2002 farm bill and was expanded in the 2008 farm bill to apply to other foods like fresh fruits, nuts, and vegetables. Canada, Mexico, and several other countries filed a complaint regarding the policy with the WTO in December 2008 calling the popular consumer measure a “disguised” barrier to trade. The organization initially ruled in their favor in November 2011, but the U.S. filed an appeal in March 2012. Today, a WTO tribunal made up of three trade officials ruled that the U.S. law is a violation of the WTO binding “Technical Barrier to Trade” agreement. The ruling is final. If the United States does not gut or change the law, the WTO can apply punitive sanctions, usually in the form of tariffs on U.S. products. The ruling also casts into doubt the WTO legality of other popular labeling laws.

Last week, the Obama administration invited Canada and Mexico to join the latest trade pact under negotiation, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), without an agreement to drop their attack on the popular U.S. consumer labeling. Lori Wallach, director of Global Trade Watch at the consumer watchdog group Public Citizen, commented: “The American public is desperately waiting for President Barack Obama to show some negotiating savvy, and to start fulfilling his campaign pledges and reconsider the so-called ‘trade’ model that his administration is pushing with the TPP.”

WTO Protest BannerThe ruling is the WTO’s third this year against U.S. consumer protection laws. In May, it ruled against U.S. dolphin-safe tuna labels, again, in a case that has been dragging on for over a decade. In April, it ruled against a U.S. ban on clove, candy, and cola-flavored cigarettes. “These three rulings — with the WTO slapping down safe hamburgers, Flipper and children’s smoking prevention policy — make it increasingly clear to the public that the WTO is leading a race to the bottom in consumer protection,” said Todd Tucker, research director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch.

ALEC Supports Foreign Trade Tribunals Operating Outside the Constraints of U.S. Law

The TPP is one of many free trade agreements pushed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the right-wing corporate bill mill, which approved a resolution supporting the TPP in 2010. ALEC has supported every free trade agreement for decades, including Most Favored Nation Trading Status for China. This free trade agenda has not only weakened U.S. consumer protection but cost the country millions of jobs as factories closed and moved overseas in search of cheaper labor. These agreements also allow public health, environmental, and worker safety rules to be challenged as “barriers to trade” in trade tribunals that operate outside the constraints of U.S. law and outside of the democratic process.


About the Author: Rebekah Wilce has a degree in writing from the University of Arizona. She is the lead writer for CMD’s Food Rights Network, with expertise in food and agriculture issues.

Plan B: Recalls will Determine Control of Wisconsin Senate

By: Rebekah Wilce Friday June 1, 2012 9:41 am

This article was first published by the Center for Media and Democracy at PRWatch.org. To see some of the political ads discussed in this article, see the videos embedded in the original article at PRWatch.org.

Most of the headlines in recent weeks have focused on embattled Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s effort to ward off a recall, but four Wisconsin State Senate seats are also up for grabs in the June 5 recall elections. These four elections could swing control of the Senate to the Democrats. Last summer, six senators faced recall elections, and Democrats picked up two seats. If they pick up one more seat in the June 5 election, they win control of the Senate and put a halt to the Walker agenda.

In a 60-day winter sprint, recall proponents successfully gathered enough signatures to trigger recall elections for Senators Van Wanggaard (R-Racine), Terry Moulton (R-Chippewa Falls), Pam Galloway (R-Wausau), and Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau). Senator Galloway resigned at the end of the legislative session, so two elected officials are vying for her seat.

“We expect all four races to be relatively close,” Dan Romportl, executive director of the Committee to Elect a Republican Senate, told the Wisconsin State Journal.

Out-of-state money has not poured in to support these senators to the same extent as for Governor Walker and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. However, for state senate races, there have been significant direct contributions and independent expenditures reported from both inside and outside of Wisconsin. Many of the groups supporting Democrats are organized as PACs and disclose both their donors and spending. Many of the groups supporting Republicans are organized as non-profits running “issue ads” that don’t explicitly endorse a candidate but have the same effect. These groups keep their funding and spending secret, preventing the public from ever knowing who is behind the ads or the total amounts spent.

Although we focus on expenditures by special interest groups below, it is important to note that the national Republican State Leadership Committee Inc. (RSLC, registered in Wisconsin as a corporation) and the national Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC, registered in Wisconsin as DLCC Wisconsin PAC) are both also spending heavily in these races. The RSLC has spent $555,700 on the races listed below, almost four times as much as the DLCC, which has spent $143,115, according to the Center for Media and Democracy’s (CMD’s) analysis of figures from the the non-profit, non-partisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign (WDC), which tracks money in state politics.

In addition, it is notable that three of the eight candidates in the Senate recall races are members of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the corporate bill mill whose influence on Wisconsin politics CMD recently brought to light in the report “ALEC Exposed in Wisconsin: The Hijacking of a State.”

Independent Expenditures in Senate Recall Races

Wal-Mart 18th Corporation to Dump ALEC, Becomes 22nd Private Sector Member to Leave

By: Rebekah Wilce Thursday May 31, 2012 8:04 am

This article was first published by CMD at PRWatch.org.

Wal-Mart, a member of ALEC’s corporate “Private Enterprise” board and of the Public Safety and Elections Task Force that adopted Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” as a “model” bill, announced yesterday that it is “suspending” its ALEC membership.

Wake Up Walmart Banner at a protest, with Rev. Billy Tallen crouched in front.

Protesters including Rev. Billy at Walmart. Photo by Brave New Films.

“We feel that the divide between these activities and our purpose as a business has become too wide. To that end, we are suspending our membership in ALEC,” Wal-Mart vice president of public affairs and government relations, Maggie Sans, told Reuters. Sans is stepping down as secretary of ALEC’s corporate board.

The Center for Media and Democracy’s (CMD’s) Executive Director, Lisa Graves, applauded Wal-Mart “for doing the right thing in leaving ALEC, especially in the wake of newly emerged information showing how ALEC has been skirting federal and state lobbying and ethics laws.” She added that “this is a very positive step for Wal-Mart,” a long-time leader and funder of ALEC’s operations, and “it also shows that the excellent work of advocates to shine a light on ALEC’s extreme agenda is having a major impact.”

Wal-Mart is the largest retailer in the world as well as the largest retailer of firearms in the United States. It had $421.8 billion in sales in 2011, edging out Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon Mobil, BP — all of which are still ALEC member companies — for the most revenue, according to CNN.

Wal-Mart’s History of Involvement with ALEC

House Votes Today on Bill that Could Limit Access to Drug Safety Information

By: Rebekah Wilce Wednesday May 30, 2012 7:37 am

This article was originally published by the Center for Media and Democracy at PRWatch.org.

A colorful pile of pills.

Photo by Keith Ramsey

The U.S. House of Representatives is scheduled to vote today on the Food and Drug Administration Reform Act of 2012, H.R.5651. Groups advocating for open and transparent government have found a provision in the bill that would keep potentially important health and safety information away from the public. Section 812 would, according to a letter to leaders of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee penned by several of these groups, deny the public access to information relating to drugs obtained by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from any government agency — local, state, federal, or foreign — if that agency has requested that the information be kept confidential.

Patrice McDermott, Executive Director of OpenTheGovernment.org, which works with the legislative and executive branches to encourage more open government, told the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) that the provision might blow a huge hole in the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). It would give the FDA carte blanche with regard to drug information.

Deadly Drugs, Foreign Multinationals

Syngenta Celebrates Earth Day by Ladling on the Pesticides

By: Rebekah Wilce Monday May 7, 2012 11:51 am

This article was originally published by the Center for Media and Democracy at PRWatch.org.

Herbicide manufacturer Syngenta had an interesting way of celebrating Earth Day this year, touting the joys of pesticides.

Happy Earth Day! Photo by jetsandzeppelins

The multinational conglomerate sent out a press release during the approach to Earth Day exclaiming that “modern farming is grounds for Earth Day celebration” because, it continues, “conservation tillage and no-till farming are responsible for significant environmental benefits often overlooked by Earth Day observers.” These “no-till” farming techniques, which reduce erosion and fuel use, depend “on the ability to control weeds, demonstrating the importance of the 50-year-old herbicide atrazine.”

Some scientists, including agricultural economist John Ikerd and toxicologist Warren Porter, are not buying the “atrazine is great for Mother Earth” spin.

Syngenta, which reported over $13 billion in revenue in 2011, is the primary manufacturer of atrazine, which is commonly used to kill weeds in commodity crops, forests, and golf courses. As the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) has reported as part of its “Atrazine Exposed” project, its potential harmful effects on human health have been documented since the 1990s. It has been banned in the European Union since 2004 as well as in some parts of the United States. However, it is still one of the most heavily used herbicides in the U.S.

Syngenta has spent millions on marketing, public relations (PR) campaigns, and lobbying to maintain its market and fight calls to phase atrazine out of use in the U.S.

National Board for Professional Teaching Standards Cuts Ties to ALEC

By: Rebekah Wilce Tuesday May 1, 2012 12:06 pm

This article was originally published by the Center for Media and Democracy at PRWatch.org.

Teacher's CertificateThe national certifying body for teachers in the United States, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS), participated in the Education Task Force of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) until April 2012. In an official statement sent to the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) today, NBPTS spokesperson Brian Lewis said,

Given recent events, the new NBPTS President and CEO decided to discontinue engagement with ALEC. As a result, NBPTS terminated its membership as an Education Task Force Member of ALEC effective April 18, 2012, and also withdrew from participating in the upcoming ALEC conference. . . . The decision to participate in ALEC had been made by previous NBPTS leadership.

Although primarily a non-profit organization focusing on teacher certification, NBPTS also takes positions on pre-K through 12th grade education and higher education policy and tracks state legislation affecting certification policy.