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Review panel presents GMO measure findings

A citizen panel tasked with reviewing Ballot Measure 15-119 says crop contamination by GMOs is "very likely" if they're allowed to grow in the Rogue Valley — but that mainstream science supports their safety and "it is unwise to ban all GMOs due to management problems for the benefit of a small minority of farmers."

The panel of 20 Jackson County residents, who were split into pro and con groups, also found that Measure 15-119 would not affect a homeowner's lawn grass, carnations or medical marijuana, as some have suggested. And it would cost little to enforce if passed, since neither growers nor sellers would engage in an illegal crop.

The panel spent Sunday through Wednesday examining the issue of genetically modified organisms, which would be banned in Jackson County if Measure 15-119 passes on May 20.

The state-sanctioned Citizens' Initiative Review panel released its key findings Wednesday evening, including the five strongest arguments for and against the measure.

Officials from Healthy Democracy Oregon, which oversaw the review, said it's the first time the CIR process has been tried at the local level. Similar reviews were used previously for state measures.

HDO Executive Director Tyrone Reitman praised the panel members, saying, "This was our first big step toward proving we could do this on the local level, showing just how to do that."

Panel members met with neutral experts and advocates from both sides during the four-day review. The pro and con groups on Wednesday unveiled their five best arguments and supplemental information for voters without telling them how to vote, HDO officials said.

Among their key findings:

  • It is a violation of federal patent law for farmers to save and plant or sell seeds produced from genetically engineered pollen, even if the pollen drifts from another field. There is no practical way to stop GMO pollen and seed from trespassing onto traditional farms because of wind.
  • Contamination is "unavoidable" and has negative economic impacts on family farmers.
  • Contrary to "extensive misinformation" on GMOs, the large majority of mainstream science and health groups support GMO crops' safety and benefits.
  • GMO crops are engineered to withstand high levels of herbicides, resulting in "significant increases in herbicide use that ultimately ends up in our food, water, and children."
  • Three western counties with laws similar to 15-119 have spent no money on law enforcement.
  • The new government ordinance that 15-119 would create may add to the county's budget woes by requiring hiring and training of new staff. "Jackson County doesn't need a new costly and inefficient regulatory scheme to mandate common sense," the report reads.

"The choice is between supporting local farmers growing non-GE crops or mostly large, multinational corporations growing GE crops," the CIR statement reads. "It appears that coexistence is not a possibility because of Jackson County's geography and because the largest GE grower is not interested in cooperation."

Panel members described the three-day process of gathering key facts and creating a concise, easy-to-understand statement was a challenge, but a welcome education.

"We were trying to come up with the five best, most concise arguments to really describe what the measure does," said Liisa Ivary of Talent, a panel member in the group in favor of the measure. "Concrete, provable fact-based evidence things that the measure actually does, and the things that are probable, and the reasons behind it."

"We had a huge flow of information coming in, and trying to sort fact from fiction and impartial from bias was pretty challenging," said Kevin Waites of Medford. "You look at it as if you were writing the bill yourself."

Dr. Katie Knobloch, an assistant professor of communication studies at Colorado State University, said she considered the overall process a success. She is compiling data on how well CIRs work in elections.

"The panelists repeatedly reported that they considered opposing sides or people that didn't agree with them, and they reported that at a really high rate," Knobloch said. "So that was nice to see."

Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ryanpfeil.