Originally published by Capital Press
April 12th, 2017
by Mateusz Perkowski
SALEM — A proposal to allow local governments in Oregon to regulate genetically engineered crops has died in the House but the battle remains alive in the Senate.
Oregon lawmakers prohibited most local governments from restricting seed in 2013, but Senate Bill 1037 would exempt genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, from that statewide pre-emption law.
A similar proposal, House Bill 2469, failed to survive a recent legislative deadline in the House Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources.
However, Senate Bill 1037 was timely scheduled for a work session on April 12 before the Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, which is chaired by Sen. Mike Dembrow, D-Portland, the bill’s chief sponsor.
While committee members didn’t take action on SB 1037, they did hear conflicting testimony about the right to self-determination among local governments versus the efficiency of statewide agricultural rules.
“We’re asking for flexibility in Oregon,” said Mary Middleton, director of Oregonians for Safe Farms and Families, a group that supported a ballot initiative banning GMOs in Josephine County.
While voters in Josephine County voted in favor of the GMO ban in 2014, a state judge has ruled the ordinance is pre-empted by state law.
Middleton urged the committee members to “honor the will of the people” by passing SB 1037, which would retroactively make Josephine County’s ordinance effective.
Proponents of SB 1037 argued that lawmakers passed the statewide pre-emption on local seed rules with the understanding that Oregon regulators would step into the breach, but that hasn’t materialized.
“Our farms remain at risk of contamination because the state has not put any protections in place,” said Carol Valentine, a Josephine County resident.
The Association of Oregon Counties opposes SB 1037 because genetic engineering is a complex issue best left to the state government, said Mike McArthur, the group’s executive director.
“This is not the proper role for a county government to be engaged in,” he said.
Lawmakers created an exception to the 2013 pre-emption bill for Jackson County, which already had a GMO ban proposal on its ballot at that point.
McArthur said the government of Jackson County is nonetheless not enforcing the GMO ban due to a lack of resources.
Craig Pope, a Polk County commissioner, said he sympathizes with the organic farming community but said county governments need to focus on public safety and other key services.
“Continuing to hammer at pre-emption is not going to solve this problem,” Pope said.
The economic threat of cross-pollination among organic, conventional and GMO crops was also debated at the April 12 hearing.
Buyers of organic seed have no tolerance for traces of biotech traits, so the risk posed by GMO crops is a “one way street” that can only damage organic growers, said Don Tipping, an organic producer in Southern Oregon.
“For us, this is an economic issue,” he said.
Helle Ruddenklau, a seed grower in Polk County who opposed SB 1037, said the problem of cross-pollination isn’t limited to GMO crops, but farmers find ways to resolve the issue.
For example, if a neighbor is planting a related seed crop, Ruddenklau establishes a buffer strip to distance her crop from the pollen, she said.
“That’s a financial burden for us, but it’s a cost of being a certified seed grower in Oregon,” she said.