County GMO Ballot Measure Progresses

By Bethany Carlson

GMOThe Benton County Community Rights Coalition is gathering the signatures required to secure the Local Food System Ordinance a spot on the November ballot. Organizer Dana Allen reports that registered Benton County voters may sign the petition at the Saturday Farmer’s Market. Allen says that signature-gathering events are also being planned in Summit, Alsea, Alpine, North Albany, and Monroe.

Allen emphasizes that this measure is not just about GMOs. She says, “We base this on our right to make local law to protect our health, safety, and welfare. Do we have the right to govern in our own communities?”

No, the State of Oregon might respond. In October, SB 863 passed the House and the Senate. The bill says that only the state, not counties, may regulate seeds and seed products. Jackson County is exempted from the law. Supporters of the bill said that if individual counties were allowed to regulate seed production (specifically genetically modified crops), the result would be a legislative nightmare and a patchwork effect of regulations that would complicate farmers’ lives. Opponents cite the need for individual communities to be able to protect themselves from the potential health risks of GM crops, along with the financial losses associated with accidental GMO contamination of organic crops. Votes for the bill were divided almost entirely along party lines, with Republican lawmakers universally supporting it, probably reflecting their largely rural constituency. Corvallis candidate for state senator Sara Gelser voted against the bill, while incumbent state senator Betsy Close voted in favor.

Allen acknowledges that the measure, if it wins in November, will almost certainly be challenged by the state. But, she expresses hope based on the fact that counties around the state are taking similar actions. On Monday Jackson County passed a county-wide ban on GMOs. Josephine County has proposed a pesticide ban and just passed a GMO ban (although the state may overturn it), and Lane County is gathering signatures for a local food system ordinance similar to the Benton County measure. Allen sees parallels with the American colonists’ struggle to free themselves from British rule, and concludes, “The communities themselves have to be organized and learn how to assert their rights.”

The debate will continue—after all, the rights of farmers to grow genetically modified crops clearly conflict with the rights of organic farmers to a seed crop free from GMO pollen contamination, which renders their crops or seeds unsaleable. The direct health risks of the genetically modified crops currently in production are also debatable. It will remain to be seen if a satisfactory compromise can be reached.