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Scroggin, Breidenthal address genetically modified crops issue

Genetically modified crops were the hot topic at a Jackson County commissioner candidate forum hosted Tuesday by a group dedicated to local food and economic issues.

Project Rogue Valley committee member Jeff Golden moderated the forum, which was held at the Medford library.

The panel consisted of the two men vying for this year's open county commissioner spot. Republican Doug Breidenthal and Democrat Jeff Scroggin were joined on the panel by Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland.

The goal of the forum was to hear the candidates' views relating to the area's food supply, family-scale farms, land-use issues and improving opportunities for existing or aspiring farmers.

Breidenthal began by suggesting Jackson County's agricultural industry should work in conjunction with the rest of Southern Oregon and the southern coast.

"When you talk about local food, you are also talking about regional food," he said.

Breidenthal argued that Southern Oregon is capable of coming together to provide enough locally grown food, thereby making the area less reliant on large commercial farmers from other parts of the country.

Scroggin then emphasized the importance of county commissioners working to ensure that the voice of local farmers is heard in the state Legislature.

He cited his days in Salem as chief of staff for state Sen. Alan Bates, D-Medford, to help pass the Buy Oregon Bill, which allows state and local governments to give preference to Oregon businesses and food producers.

Buckley said it's difficult for small organic farmers to make headway in Salem because moneyed lobbyists for large commercial farms use their clout and influence to muscle out any pro-organic legislation.

Breidenthal said that aspiring local farmers or established ones that seek to grow are hampered by unreasonable permit costs imposed by the county for building on their lands. He said these permits can cost thousands of dollars, making it difficult for the small farmer to get a foothold in the valley.

"I want a local farmer to be able to build the pole barn, but he can't do that with these permit fees," Breidenthal said.

Scroggin countered by saying these permit fees pay for county services and if they are cut, then the money would come from other areas such as parks and roads.

Scroggin went on to say that he would explore looking at rezoning some land for development and farming if it meant increasing the amount of food that could be grown in the Rogue Valley.

The evening ended with an audience question-and-answer period, which was dominated by inquiries about genetically modified crops in the Rogue Valley.

Some organic farmers argue that genetically modified organism (GMO) plants hurt their crops because pollen blows from the GMO fields into the organic fields.

The cost then is borne by the organic farmers, who are forced to take steps to protect their crops.

The candidates were asked if they would support a ban on GMO crops in the Rogue Valley.

Scroggin said he hopes GMOs and organic farms can coexist, but he wants to see further studies on the issue before he makes a decision on whether to support a ban.

"We need information to assure us that one farmer's work won't put another farmer out of business," Scroggin said.

Breidenthal said the issue should be brought to a vote, but the electorate should be aware that if GMOs are banned, these large-scale farmers would surely sue the county at a high cost.

Buckley said he supports a ban until more research is complete because he fears the GMOs could be hurting the organic farmers in the meantime.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471 or email cconrad@mailtribune.com.