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Group hopes county will ban plants with genetic alterations

A group of local farmers and food activists hope to convince the Jackson County Board of Commissioners to ban the planting of genetically engineered plants within Jackson County.

But commissioners said the feasibility of such an ordinance has yet to be determined.

Brian Comnes, representative for GMO-Free Jackson County, presented a proposal to the commissioners Wednesday, requesting the board pass an ordinance without a citizen initiative.

Commissioners said the issue is already on their radar and they are looking into it.

"We're in the process of getting all of the facts," said Commissioner C.W. Smith. "We want to get as much information as possible."

The effort to ban genetically modified crops gained momentum recently with news that genetically altered beets and corn were being grown in several Ashland, Medford and Grants Pass fields by Syngenta AG, a multinational corporation. The crops can cross-pollinate with organic ones and corrupt yields, according to GMO-Free members.

"That pretty much means I need to stop my production on that variety," said Chris Hardy, co-founder of Organic Village Farm. The farm grows chard and beets, which can be corrupted by cross-pollination from the GMO sugar beets, Hardy said.

Syngenta has acknowledged it had beet fields near Butler Creek Road, Tolman Creek Road and Normal Avenue in Ashland.

The crops are close to John Muir Middle School's organic garden and Organic Village Farm. This discovery in February led to the creation of GMO-Free Jackson County.

"Syngenta is a multinational corporation with no interest or investment in the health and welfare of our valley," Comnes told the Board of Commissioners.

Proponents of genetically engineered crops say the plants are more resistant to pests and weeds, making them easier to grow and mass-produce. Opponents say the crops can hurt the environment by causing mutations in surrounding plants. They also are concerned about potential health hazards from genetically altered foods.

Smith said a key part of the board's investigation into an ordinance banning the planting of genetically modified crops in the county is discovering the legal grounds for such a ban.

"There are certain issues of interstate commerce that local governments can't infringe on," Smith said. "We're going to also visit with the federal authorities."

Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or by email at rpfeil@mailtribune.com