Oregon Legislature passes “Oregon’s Monsanto Protection Act”

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Hundreds rally in Medford March for Food Freedom.
Photo credit GMO Free Jackson County

To the dismay of many organic and environmental groups, a controversial agriculture bill that prevents counties in Oregon from regulating genetically modified (GM) crops has been signed into law. Senate Bill 863, the ”Certainty for Family Farmers of Oregon Act”, prohibits local county or city regulation of genetically modified plants and prevents local governments from enacting or enforcing any measures which regulate agricultural, flower, nursery and vegetable seeds or their products.

The bill precludes current efforts in Oregon counties to restrict GM agriculture, but excludes Jackson County, which already has a GM ban up for vote The bill also includes an emergency clause, which allows the bill to go into effect immediately, precluding opponents from referring the bill to voters.

The legislation was part of Governor Kitzhaber’s “Grand Bargain”, a package of five bills passed during the recent special session aimed at giving schools more money, freezing college tuitions, and reining in escalating costs of the public pension system.

“This bill comes at the expense of local communities and farmers concerned about the lack of transparency and effective oversight of genetically engineered crops and foods at the state and federal levels, and takes away their ability to protect their right to farm, and the right to know what’s in their food, through local government action. “ said Ivan Maluski,  director of Friends of Family Farmers.

Environmental groups and local food activists are upset that this bill was part of this legislative package. According to the Center for Food Safety, after dying in committee during the regular session, the bill was pushed into the special session at the behest of industrial agriculture and out-of-state chemical companies, and is a model bill from the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

“It is incredibly disappointing that the Oregon Legislature has voted today to take away the rights of Oregonians to establish local food and agriculture ordinances intended to protect the viability of local farms, food and agriculture.” laments Maluski, “This legislation is a clear giveaway to a handful of out-of-state agrochemical companies like Monsanto, Syngenta and others and does nothing to protect Oregon farmers from the increasing risks of cross-contamination with genetically engineered  material.”

Essentially, the act prevents counties and municipalities from banning GM crops.  The Oregon Farm Bureau claims that this is because it does not want local governments to be able to elevate some farming practices over others.

“A patchwork of regulations across the state is bad for our agriculture economy. Oregon’s farmers need certainty,” said Rep. Mike McLane (R – Powell Butte) the House Republican Leader.

The measure exempts Jackson County, which had already qualified a ballot measure for 2014. If the Jackson County measure fails, however, the county would no longer be exempt.

GM crops threaten local farmers because the pollen from GMs cross-pollinate with local organic crops. Cross pollination of GM crops to organic crops leads to contamination of both produce and seeds, leading to monetary losses for organic companies and family farms, as well as unreliable organic produce for consumers. As a result, local farmers  are unable to sell their crops or use their own seeds.  Local retailers such as the Ashland Food Coop and Market of Choice will not have local suppliers for their organic products.

Oregon is the country’s fifth highest organic producer, and is home to some of the country’s main organic seed companies.

In in Rogue Valley, thousands of dollars of lucrative seed crops have already been plowed under by organic growers in order to protect their certification and market reputation from pollution by gene drift from GM crops. In 2012, Jackson county residents learned that a Swiss biotech company, Syngenta, had been contracting with local landowners to grow GM sugar beets on their vacant lots. Although it is illegal for Syngenta to produce GM crops in their own country, it is currently legal to produce them in Jackson County.

Jackson County residents collected over 6700 signatures for a petition to ban the growing of GM crops. Measure 15-119 bans the propagating, cultivating, raising, or growing of GM crops in Jackson County and will appear on the May 20, 2014 ballot.

Governor Kitzhaber has committed to a statewide policy that prevents GM contamination of non-GM crops under existing Department of Agriculture authority by June 2014. Kitzhaber has called on a special task force to provide expert recommendations on state policy and on legislation that will be introduced in 2015 to address liability and compensation issues related to GM contamination and consumers’ right to know what’s in their food.

Until then, and if Measure 15-119 passes, Jackson County will be the only Oregon county where organic farming can truly thrive in a GM-free environment.