Spring 2014: Jackson County's season of fame

Want to place a safe bet on next May's ballot measure to ban GMO foods in Jackson County? Not on whether it will pass; nobody has a handle on that yet. It's this: we're going to be the center of a lot of attention. And the amount of money flooding into our county to defeat this measure will dwarf what we've seen in past elections.

Why? Because our county has a special exemption in Oregon's newest law. Jammed into the sausage-making of the recent special session, this bill prevents local governments from regulating farming practices. It is a sledgehammer response to growing grassr-oots opposition to GMO agriculture. Leave sole regulatory power to the state, the argument goes, so that struggling Oregon farmers won't have to battle a patchwork quilt of conflicting rules. In a world where lobbyist money (in this case from Monsanto, Syngenta, Betaseed, and pass-through groups they fund such as the First Vote and Farm Bureau PACs) didn't command the vote of so many legislators, that would be a reasonable argument.

But in the world we have, the Oregon legislature is nowhere close to challenging the deep-pocketed GMO industry, and the industry knows it. If it could just keep the lid on those pesky counties, where small farmers and consumers are building robust, noncorporate food systems, and where imported megadollars don't wholly run the political show, then Oregon would be wide open for the wonders of GMO technology.

That's what this new law does, with one small glitch: Jackson County can still vote on the GMO ban that local petitioners managed to get on the May 2014 ballot. If it passes, and the farming economy hums along as healthy or healthier than before (which is just what happened in Mendocino and Marin County, California, which passed bans in 2004), then the GMO industry has a serious Oregon problem. If the measure fails, Jackson County gets the same handcuffs this bill just applied to the rest of the state.

Those are the stakes that will bring a tsunami of GMO-industry cash crashing down on us next spring. It will buy endless softly-lit ads with salt-of-the-earth "farmers" on their tractors and front porches, soft-spoken men and women explaining how farming and feeding people — the only life they've ever known or wanted — is tough enough these days without politicians, swayed by the latest fad, telling them what seeds they can and can't use. You will see them on TV, in newspapers and on billboards, brochures and postcards, dozens and dozens of times.

This saturation strategy assumes that voters don't pay attention to the substance of complex issues. It usually succeeds. The rare exception happens when voters realize that the lovable folks on the screen are actors, take the time to seek out accurate, unsponsored information and think for themselves. Will this turn out to be one of those exceptions?

We'll see. There will be ample opportunity to consider the arguments. I went through most of them preparing an Immense Possibilities episode on Southern Oregon Public Television (now online at www.immensepossibilities.org/ipr-podcasts/jeffrey-smithgmos/). After navigating through the disagreements, it seems safe to say at a minimum this much: a society that carefully focused on the well-being of its children and grandchildren would demand much clearer, more certain answers than we have so far about the medium- and long-range health effects of these fundamentally re-engineered foods.

But even if the health-effects seems too tangled to take in, we'd better consider the ways that GMOs could reverse the work of thousands of Rogue Valley residents — farmers, grocers, processors, restaurant buyers and all their customers — to nurture a healthy, reliable local food system free of global corporations, the ones that sometimes charge farmers for saving seeds from their own crops to plant the following season. And once a farmer buys GMO seed, he's likely to discover that his other inputs, from fertilizer to pest repellents, have to be "compatible," meaning — surprise — he'd better stick with the product line of those same global corporations. In almost a single stroke, GMO products recentralize agricultural systems that communities like ours have worked so hard to decentralize.

Whether you share my take on all this or not, let's agree that a ballot decision with this much impact on our future food supply deserves our careful attention and best judgment. When a guy in overalls who looks like your favorite grandpa — who never ever lied to you — comes on your TV screen a couple hundred times next spring, please take the time to inform and think for yourself. Thanks to what just happened in Salem, there won't be a second chance to stop, slow down or govern the spread of GMO crops in our valley. This is it.

Jeff Golden is host and producer of the public television series Immense Possibilities and can be reached at jeff@immensepossibilities.org.

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