Saving seed: Seed Bill reaches Montana governor’s desk – The Prairie Star, April 10, 2017

By Sarah Brown

HELENA, Mont. – A bill that would prohibit Montana cities and counties from regulating seeds passed the House, and in early April, was sitting on Montana Gov. Steve Bullock’s desk.

Senate Bill 155, commonly known as the “Seed Bill,” would disallow local governments from regulating the “cultivation, harvesting, production, processing, registration, labeling, marketing, sale, storage, transportation, distribution, possession, notification of use, use and planting of agricultural seeds or vegetable seeds.”

The bill would not disturb the zoning rights of local governments.

Introduced late last year, the seed bill passed the Senate in February and the House in March.

Proponents say the legislation would ensure consistency in seed regulations; opponents say that consistency already exists.

Support for the bill is widespread among high-profile agricultural groups in the state: Montana Farm Bureau Federation, Montana Wool Growers Association, Montana Farmers Union, Montana Grain Growers Association, Montana Agricultural Business Association, Montana Stockgrowers Association, Montana Association of Counties and Montana Seed Trade Association.

“It’s an opportunity for Montana to get ahead of the curve and be proactive,” said Montana Farm Bureau Director of State Affairs Chelcie Cargill. “We want to be able to put ourselves on a level playing field. We don’t want our counties essentially picked off one at a time.”

The measure is a response to local bans taking place in other western states, namely Hawaii, Oregon, Colorado and Washington, Cargill said. She points to Boulder County, Colo., where county commissioners last year banned growing genetically modified (GMO) crops on county open spaces and put in place a transition plan to remove GMO corn and sugarbeets from public land within the next five years.

“There’s nothing there to say you couldn’t get a local government interested in banning some other kind of cropping system or crop,” Cargill said.

The Boulder decision does not apply to privately-owned farmland.

Northern Plains opposed

Opponents of SB 155 like Adam Haight, a political organizer with the Northern Plains Resource Council, say the legislation is “overreaching” and an “abuse of power.”

Wheat growing members of his organization worry about GMO crops and fear ceding local control would take away methods to combat them.

“Let’s not take tools away from local governments to pass rules that make sense for them and their local economies,” he said.

Monsanto’s experimental GMO wheat was found growing in a Montana State University field in Huntly, Mont., in 2014, about a year after the discovery of the company’s unapproved crop growing in Oregon disrupted U.S. wheat exports.

Supporters of the bill say complying with different regulations in each county would be onerous for farmers and ranchers, many of whom operate across county lines, Cargill said. She says the measure is less about limiting local control and more about putting one entity, the Montana Department of Agriculture, in charge of seed regulation and about protecting the private property rights of landowners.

But opponents worry about corporate interests calling the shots.

Organic Seed Alliance’s Director of Advocacy & Communications Kiki Hubbard says the bill’s language comes from the American Legislative Action Council (ALEC), a nonprofit organization of conservative state legislators and private sector representatives that drafts model state-level legislation for use by state governments. ALEC is largely funded by big corporations, including Monsanto and Bayer, which dominate segments of the seed and chemical markets, Hubbard said.

Cargill says that’s simply not true.

“I helped write the language,” she said. “When we were writing that language we looked at what other states had on the books, specifically South Dakota and Washington and basically came up with this combination of language.”

Seeking diversity

Groups like the Seed Alliance want to see a diversity of seed available to Montana’s farmers, regardless of their size, location or crop – not only proprietary seed owned by global corporations.

To them, it’s risky to remove local control of seed just as the agriculture supply industry is increasingly consolidating with three major mergers: Monsanto-Bayer, Dow-DuPont and Syngenta-ChemChina.

“The language is so sweeping I don’t think we’ve even begun to wrap our head around the unintended consequences of this bill,” Hubbard said. “Seed is a living, natural resource and demands careful management. To remove that authority completely only to quell the fears of farm groups and companies that very much want to see a certain kind of production system expand in the state is bad public policy and not in the interest of the public.”