Jackson County's GMO fight gains higher profile

Jackson County finds itself in the center of a growing global debate over genetically modified foods, and local voters will decide whether they should be banned here on May 20.

"I certainly don't remember a local measure that has attracted that much attention in my tenure here," said Tony Green, a spokesman for the Oregon Secretary of State's Office.

Genetically modified organisms have ignited similar battles across the country and around the world.

Fears over "Frankenfoods" and a push for more organic and local crops prompted four California counties to ban GMOs, but other counties in that state voted down similar bans.

Recently, Vermont began requiring labels on food that indicate whether GMOs are present. Similar labeling initiatives have failed in California and Washington.

Europe requires labeling of food that has been genetically altered, which has prompted many Europeans to shun GMO products.

In 2013, the contamination of a field of western white wheat with GMO wheat in Eastern Oregon temporarily shut down the export of the crop to Japan and South Korea.

This potentially devastating economic hit to a $500 million-a-year business has caused concern among many farmers, particularly farmers who grow organic crops.

On Thursday, the Oregon Supreme Court certified a ballot title that "Requires food manufacturers, retailers to label 'genetically engineered' foods as such."

The Oregon Right to Know campaign has until July 3 to submit 87,213 valid signatures to qualify the initiative for the November ballot.

Currently, many food items in stores are labeled GMO-free, or organic, but there is no requirement to label foods that have GMOs in them.

Amid this backdrop of debate about GMOs, local farmers have banded together to take on the titans of agribusiness such as Monsanto and Syngenta.

Green said other ballot measures in the state previously have raised more money than Jackson County's Ballot Measure 15-119, which has garnered $1.2 million from opponents and supporters.

However, on a per-capita basis, the amount of money in Jackson County is very high compared to many other ballot measures, Green said.

For instance, in Multnomah County, Ballot Measure 26-156 would wrest control of the sewer and water system from the Portland City Council. The issue has been hotly contested but has raised just under $300,000, according to the Secretary of State's Office.

Opponents of the measure to ban GMOs in Jackson County have out-raised supporters by more than a 3-to-1 margin, with 70 percent of their money coming from outside Oregon.

Last week, the Oregon Secretary of State's website showed that Good Neighbor Farmers, a group against banning GMOs, had raised $876,513.

Of that amount, $610,625 came from out-of-state contributors, including $258,294 from Monsanto and Syngenta, multinational companies that sell GMO seeds.

The Our Family Farms Coalition, which supports banning GMOs, had raised $263,286. Thirty-seven percent of its campaign contributions, $96,581, came from outside Oregon.

GMO Free Jackson County had raised $64,228 and spent $74,598. About 42 percent of its funds, $26,680, came from out of state.

"I'm sure it is the most money ever spent on a ballot measure in Jackson County," County Clerk Chris Walker said.

Walker said she hasn't done a complete analysis of other ballot measures, but 15-119 appears to be far and away generating more dollars than other measures she or her staff can remember.

Walker said a measure that would create a library taxing district has generated a lot of interest, but nowhere near the same dollar amount. Libraries for All, the committee supporting Ballot Measure 15-122, has raised almost $40,000, according to the Secretary of State's Office.

Walker said Ballot Measure 15-121 has also generated a lot of buzz but not significant cash. Friends of Research and Extension, which supports the creation of an agricultural service district, has raised almost $60,000 to promote 15-121.

Interest in the anti-GMO ballot measure has also spurred increased voter registration to levels higher than the 2012 presidential primary.

A recent count showed 120,357 registered voters compared to 117,082 for 2012.

Walker expects voter turnout spurred in part by 15-119 to reach 50 to 55 percent, but possibly as high as 60 to 65 percent. Turnout in both the 2010 and 2012 primaries was 37 percent.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/reporterdm.


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