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Farmers seek help to ban, regulate GMOs

SALEM — Some farmers are renewing an effort to get Oregon lawmakers to allow local governments to regulate, and potentially ban, genetically modified crops.

Cities and counties have been barred from doing so since 2013, when the Legislature passed a preemption bill as part of a bipartisan package of unrelated tax increases and public pension reforms. That year, activists in several counties, including Lane, had been working on going to voters with anti-GMO ballot measures.

At the time, Democratic lawmakers said they would address concerns about GMO crops through statewide regulations, Ivan Maluski of Friends of Family Farmers said Wednesday. But those efforts since have foundered.

“We have no expectation that the state will move forward” with new GMO rules now, Maluski said.

A ban in Jackson County qualified for ballot before the 2013 preemption. It was easily approved and has been in place for several years. A federal judge ruled in 2015 that Jackson County’s ban was legal and did not violate Oregon’s Right to Farm law.

Organic, small-scale and other farmers in Oregon want more restrictions because they fear genetically engineered plants could get into their crops through cross-pollination. That kind of mingling can cause crops’ value to plummet because some consumers don’t want to purchase genetically altered products because of perceived health risks.

 Regulations are “what we need to protect ourselves,” said Elise Higley, a Southern Oregon vegetable and fruit farmer. “It’s infuriating that we aren’t getting the help we need.”

But the proposed policy, which got nowhere in 2016, once again is opposed by the powerful Oregon Farm Bureau Federation as well as pesticide manufacturers. It also may not be a high priority for majority Democrats in this budget-dominated legislative session.

Barry Bushue, the president of the Farm Bureau Federation, said local laws banning GMO crops essentially “pick winners and losers” among different types of farmers. He added that instances of crop contamination have been fairly rare in Oregon.

“Co-existence does happen and can happen,” he said. “That’s why working with your neighbor is so important, rather than going to the public and asking them to regulate” crops.

Sugar beets, alfafa and corn are the primary genetically modified crops grown in Oregon.

But the most high-profile instances of crop contamination have been from other types of plants. In 2013, Japan and South Korea stopped buying wheat from the Pacific Northwest for several months after unapproved “Roundup Ready” wheat plants were found growing in Eastern Oregon.

In recent years, Eastern Oregon farmers have battled to contain a herbicide-resistant GMO grass developed by Scotts Miracle-Gro for golf courses. The plant could contaminate hay or alfafa crops in Eastern Oregon, farmers say, and would pose a major threat to production of grass seed — a top Oregon commodity — if it somehow reaches the Willamette Valley.

House Bill 2469 (number corrected), sponsored by Rep. Paul Holvey, a Eugene Democrat, explicitly would allow counties to pass rules “for the purpose of protecting” non-GMO crops “from adverse impacts of products or seeds that are genetically engineered.”

That could mean lower impact rules, such as requiring GMO crops be tracked and mapped, or requiring “buffer zones” between different crops. Counties also could be more aggressive and pass outright bans.

Additionally, HB 2469 would allow a voter-approved GMO ban in Josephine County to go into effect. The ban passed in 2014 after state lawmakers voted the preemption through, and it was therefore invalidated in 2016.