Oregon counties vote on measures to ban GMO farming to guard organic farmers from ‘contamination’

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Image via Statesman Journal

In Oregon’s May 20 primary election, the spotlight is on Jackson county with residents voting on Measure 15-119 that would ban the cultivation of genetically engineered crops and neighboring Josephine county with a similar Measure 17-58. Supporters and opponents of both measures spent about $1.3 million, which included many out-of-state donations. Voters’ mail-in ballots will be counted on election day.

The issue came to the fore in 2012, when organic farmers in the southern Oregon counties claimed that it was difficult to protect their certified organic seed crops from potential cross pollination from GE crops—what some refer to as “contamination.” Syngenta grows seed for herbicide resistant sugar beets in narrow Rogue River Valley near the Californian border, where organic farms are starting to take root. Jeff Barnard wrote for the Associated Press:

The ban’s supporters, who have raised a third of what opponents have, say they want to protect their crops from contamination by genetically engineered pollen, particularly chard and beets, which could be fertilized by Syngenta’s GMO sugar-beet pollen.The pollen wouldn’t affect the plants in the ground but supporters of the ban say it would make it impossible to certify the seeds as organic, reducing their value, whether for sale or planting.

Although anti-GMO activists often raise these fears, there has been no incident of farmers in the United Sates losing organic certification because of inadvertent “contamination” to date. Organic guidelines do not specify the amount of cross-pollination with GE crops, which is natural in adjacent fields, that would constitute a violation.

The organic farmers first took action by gathering signatures for the ballot measure while simultaneously asking Oregon State University Extension to help create a mapping system so pollen from GE crops would not reach organic crops, and vice versa. But talks broke down after six months, and the organic farmers went ahead with the ballot measure. Representatives of the political action committee GMO Free Jackson County did much of the legwork petitioning to get the measure on the ballot.

“This is really an issue where local family farmers don’t believe the state has done a good job protecting their interests,” said Ivan Maluski, director of the Molalla-based Friends of Family Farmers, a group in favor of the measure. “There’s lax oversight on the federal and state level. This local effort is important because it’s a way for local growers to protect their property rights from genetically engineered pollen contaminating their seed crops.”

But the property rights argument goes both ways; groups opposing the measure say that farmers should be allowed to grow GE crops if they want to. “Fundamentally, growers can choose what crops they grow,” said Blake Rowe, CEO of the Oregon Wheat Growers League, which opposes the measure. “This would really be the first example where one set of growers — those who don’t like GM crops — are going to tell all growers that they can and can’t grow certain crops in Jackson County. That’s a precedent that we don’t want to see started.”

Karen Batra, a spokeswoman from the Biotechnology Industry Organization, said the ban was “not just an assault on the industry; it is an assault on farming. It is telling one group of farmers that you can’t farm the way that you want or you need or you think is best for your operation.”

Related article:  As California Prop 37 vote nears, media anti-Prop 37 bias emerges

Co-existence between organic and conventional farmers growing GE crops in the two counties has been difficult. In June 2013, vandals broke into a field of GE sugar beets owned by Syngenta and destroyed about 1,000 plants. 5,500 more plants were destroyed in a similar incident three days following the first. An editorial from local newspaper Medford Mail-Tribune condemned the vandals’ acts:

Jeers — to saboteurs who destroyed genetically modified sugar beets being grown on two parcels of land in the Rogue Valley under contract to Syngenta Corp. … GMO crops may be a threat to health and well-being, or not. But the people who resort to such acts succeed only in damaging their own cause.

Syngenta has been joined in opposing the measures by other agricultural giants like Monsanto, sugar producers like Amalgamated Sugar, timber companies and farm bureaus as far away as Texas. Local political action committee Good Neighbor Farmers lead the opponents to the measure, collecting more than $900,000 with many of the donations coming from a different state.

“Farm bureaus all over the nation, seed growers, all kinds of organizations have donated because they understand that GMO is probably the safest food you can eat,” said Ron Bjork, president of the Jackson County Farm Bureau and a co-director of Good Neighbor Farmers. “Frankly, I wish Monsanto and Syngenta and Dow would give us more money. They haven’t given us enough, in my opinion.”

Our Family Farms Coalition, the main political action committee supporting the measure, has raised about $376,000. Top donors include $75,000 from GMO Free Jackson County, $40,000 from Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, $30,000 from the Organic Consumers Fund, and $25,000 from Mercola.com, a natural health site.

“We obviously know it’s going to be a pretty difficult battle,” said Elise Higley, director of Our Family Farms Coalition who also owns and operates organic Oshala Farm. “It’s really going to be a grass-roots effort. That’s how we’re really going to win this — by coming together.”

Last year, the Oregon Legislature passed a bill that bars counties from regulating genetically engineered agriculture. Jackson County was exempted because Measure 15-119 already had qualified for the ballot. But that did not stop neighboring Josephine County from putting up its own, similar measure. If it passes, Josephine County will have to go to court to enforce the GE crop ban. Oregonian Governor John Kitzhaber has also convened a GMO task force, which started meeting in April, to discuss labeling, crops and other issues.

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