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GMO crop ban ballot title has created divide

An effort to ban genetically modified crops in Jackson County has sparked a dispute over a proposed ballot initiative that would prohibit plants such as Roundup-tolerant beets and alfalfa.

The Jackson County Farm Bureau, which supports genetically engineered crops, took its battle to Jackson County Circuit Court on Monday, fighting to splice its own language into the ballot title.

The ballot title is an attempt to summarize a proposed ordinance created by the group GMO Free Jackson County that would ban genetically engineered crops in Jackson County.

"I'm not into the loaded term 'outlaw,' " said Portland attorney John DiLorenzo, representing the farm bureau.

Following a state statute regarding ballot initiatives, the Jackson County District Attorney's Office wrote the ballot title, which states the proposed ordinance seeks to "outlaw growing of genetically engineered plants, giving county and private persons authority to enforce violations."

Eli Dumitru with GMO Free Jackson County also has challenged the language in the ballot title in Circuit Court and objected to many changes suggested by the farm bureau. GMO is the acronym for genetically modified organism.

Dumitru's group claims genetically engineered plants already have contaminated local farms, endangering the livelihood of organic farmers in particular.

It is attempting to persuade Jackson County's Board of Commissioners to put the initiative on the November ballot. If the group is unsuccessful, organizers say they will gather enough signatures to place it on the ballot in the primary or general election in 2014.

Circuit Court Judge Dan Harris is expected to write his own version of the ballot title by the end of next week after hearing from both sides on the issue.

DiLorenzo said the district attorney should have chosen neutral words to describe the proposed ordinance, such as "abolish" or "ban."

As written, he said, the ballot title amounts to "campaigning."

District Attorney Mark Huddleston was on vacation and could not be reached for comment.

DiLorenzo said both sides agree that they aren't comfortable with the ballot title as written.

"I don't think that either side likes this," he said.

DiLorenzo said the district attorney's ballot title fails to inform voters that the term "genetically engineered" has a specific definition that is spelled out in the text of the proposed ordinance.

His suggested summary in the ballot title is: "This ordinance would ban the growing of certain plants in Jackson County that are defined by the ordinance as 'genetically engineered.' "

Ron Bjork of the farm bureau said many local farmers are eager to plant Roundup-tolerant alfalfa in their fields because it will produce better crop yields.

"They can spray once, then they don't have to do any more spraying during the year," he said.

Dumitru's group said genetically modified beets have contaminated related species, such as chard.

Also, Dumitru said, organic dairy farmers are worried about contamination of animal feed for their cows.

Dumitru said he has more of a general problem with the writing of the ballot title, but credited Huddleston with attempting to craft an "unbiased" summary of the proposed ordinance.

Dumitru takes issue with the overall phrasing of the ordinance, which he said doesn't provide readers with enough insight into the rationale behind the proposed GMO ban.

"These are crucial to someone understanding the issue, if it is the only thing they are going to read," he said.

Dumitru said he was not concerned one way or the other about Huddleston's use of the word "outlaw" in the ballot title.

"We say 'ban' in the ordinance, he said 'outlaw' — whatever," he said.

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