At least 800 people Saturday flooded downtown Medford to protest genetically modified food and the presence of engineered crops in Jackson County.
The protest, dubbed "March Against Monsanto," was one of about 300 similar demonstrations in cities across the globe organized through social media networking under one name.
Across Oregon, protests also were held in Grants Pass, Eugene, Portland, Bend, Baker City, Prineville, Redmond and Coos Bay.
Local demonstrators backed ballot Measure 15-119, which would mostly ban genetically modified crops in Jackson County with voters' approval in 2014. Others directed their voices and signs at agricultural biotechnology giant Monsanto Co., the world's leading producer of genetically engineered seeds.
Swiss multinational biotech corporation Syngenta AG, which grows genetically modified sugar beets in the Rogue Valley, also topped protesters' list of concerns.
Shortly after 11 a.m., the boisterous but orderly marchers walked up Central Avenue from Vogel Plaza, through the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market in The Commons area and along Riverside Avenue before cutting through the Middleford parking garage and down West Main Street to a gathering at Alba Park.
The crowd, which organizers believe numbered over 1,000, mostly stayed on sidewalks and the march unfolded without incident, they said. By about 2:30 p.m. the crowd in Alba Park dwindled to a few dozen people.
"We had people strung out for blocks and blocks and blocks," said Chris Hardy, an organizer of Medford's edition of "March Against Monsanto." Hardy, a founding member of GMO-Free Jackson County, led the citizens initiative that resulted in the county's GMO-Free measure, which, if passed, would ban anyone from raising genetically engineered plants in Jackson County, with exemptions for scientific research. It also calls for the county to conduct inspections and allows enforcement through citizen lawsuits.
"There can be no coexistence between GMO crops and organic crops in Jackson County. We have to choose one or the other, organic or GMO," said Hardy, 43. "Pollen coming off GMO plants will carry through the air and contaminate non-GMO farmers ... our valley is just too small."
Others protesters echoed Hardy's concerns. "The more GMOs we have, the more pesticides we're going to have in our crops and drinking water," said Don Shoop, 60, of Medford. "I know the people here are smart enough to vote GMOs down."
Proponents of genetically modified crops say they are more resistant to weeds and pests, are easier to grow and produce higher yields.
One thing that could keep local voters from deciding the issue is Senate Bill 633, which is being considered by the Oregon Legislature. The bill would prohibit local jurisdictions from banning GMOs. "If Senate Bill 633 goes through, it's lights out for Jackson County's initiative," Hardy said. "It must fail, or it will fly directly in the face of the democratic process in Jackson County."
Hardy said in addition to the more than 6,700 signatures submitted by GMO-Free Jackson County to qualify the local measure, the group has signatures from more than 400 local businesses who want GMOs banned from the county.
Eden Luz, of Ashland, who marched with her young daughter in Saturday's protest, said she hopes local voters get the chance to decide the fate of GMOs in Jackson County, but wouldn't go so far as to say the measure would pass. "When you are a part of something like this and you feel the momentum we have, you'd think people would vote them (GMOs) away," she said.
"We can only hope so ... because the house is on fire."
Sam Wheeler is a freelance writer living in Talent. Email him at email@example.com.