All eyes on us

Jackson County will be the focus of the GMO debate next spring

A quirky addition to the "grand bargain" of bills passed in last week's special session of the Legislature will ensure that all agricultural eyes are on Jackson County as the campaign for Ballot Measure 15-119 heats up next year. Plenty of dollars may be focused here as well.

The quirky addition was HB 633, which bars local governments from banning or regulating genetically modified crops. The rationale for that is an old one: It's better to enact such regulations at the state level than to have a patchwork of local ordinances that cause unnecessary effort and expense for businesses trying to comply with the law.

SB 633 is quirky because it had nothing to do with the reason for the special session — to reduce state public employee pension costs and enact a series of tax changes. SB 633 — which failed to pass during the regular session — was tossed in to get enough Republican votes to pass the tax and PERS measures.

The statewide moratorium on local ordinances will stop anti-GMO efforts in Benton and Lane counties in their tracks. But local supporters in Jackson County had already qualified an initiative petition for the May 2014 ballot, so voters here will be allowed to decide the question.

If 15-119 passes, it would make ours the only county in Oregon to restrict GMO crops.

We are not taking a position one way or the other on whether GMOs pose a health risk to humans. Opponents argue they do; the federal government says GMO crops are safe.

What is certain is that genetic engineering means big bucks to agribusiness, which can save production costs by, for example , growing corn that is resistant to herbicides so fields need not be mechanically weeded. Other genetic modifications make crops toxic to insect pests but — again, according to the government — not to people.

One concern to us, and to local lawmakers who are concerned about the impact of GMOs, is the economic effect on the growing organic food industry and on major export crops such as wheat.

American consumers are increasingly demanding produce and food certified as organic and GMO-free. Pollen from GMO crops that drifts onto organic farms can threaten those certifications. But the risk is even bigger than that, as demonstrated earlier this year when genetically modified wheat was discovered on an Eastern Oregon farm. In response, Japan suspended wheat shipments from the state, and the European Union called for increased testing.

There is a reason why transnational corporations such as Monsanto and Syngenta would prefer to keep the regulation battle confined to the state Legislature, where their lobbying dollars can be be concentrated to pressure lawmakers. It may be less efficient to influence the outcome of a public vote, but the agribusiness lobby is likely to try.

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