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Seeds of controversy

An Oregon Senate bill that would block any local measures banning genetically modified crops has been endorsed by major farm groups but denounced by some local growers.

Senate Bill 633 would ban efforts such as Measure 15-119 in Jackson County, which would make the county off limits to GMO (genetically modified organism) crops.

The measure is scheduled to be voted on by county voters in May 2014.

Oregon State Sen. Alan Bates, a Medford Democrat, has proposed an amendment to the Senate bill that would make an exception for Jackson County because opponents of GMOs already have qualified for the ballot locally.

"It's a major threat to us," said Eli Dumitru with GMO Free Jackson County, which spearheaded the ballot measure. He said the Senate bill takes away local control and gives special interests more leverage as they try to block bans on GMOs throughout the state.

"The crux of the issue is local control," Dumitru said. "It would make it easier for the big money to come in and target certain groups."

But Bob Crouse, owner of Fort Vannoy Farms in Grants Pass, said banning GMOs in selected areas in the state would place a financial burden on farmers, who would be forced to deal with conflicting local ordinances. It also would make a difficult business even tougher, he said, in the areas where bans were in place.

"It would put those growing alfalfa and corn at a disadvantage to competitors," he said, arguing it makes more sense to create laws on a statewide level rather than a local level.

Crouse said he will plant about 150 acres of genetically modified corn on his 460-acre farm later this spring.

The corn is Roundup-resistant, so he can save time and money by not having to till the soil to keep weeds out.

Crouse said he uses more of the weed-killer Roundup with the GMO corn, but uses less of other chemicals to keep weeds down.

"Roundup is the cheapest spray, and it's the least harmful to the environment," he said.

Crouse said the only genetically modified crops he's aware of in the area are sugar beets, corn and alfalfa, with alfalfa likely being the biggest crop.

Sen. Bates said he expects a big battle over the Senate bill because huge corporations such as Monsanto and Syngenta don't want any bans on GMOs.

"You've got some big money behind it," he said.

But Bates sees the bill as a threat to jobs in Jackson County. He notes Amy's Kitchen in White City uses GMO-free products in its goods, and said the bill would send a signal that the state is not interested in encouraging that kind of industry, he said.

On Amy's Kitchen food packaging, it states, "No GMOs. No bioengineered ingredients." Amy's Kitchen recently announced a major expansion at its White City plant, with company officials saying they dropped an East Coast site because of difficulty in finding produce in that region that met their organic standards.

"Why in the world would we want to say that our county cannot go GMO free?" Bates said.

Scott Dahlman, executive director for Oregonians for Food and Shelter, said his organization has thrown its support behind the bill because a patchwork of regulations in the state would place farmers at a disadvantage.

Senate Bill 633 would ensure agriculture seeds and seed products would be regulated only at the state or federal level, he said. He said the state was better prepared to deal with the complexities of such issues and that counties and cities wouldn't have the technical expertise to regulate plants.

Genetically engineered plants already are heavily regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration, Dahlman said.

"There is a real myth out there that these products are unregulated," he said.

The average genetically modified plant takes on average 13 years to make it from development to the market, he said.

Ron Bjork of the Jackson County Farm Bureau said he, too, supports the bill.

"I think trying to get any local agency to try and monitor this kind of stuff is going to be expensive, and it's not going to work," he said.

He said genetically modified crops have been growing in the area for about 15 years. Bjork said he will be growing a test GMO crop this year for the first time.

"I have not found one thing that says it's killed anybody or caused any kind of medical harm," he said. "I am starting to grow it this year because I see nothing wrong with it."

On the other hand, Bjork said, he supports organic farmers and understands why they would be concerned about GMO crops because of the market they are trying to appeal to. But he thinks the dangers from cross-pollination are overstated.

GMO opponents say supporters are downplaying the risks from biotechnology.

Dumitru said biotech companies take genes from unrelated species such as plants and animals to produce the characteristics they are trying to achieve.

He said the usual process of trying to bring out the best characteristics of a plant worked within nature and within the same plant species. Dumitru said he believes some allergies and intestinal problems can be attributed to ingesting GMO products.

He said he finds it surprising that some legislators support a Senate bill that would take away local control.

"We're not the only Americans who want local control," he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or email dmann@mailtribune.com.

Bob Crouse, owner of Fort Vannoy Farms in Grants Pass, walks through his farm Wednesday. Crouse plans to plant about 150 acres of genetically modified corn on his 460-acre farm later this spring. - Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch