City Council panel backs away from GMO ban it previously supported

After heavy lobbying from the industry, a council committee rejects a ban on genetically modified organisms

Three days before Los Angeles lawmakers voted on a proposal to ban genetically modified crops, the world's largest biotechnology trade group hired three top City Hall lobbyists to stop it.

The matter had sailed through a meeting weeks before with only one City Council member expressing doubt.

But when a council committee sat down to vote again this month, three of the five members came out strongly against it — though they said lobbyists had nothing to do with it.

The action shocked Councilman Paul Koretz, who co-authored the proposal and expected his colleagues to rubber-stamp it as they had many times before.

"Since nothing else had changed ... it clearly was heavy lobbying," Koretz said later.

Such a ban would be largely symbolic in L.A. because there are currently no known genetically modified organisms, known as GMOs, grown within the city.

Nevertheless, before this month, L.A.'s 15 council members had voiced almost no opposition to the ban. In October, the council approved the ban with only one opposing vote.

Opponents of the proposal said the shift on the City Council came after members received more information and had more time to spot possible problems with the ban.

"The city is going to be better off making a decision with a lot of information, rather than just emotion," said lobbyist George Kieffer, who represented critics of the ban. "Their statement, if they choose to make it, will be just as important in three months as it is today."

Kathay Feng, executive director of the nonprofit government watchdog California Common Cause, said it's not unusual to see lobbyists exert influence at any level of government. The smack- down of the GMO ban at City Hall, she said, is "just sort of small anecdotal evidence of something that happens on a fairly regular basis."

Koretz's ordinance sought to prohibit the growth of genetically modified organisms — plants or animals whose genetic material has been altered to make them bigger or resistant to pests and herbicides. GMO supporters say such crops are needed to boost food production, while opponents say not enough research has been done to tell if the products are harmful to humans.

The four councilmen at the committee meeting this month — one was absent — had only to OK the ban's final language so it could be officially adopted.

At the beginning of the session, Councilman Joe Buscaino — the member who voted against the ban in October — said that he didn't think the city was the right entity to enforce such an action and that it didn't have the resources to shoulder extra responsibilities.

Then Councilman Gil Cedillo listed his own problems with the ban, including enforcement and cost. Then Councilman Tom LaBonge agreed.

Kieffer, a prominent Los Angeles attorney and City Hall lobbyist, was at the meeting along with lobbyists John Ek and Howard Sunkin.

Kieffer spoke and identified himself as representing the Biotechnology Industry Organization. In a subsequent interview, he confirmed that Ek and Sunkin were also on the team, although they declined to comment to The Times.

The council committee tabled the ban for more study, leaving Koretz to fear that it had been effectively killed.

In an interview, Kieffer said he dropped off materials at the council offices on the morning of the meeting. He said he wanted to show that the proposed ban was based on "wrong science." His colleagues, he said, reached out to various other council offices.

Cedillo said neither he nor anyone from his staff talked to any of the lobbyists. LaBonge said he didn't speak with them either, although one of his staffers talked to a lobbyist in the hall outside the meeting. Buscaino said he was always against the ban but had spoken to Ek before the meeting about the issue.

Kieffer says he and his colleagues will continue to lobby against the proposed GMO ban.

Joanne Poyourow, a local environmental activist in favor of a GMO ban, called the council's reversal "horrifying." She said her volunteer coalition had met with council members' staffs and thought almost all were supportive of the ban. Though disappointed, Poyourow said she wasn't surprised by the professional lobbyists.

"I've been working with GMOs for long enough that I knew that at some point we would get resistance," she said.

Jaime Regalado, professor emeritus of political science at Cal State L.A., said it's fairly unusual for the philosophically progressive L.A. council to be strongly influenced by lobbyists. He said it's possible that the council members were never that supportive of the ban.

The GMO turnabout also reveals where city ethics regulations fall short in tracking the effect of lobbyists at City Hall. Lobbyists are required to report who they work for and how much they are paid — but sometimes not until months after they've completed their work.

Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor who's on the city's Ethics Commission, said that can mean when an issue is being discussed the public won't "have the information necessary to see a full picture."

Even when a lobbyist's presence is known, Common Cause's Feng notes, existing reporting requirements just "don't tell you the whole story." It's still hard to tell what happened, she said, because lobbyists aren't required to disclose which staff members they meet with, or how often, when and for how long.

For example, city records now don't show anyone working as a lobbyist for the biotechnology group.

Karen Batra, communications director for the Biotechnology Industry Organization based in Washington, declined to confirm that her group hired the Los Angeles lobbyists. The trade group represents companies such as seed maker Monsanto as well as universities that conduct related research.

She would not talk about the group's lobbying strategy beyond saying that the ban in L.A. would set "an enormous precedent for areas of the country that may not be familiar with the benefits of the technology."

Its members, she said, want to "make sure that policy makers are made aware of how damaging a policy like this could be."

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