Los Angeles lawmakers reversed course late Monday on a proposed ban on the growth of genetically modified crops that had previously faced nearly zero resistance within City Hall.
The proposal would ban selling and planting genetically modified crop seeds, fruit trees and plants within city limits. Opponents of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs — whose composition has been altered in a laboratory to resist disease — say they pose a threat to biodiversity and may be unsafe for consumption.
Up until this point, there had been widespread support from council members, who approved the concept of the ban in October.
Now, the language of the ordinance needs final approval. It was expected to sail through the council committee that took it up Monday.
But Councilman Joe Buscaino questioned why the city is pursuing a ban that would be mostly symbolic, since no GMOs are grown within L.A. city limits. He said he didn't think the issue was something that needed to be addressed on a city level.
"We're crafting policy without any substance," he said. He cited a recent report that said because the city fails to enforce its anti-dumping laws, L.A.'s streets are so dirty they appear "unsafe and ungoverned."
"We can barely meet our core responsibilities," Buscaino said. "Why add more?"
Proponents argue that genetically modified crops are no different than those farmers have been selectively breeding for centuries, and pose no added health risk. They also say the organisms have larger crop yields, are hardier and could potentially alleviate world food shortages.
The council members said they do not support GMOs. But they also said that before moving ahead, they wanted to see a report from the city's administrative officer on the costs of enforcing the ordinance. The committee ultimately voted to wait for the report, blocking the ordinance from being taken up by the full council. It had been scheduled for a final vote at Tuesday's council meeting.
"I think we can wait to do this right," said Councilman Gil Cedillo.
The pushback was a surprise to Councilman Paul Koretz, who co-wrote the proposal. Over the last few months, the council has received dozens of letters from community organizations, business owners and city residents in favor of a ban, with large crowds showing up at city meetings to voice their support.
Supporters of the L.A. ban note that 52% of L.A. County voters supported Prop. 37, a failed 2012 ballot measure that would have required the labeling of GMO foods. Four other California counties — Marin, Mendocino, Trinity and Santa Cruz — have passed ordinances banning the growth of GMOs, as well as Arcata, a small city in Humboldt County. Vermont lawmakers recently enacted a requirement that GMO foods be labeled.
Koretz said Monday that the city needs to pass a final version of the ban before January, when a state law that would prevent the city from regulating GMOs is set to take effect. He said his proposed ban would probably be self-policing and "end up costing the city virtually nothing."
Unhappy with the council committee's decision, Koretz called it "an excuse to stall." He said that not passing a city ordinance and instead waiting for the state to take up the issue would be fruitless.
"If we actually want to regulate [GMOs], we need to do it here, otherwise it'll never happen," he said.